Langford's illusions are in the numbers
by Kyle Whitmire
The Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority now has the funding it needs to finish its intermodal facility on Morris Avenue, replace all the buses in the bus fleet and build a trolley system downtown, complete with vintage streetcars imported from Europe. All because of new funding from the City of Birmingham.
Or, at least thatís what BJCTA Executive Director David Hill told the Birmingham City Council last week.
However, the BJCTA is counting on $17 million in new funding from Birmingham. Currently the council and the mayor have approved $9 million in new funding from the 100 percent business license hike last year.
Mayor Larry Langford initially told the council that the new fees would provide $17 million for transit, but that changed to $9 million after the mayorís office realized that there was a problem with its math.
The mayorís office didnít explain the switch-a-roo to the council, though. When Councilor Valerie Abbott brought the discrepancy up, Mayor Langford told her that the $9 million number was a mistake. The city would give the BJCTA $17 million, Langford said.
But then something peculiar happened. The mayorís office submitted an amended ordinance that changed that number back to $9 million, among several other tweaks and changes. It seems that the first ordinance was half-baked, but heaven help anyone who said so at the time.
In fact, lots of budget ordinances are being passed and then amended because of problems with the math. Just this week, the council passed two budget amendments necessary because of ďa clerical error.Ē The mayorís office is moving money back and forth and the Birmingham City Council hasnít the slightest idea where itís coming from or where itís going.
Nor does transit director Hill seem to care, either. A few weeks ago, I asked him where his missing $8 million allowance would come from. According to Hill, Langford had told him that the money would be taken from other projects that would get new money from the sales tax increase.
Rob Peter. Abracadabra. Pay Paul.
Take $9 million from the license fee, add $8 million from something else somewhere else, and bingo ó $17 million.
Itís Larry Langfordís Magic City Math: Now you see it. Now you see something different.
Another example: Mayor Langford says the city has the right to put a domed stadium wherever it wants because the city alone is going to pay for it with $19 million per year. Want to build a dome at Fair Park? Sure. At the dog track? No problem. Birmingham is all-in and calling the shots.
Only there is a problem: The money the city has committed ó $19 million per year for 30 years ó is not enough to pay for a domed stadium. That $570 million, after cost overruns, might pay the principal on a domed stadium, but not the interest. Itís not even close. If you threw in the $14 million the BJCC has in annual revenue, it might be doable. But even then the city and BJCC would have to keep to a tight budget.
But by Langfordís figuring, if you take the money you have and add some other money from somewhere else, then you can pay for whatever you want. Itís not like Langford has ever gone bankrupt Ö ugh Ö Oh, wait. He has.
If this kind of figuring seems new or exotic, it shouldnít. Mayor Langford has been doing this kind of magic math for years, only not at Birmingham City Hall.
Consider the Magic City Math that Commissioner Jim Carns discovered at the Jefferson County Commission. After he took office in 2006, Carns saw that the county was giving $5 million a year to the Cultural Alliance, a regional arts organization. However, he couldnít tell where the money was coming from. When he asked, officials were cagey and unresponsive, at least until Commissioner Langford left to become Mayor Langford.
ďI said something about it twice while Commissioner Langford was still here, but it was ignored,Ē Carns said.
Now he says heís figured out the Magic City Math sleight of hand.
According to Carns, from 2004 to 2006 the county was shifting money from capital projects to the general fund. That money then went to the Cultural Alliance. Most of the money in capital projects comes from bonds.
Using a one-time source of revenue to cover a continuing expense is a budgeting no-no. And using bond money to pay for a non-capital expense might even be illegal, depending on the underlying bond contracts.
The Jefferson County Finance Committee would have been responsible for this shuffle game. During the time in question, the members of that committee were Commissioners Gary White, Mary Buckelew and then-Commission President Langford.
This little misdirection is in addition to the Jefferson County hocus pocus we already knew about.
Bond swaps that the county engaged in during Langfordís tenure have cost the county hundreds of millions in additional interest and fees. These transactions were supposed to save the county money, Langford said at the time.
Nor is this kind of shuffle new for Langford. As chairman of the West Jefferson Amusement and Public Park Authority, Langford presided over $90 million of bond debt for VisionLand. As two analysts and one Birmingham city finance director later discovered, the park was using new bond debt to pay off old debt and using capital funds to pay for operating expenses. Itís the game as floating checks and paying rent with a credit card. But on the municipal scale, itís called high finance.
Soon the mayorís office will draft a budget for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. The city councilís job is to scrutinize that budget. If the councilís recent behavior is any indication, itís not up for the challenge of Langfordís enchantment.
When this budget season is over, Birmingham residents should check their pockets for their wallets, lest Langfordís Magic Math make them disappear.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture.