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Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
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The Buck Stops Here
... just not enough of them

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Like a rising hydra-headed mushroom cloud, the fallout from the financial crisis that detonated at City Hall earlier this month grows and grows.

The stakes get higher and higher and the gulf gets wider and wider. Politically, civically, commercially.

It is political poker with high drama and a potential outcome touching many lives. Excitement in the wind, tragedy in the traces.

Tuesday's sessions ended with the parties farther apart than ever and nothing tangible, just hope or fear, to suggest a coming together.

The $18.5 deficit in a $208 million budget requires a minimum and near immediate $5 million Band-Aid in additional revenues or reduced expenditures in the current fiscal year. Next year's deficit promises to be far more daunting.

For three weeks, or possibly since last summer for some, city leaders have danced away from or around the problem, assaying it from all directions with no shared rhythm until one came upon Mayor Sam Jones, Council President Reggie Copeland, three other council members and a chorus line of city employees all arm-in-arm for a show-stopping, eye-high leg kick in favor of a proposed one percent sales tax increase.

But it didn't stop the show. It fell just short, one vote, one measly vote short, a vote that City Hall masters felt sure of after conferring at Copeland's house on a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago.   

When the music stopped, only Councilwoman Gina Gregory was left standing without a chair, the dying notes of the Penny Whistle Waltz in her ears. Instead of siding with the pro-tax solution crowd, Gregory has stood closer to deep-seated tax foe colleagues Connie Hudson and John Williams. Whether principle or pressure nudged her this way or that is really academic. A three-braided rope, they constitute a rare Council display of minority gumption, daring to cross the mayor, the establishment and a simple council majority. In all of Mobile's quarter century mayor-council history, the count of similar occurrences requires just two hands, no feet.

Because of the super-majority or five-vote requirement regulating council actions, the three together hold much influence. If one bolts, the other two are Gulag-bound.

Standing together, the Tax-a-Phobe Three could force a compromise that may involve any number of cost-saving or revenue-producing alternatives to a full one percent sales tax hike. If not, major layoffs result.

While Gregory, Hudson and Williams face pressure from constituents and business interests to stand strong against the sales tax hike, Jones wants to avoid the backlash from his political base if massive layoffs occur on his watch. If he can red rover Gregory on over to his side through the pressure of innumerable civic leaders with ties to various worthy city performance contracts -- Chamber of Commerce, Convention and Visitors Bureau, Exploreum, Penelope House, Boys and Girls Club etc. etc. -- and the ire of city employees and their spouses who support a solution that doesn't imperil their jobs, their pay or their benefits, well, mayors don't do that sort of thing just to get their way, do they? But that's politics, just as using legislative rules such as a super-majority to advance competing objectives is politics. Power and pressure to position policy.   

And that is the game of political chicken where things now stand. Unless something or somebody gives, City Hall energies shift from managing and directing spending efficiently to managing and directing blame effectively. 

Just as Jones now sees the one percent sales tax boost as the city's only "viable" path to fiscal salvation, he has regarded butcher-boy layoffs as anathema. Can the Jones administration live politically with 300 or more layoffs of the city's approximate 2,500-work force on his watch? If he has to, he has to, but the wound could be salved if the blame settled on someone else, presumably Gregory and/or Hudson and Williams. So Gregory and the others to a lesser extent face that pressure, that she/they will become the political villain(s) for city employees and funding beneficiaries and the butt of the barbs of the mayor/Mobilian of the Year, chapeau depending upon audience.

By keeping all options open, including the one percent sales tax increase, Gregory hasn't done everything she might to deflect the pressure. If it were anyone other than Gregory, a political cynic would conclude that she hasn't yet gotten full value for her vote. In her case though, the almost certain truth is a desire to appear/remain a reasonable, conscientious and open-minded representative.    

On the other hand, did Jones run for mayor to get a daily dose of grief from aunties and uncles, friends, neighbors, allies, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers of former city employees who got laid off because the big shots at City Hall can't balance a checkbook?

Fair? Probably not. But as the old pol said, "Fair? If you're looking for fair, you've come to the wrong place, sonny. It's on the out-skirts of town. Look for the Ferris wheel."

When there are seven levels and 23 legitimate and less than legitimate positions on each, you've got a real political Rubik's cube.

It is as simple and as complicated as this: the heart-felt, "It's just a penny weighed against the risk of losing the heart and soul of your city" versus the equally sincere, "It's a $28 million annual tax increase during the worst economic downturn in 75 years."

Both sides can be right, but both sides can't win.
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