Is this Birmingham's last act?
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
For the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County, that is not the ironic narrative jumpstart of A Tale of Two Cities. Rather, it is the paradox of our political psychosis. If you listen to our politicians, we are to believe both.
All is well. We're going to hell.
About this time of year, elected executives around the country imitate the presidency, each giving his or her own annual take on things - the state of the city, county or state. Last week, Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford presented his own State of the City address to the city council.
"The state of the city is fine," he said.
Fine? Just fine? Somehow fine doesn't have the same punch or assurance to it as the state of the city is strong, but for 2009 fine will have to do.
"Let me make it clear that 2009 is starting off in the same fashion as 2008," he said.
It's not clear whether the mayor meant that as a good thing or a bad thing. Regardless, it might have been the sanest thing Langford said during the whole presentation. It was, in fact, a presentation - complete with a video touting the city's achievements in 2008. It seems iMovie is the new PowerPoint.
But if you want to know how the city is doing and where it might be heading, Langford's own words tell more than that video production. Standing before the council he gave an extemporaneous spiel that deserves dissection. In that speech there is more bluster and bravado than the world has heard since Baghdad Bob or Ari Fleisher. The rules of logic don't apply hear. Sometimes the rule of law doesn't, either.
Langford's State of the City address reveals something crucial to understanding his thought process - what Langford says, feels or thinks one moment has no bearing on what he says, feels or thinks a moment later.
Consider this little bit, in which Langford opines on the differences between the white and black council districts.
"The white districts are in just as bad a shape as the black districts," Langford said. "The black districts are in many cases in worse shape than some of your districts [gesturing to the white councilors] because we haven't spent the money in the western part of the city. That ain't racial. That's a fact."
If that's a fact, which one is it? Are white districts in as bad shape as black districts or are black districts in worse shape than white ones? This train of logic jumped the tracks a long time ago, but it keeps on moving. To Langford it matters less what he's saying and more that he's saying something, no matter if he contradicts himself one moment to the next.
If Langford runs out of things to say he reaches into his bag of platitudes for a placeholder, no matter how tired or banal, until something else comes to his mind.
"I saw a piece of paper in passing that said there is no 'I' in team," Langford told the council. "Team is not spelled T-I ... however you want to finish it. It is spelled T-E-A-M, so it means collectively we are going to survive together or individually we can die."
When spelling is a matter of life or death, thank God for spell-check.
There might not be an "I" in team, but there is an M and an E. When Langford talks about his team, there's no question what he means.
"The truth of the matter is that it makes no difference what the council passes, does it?" he said to the council. "If I don't implement it, you've done nothing. It doesn't matter. So doesn't it makes sense that we ought to be coming together working together to get what you want done?"
It makes sense in one respect. To Langford, mayor-council cooperation means council submission to the mayor. Throughout the speech, Langford said things that the council never would have accepted from the previous mayor, Bernard Kincaid. Had Kincaid told the councilors that it didn't matter what they passed, these same councilors would have tied him to a stake in Linn Park and set him on fire.
But against Langford, the council has no backbone. One row after another ends with the city council backing down when the mayor stands up. But if you listen to the speech, something else if obvious: Few things scare the mayor more than dissent from the city council.
Langford told the council that there would be no more fights on the dais. Moments later, he told the councilors that he would all but bring the wrath of God down on them if they spoke out of turn during a televised meeting. What's more, the city will be installing a set of doors behind the dais to keep the councilors from coming and going as they please. They are his captives and they will behave the way he wants them to behave.
"After today, when one of us lose our minds we must stop collectively and put their minds back in their heads," Langford said. "Not after the meeting - if you lose your mind during the meeting, we are going to call you down during the meeting."
Not since the early days of the Bush Administration have I seen such contempt for political dissent or hostility toward disagreement.
"After today I will not defend another decision to do nothing in this city to people who don't even live in this city," Langford said.
While it's tempting to revisit Langford's residency issue, it's more worth our time to consider how Langford perceives criticism from within the city limits.
"If you bring nothing to the table, shut up," Langford said of city residents who complain. "We don't want to hear it anymore. This city has listened to this criticism for so long, the fruit is dying on the vine. Well, the trees are being replanted today. Get on board or go home. I don't care which one you do."
For someone who doesn't care, Langford is certainly upset about criticism of his administration. But he's not the only one. According to Langford, God hates it, too.
"Anyone who wants to come up here and complain about the city, ask them what have you done to make it better," Langford said. "Because anybody can complain. And there is also a passage in scripture about that, isn't there? God hates whiners, criers and complainers."
I believe that's in the Book of Ridiculous, chapter 12, verse 32.
The key precept of Langford's mania is that something is always preferable to nothing, no matter what that something might be.
It's easy enough to argue that a Sunday afternoon is better spent mowing the lawn rather than lounging in a hammock in the backyard. But by Langford's reasoning, it's also better spent painting the house fire engine red or poisoning the neighbor's dog. This might seem like hyperbole, that I'm following the mayor over his logical cliff. But I think if you look at the fiscal wreckage the mayor has left behind him and compare it to what he's doing at the city right now, it's not so much of an exaggeration.
For four years, Langford was president of the Jefferson County Commission. During that time, the county raised taxes, but not so much as it increased spending. At the same time, the county entered into indecipherable financial agreements, called interest rate swaps that have since backfired in an apocalyptic splendor. But let's set those things aside for now. Let's focus, instead, on how the county accounted for its spending.
Bond debt problems aside, Jefferson County cannot produce an audited financial statement. In fiscal terms, this is the equivalent of not being able to dress yourself in the morning. Without an audited financial statement, the county cannot go back to the bond market, regardless if it makes a deal with Wall Street to restructure its debt.
So how did this happen?
Practically since its inception, the county has used cash-based accounting instead of fund-based accounting. Langford is not to blame for this, although it explains how Langford was able to do some of the things he did at Jefferson County.
In simple terms, cash-based accounting monitors payables and receivables as they happen. Plans and projections (i.e. budgets) have very little to do with cash-based accounting. This type of accounting is perfectly fine for small businesses, but it is virtually unheard of in municipal budgeting.
In contrast, most government entities use fund-based accounting. The most crucial component of fund accounting is the budget. The budget projects revenue and plans how to spend it. That budget is then adopted by the governing body and the bureaucracy beneath it abides by it. For years, the Alabama State Auditor of Public accounts has told Jefferson County to quit using cash accounting and use fund accounting like everybody else. And for years, the county has pretty much told the state auditor to go to hell.
This accounting system combined with Langford's sense of fiscal responsibility was a disaster waiting to happen.
Digging through the rubble, the county has found "funds" that were set up but never had any sort of revenue streams attached. At the same time county departments ran up tremendous deficits. The county covered this mess in the worst way possible - by raiding its general fund balance.
General fund balance sounds intimidating but simply put it means government's savings. The typical practice for a municipality is to keep two to three months operating expenses in a fund balance "reserve." That way if there is an emergency (such as a court ruling that your occupational taxes are illegal) the county would have a buffer to protect it from immediate insolvency.
It's unclear how large the county's fund balance was at the beginning to Langford's tenure. It probably was not as big as it should have been. What's clear is how large it was when he left - less than $20 million. To give you a comparison, the City of Birmingham ended last year with a general fund balance of about $100 million.
A practice peculiar to Langford's tenure at the county was how the county borrowed money from the general fund balance with the promise to pay it back later. Regularly, the county took money from fund balance with the understanding that a later bond issue would be used to pay that money back into the savings. Often, the money never went back in.
During all this time, the county's adopted budget consisted of two sheets of paper. A figure for the general fund on one page and a cover sheet. Another document, which the county called a budget, was prepared each year, but the commission never adopted it nor put it in practice.
So why is this important to the City of Birmingham?
First off, we need to consider Langford's most significant hire after taking office at City Hall. Steve Sayler had been the county's finance director throughout the financial disaster at Jefferson County, and he had been a chief enabler for Langford's willy-nilly spending. It's no surprise then that Langford brought Sayler with him to Birmingham.
It's one of the mayor's favorite truisms: If you keep doing what you've always done, you keep getting what you've always gotten. This is a matter of patterns, and at City Hall the same patterns began to emerge.
The checks and balances in the Mayor-Council Act have been ignored and Langford has no intention of abiding by them now.
Under state law, the finance director must prepare monthly financial reports for the mayor to present to the council. That hasn't happened since June. On a few occasions, the councilors have said publicly that they would not support anymore of the mayor's spending until they received these reports, but those promises have not matched their behavior.
The most modest of the Langford's proposals, the on-going paving of downtown streets, was funded by money from the city's general fund balance. The resolution says the money will be replaced. The mayor has mentioned, among other things, bond money that might be used to replace it. The bad habits from Jefferson County have migrated to City Hall.
Meanwhile, Langford spouts off numbers from nowhere and pushes the council to spend the same funds two or three times.
"We are going to come back within the next two weeks with the remaining $55 million from the domed stadium that we can use to finish paving streets in downtown and in our communities," Langford told the council.
But there's a catch. Much of that money the city has already allocated to pay for the Olympic-style village at Fair Park. Some of it the BJCC will need to pay for architectural plans and ground work for the actual domed stadium.
During his speech to the council, Langford claimed that there is still $100 million in unspent capital funds in the city's coffers. It's an old issue that the council and mayor have revisited several times during the last year. The money is all encumbered, but Langford speaks of it as though the city can spend it today. But only a moment later in his speech last week, Langford refers to it as $120 million, not $100 million.
Supposing that it's real, which is it? A measly $20 million might not be a material difference to Langford, but to some people that's real money.
Meanwhile, the city council has abdicated its responsibility of keeping the mayor accountable. After the speech, the councilors all but patted the mayor on the back and thanked him for the chewing-out he gave them.
It happened in Fairfield. It happened at VisionLand. It happened at Jefferson County. And now the same pattern of financial disaster is happening to the City of Birmingham.
To see into its future, the city council need only look across the park.
Four years ago, I covered Jefferson County when Langford pitched one complex bond deal after another to the public and to the rest of the commission. Just like the city council today, the commission rubber-stamped Langford's proposals. At the time, Langford claimed these deals would reap huge savings for the county and he took credit for them When the deals imploded, Langford pushed blame onto the county's financial advisors, including Sayler, and he left the scene as quickly as politically possible.
Today, Jefferson County's financial mess is akin to having a box full of dynamite sitting in its living room. All the parties - the banks, the insurers, the commissioners, the governor - keep looking at it. One of them says to the others, "You know, somebody ought to do something about that."
"Yeah, somebody ought to take that outside."
But nobody wants to be the one to touch it so nothing gets done.
In recent months the county's negotiations with Wall Street have been hidden behind a political shroud. Transparency doesn't exist there anymore, but you don't have to see behind the curtain to tell nothing good is happening.
Two weeks ago, three commissioners - Bettye Fine Collins, Shelia Smoot and William Bell - proposed a $1 million contract for a federal lobbyist. The process was opaque and the product was unheard of - nearly eight times what the county had paid a lobbyist before.
However that no-bid contract quickly blew up in a scandal. Commission President Collins denied that Haskell Slaughter - the county's counsel on most of the disastrous bond deals - had anything to do with securing the contract. I asked her directly about it.
"I have no knowledge of Haskell Slaughter's involvement in securing the lobbyist," Collins said then.
Since then it has become apparent that Collins wasn't telling the truth. One Haskell Slaughter attorney told the Birmingham News that his firm had lobbied Collins directly. Since then the firm has said she was only briefly in a meeting in which the lawyers discussed the lobbyist contract.
This week, I asked Collins whether she stood by her statement from the week before. She immediately ended the press conference. I asked her the same question again, anyway.
"Would you like me to have you escorted out?" she replied.
I'm not sure if that is a yes or no, but I know what it means.
Jefferson County is at a dead end. In its desperation to save itself, it as turned to many of the same people who put it there.
After years of doing something, it seems there is nothing left for Jefferson County to do.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org