City council doesn't notice capital budget missing
War on Dumb by Kyle Whitmire
The Mayor-Council Act, the veritable constitution for the City of Birmingham, requires that the mayor do three things on or before May 20 of each year.
'95 The mayor must propose, for the council'92s approval, an operations budget.
'95 The mayor must propose, for the council'92s approval, a capital budget.
'95 And the mayor must give the council a '93budget message.'94
On Tuesday, May 20, Mayor Larry Langford did two of these three things.
Mayor Langford gave the council a budget message.
Former Mayor Bernard Kincaid used to read his message stiffly from the podium. But not Mayor Langford. Instead, Langford had his staff prepare a DVD for the council to watch on the new flat screen TVs in the council chambers. It would take him all day to walk them through the budget, Langford explained. DVDs are the way he likes to do things. If that weren'92t enough, Mayor Langford'92s budget comes with a soundtrack.
In the video, Langford speaks first, taking credit for lots of things that haven'92t yet happened '97 building a domed stadium, providing computers for kids, redeveloping Fair Park.
'93Earlier this month, Standard & Poor'92s reaffirmed our city'92s AA bond rating, concluding that the city has a strong financial performance and diverse revenue streams,'94 Langford says in the video.
(Of course, the same agencies gave those same good marks to Jefferson County'92s sewer debt, as well as the investment instruments that crapped out in the sub-prime crisis.)
Next on the DVD, Police Chief A.C. Roper boasted about his department'92s accomplishments.
'93I believe the crime rate would be much higher if we weren'92t as aggressive as we are,'94 Roper says. '93It'92s unimaginable how much crime we have deterred through aggressive patrols, Operation Zero Tolerance and other initiatives.'94
(It might be imaginable how much crime the city has not deterred, especially a record murder rate.) These accomplishments were in addition to other improvements in the police department, such as putting new decals on squad cars and buying three-wheeled electric scooters for police officers to ride.
But all that aside, have you noticed something missing so far?
Six minutes into the video, we get to see actual numbers.
'93Next year we are projecting a balanced budget of $428.9 million,'94 the mayor'92s chief of staff says.
That'92s about $100 million more than last year'92s budget. But if you want to know where all that new money comes from, you'92d better have good hearing and a quick eye. In a video that'92s 12 minutes long, less than two minutes addresses such tedious things as facts and figures. And of that, only 25 seconds attempts to explain where the city might find another $100 million.
If you want to know more than the 25-second explanation, you have to dig deeper into the budget, which brings us to the third requirement of the Mayor-Council Act, the operations budget.
Indeed, the 2009 operations budget promises to be about $100 million more than last year'92s budget. About two-thirds of that difference is not surprising: a projected $64 million will come from new taxes and fees the mayor and city council passed last September.
That still leaves us with a $36 million gap, and this is where some creative accounting comes into play.
On the revenue side of the operations budget, there are two new line items that didn'92t exist in last year'92s budget.
First is a line for the '932008 Surplus and Fund Balance,'94 which is about $24.5 million. Of course, that'92s an estimate. If you wanted, you could argue that the city couldn'92t know the FY 2008 surplus until it finished the fiscal year in July, but let'92s give the finance department the benefit of the doubt. Three-quarters of the way through the year, they might be able to project that number.
However, the next new line item is something of a stretch: '93Estimated unspent salaries FY 2009.'94 There, the mayor'92s office finds another $8 million.
In plain language, the city is planning to spend its savings before it saves them '97 a concept so novel it must have trickled down from the Bush Administration.
Under the previous administration, salary surplus was the budget'92s buffer, a safety net for unforeseen expenses. With this budget, the Langford administration has cut that safety net.
Meanwhile the operations budget makes no adjustments for foreseeable changes '97 in particular the rising cost of gas. Police cars, garbage trucks, the city car that Joel Montgomery'92s assistants use to chauffer their boss around '97 they all run on gas, and gas isn'92t getting any cheaper. You might have adjusted your budget for the pinch at the pump, but the City of Birmingham hasn'92t.
And what of that third requirement of the Mayor-Council Act '97 the capital budget? Where was it? Not in the council'92s hands.
Far from being '93Dr. No'94 anymore, Councilor Montgomery has devolved into a Langford sycophant, and Tuesday was no exception. He thanked the mayor for getting the budget to the council on time, but only half of it was there. To be fair to Montgomery, none of the councilors made an issue of it. This might be Langford'92s first time at the budget rodeo, but not theirs. Anyone who'92s been through this before should know that the budget comes in two volumes. Langford gave them one.
Meanwhile, expenses that should be part of the capital budget '97 a domed stadium, Fair Park redevelopment, a downtown trolley system '97 are in the operating budget, the wrong budget.
Breaking the law, as the mayor has, is not an impeachable offense, or the kind of crime that gets him sent to jail. But it was the same sort of thing that infuriated the councilors when Mayor Bernard Kincaid presented it two days late.
The same law that Langford has broken requires the council approve a final budget by June 20 '97 one months time to make the mayor'92s numbers add up.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture.