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Good Self-Government
Starts at Home!

By Pete Riehm
Executive Director,
The Common Sense Campaign
The proper role and scope of the federal government is the raging topic for the growing TEA Party movement, but it also applies to state and local government.
The current $18.5 million budget shortfall in Mobile showcases the same argument: what should city government be doing and how much do they need to do it?

Like the federal scenario, one set of expectations or promises is offered and accepted, but then there is never enough money to pay for it – more is always needed.

Unlike the Catholic Church, sanctification is immediate, so once a line item is in a government budget – it is naturally deemed a sacred cow. When these sacred cows are in the ditch, instead
of getting
them out, the
default answer
is raise taxes
to feed them
in the ditch.

In effect, this
is what the
City is
More feed now
or a sacred cow is sacrificed. This may be true, but how did we get in the ditch with no apparent warning?

A few issues must be revisited. The 2010 budget included an overly optimistic $21 million in voluntary (retirements, transfers, etc.) attrition savings from city salaries. The intrepid Councilwoman Connie Hudson challenged this figure, but the city maintained that it was realistic.

So, the city fully intended to deliver city services with about $21 million less in employees.

Only about $8 million of that has been realized this year, so the remainder must be realized through involuntary (lay-offs, furloughs, etc,) attrition. However, the specter of lay-offs has the city breathlessly declaring intolerable reductions in city services particularly “PUBLIC SAFETY!”

An astute caller to the Uncle Henry show, Michelle, asked how come the city could deliver promised city services with $21 million in retirements but it was impossible if that included $13 million in lay offs? Both positions cannot be true.

In response to the defeated 1% additional sales tax (25% increase in the municipal take), the city immediately started cutting police and fire protection.

Why did they start with vital services? Why not the “nice to have” programs?

Why not shorten hours or close parks and museums first?

Have we revisited about $4 million in performance contracts that have nothing to do with running essential services?

Why does the city own a civic center, golf course, and botanical gardens that typically lose money?

I am not opposed to any of these programs and can appreciate their value, but it is cynical and unserious to punish non-compliant citizens by first cutting vital services without comprehensive reductions in extraneous services.  This could be described as extortion. Pay more taxes or else! We may not like it, but given the choice I think most citizens would rather close the civic center than a police precinct.

On the revenue side, we only hear about increased taxes and fees on the people. Why should the City not consider selling non-performing assets? Or at least, renegotiate contracts to break even. What about creative sources like capturing excess gases from the Chastang landfill? Estimates of revenue to the City range from $400,000 to $1 million per year. Private companies have been competing for this business for years, but it gets no attention from the city.

The point is there has not been an intensive review of all possibilities. We have plenty of posturing and accusations, but all lead back to the tax payers bailing out the city without addressing systemic problems.

One other 2010 budget question is why in the middle of the worst economic environment of our life times would the city project about a $10 million (9%) increase in sales tax?

Coupled with the erroneous $21 million attrition savings, it would seem pretty clear how we arrived at an $18.5 million deficit. Therefore, prudence should have seen this coming last year, but that discussion might have jeopardized a boring uneventful municipal election.

Tilmon Brown rightly points out that we are paying more than double for city services than the same population did in 1966? Are we getting twice the value? (Random editor's note: In fiscal year 1993, the city of Mobile's total budget -- including the general fund, capital, Convention Center, and strategic plan -- called for about $125 million in revenues and $123 million in expenditures, leaving more than $2 million in surplus as required by law. The general fund budget was right at $100 million. The city's budget has increased by about two-thirds in 17 years.) 

It is time the citizens get involved through their city council representatives and propose or demand an array of viable solutions to this budget shortfall.

We the people will certainly let you know what we will sacrifice and what more we are willing to pay if necessary.  Good self-government starts at home.

(Riehm is a retired U.S. Navy commander and a commercial real estate executive in Mobile.)
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