By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Mayor Sam Jones’ proposed one percent sale tax hike failed Thursday in a 3-3-1 City Council vote, drowned in a red hot sea of opposing emails and phone calls.
City Councilwoman Gina Gregory, who evolved as the swing vote on the issue as the debate progressed, said the backlash against a tax increase was “overwhelming,” with hundreds and hundreds of calls and messages rolling in, “99.9 percent” of them in opposition to raising the city sales tax from four percent to five percent to generate an additional $28 million annually to bridge projected revenue shortfalls through the next 18 months or longer. It was not physically possible to respond to them all before the City Council’s specially called 8 a.m. Thursday vote, she said. But rest assured, she got the message.
So layoffs loom, as many as 300 from the city’s 2,550-member workforce. It would be an outcome to curl Jones’ lip. His aversion to layoffs has been readily apparent at every turn in City Hall’s approach to its financial crisis. Any and everything else was on the table in his view, but not layoffs. Whenever he mentioned layoffs, it was only to underscore them as a personally unacceptable, but legally-mandated result if city leaders themselves didn’t further address the $18.5 million deficit in the city’s $205 million FY 2010 budget.
City Council President Reggie Copeland thought he had the necessary five votes for the 25 percent boost in the sales tax rate when he called the meeting. Anti-taxers rallied like minute-men firing off emails and phone calls in a counter-attack that repelled the tax hike, at least for one day, that day being, appropriately or ironically, Tax Day, April 15.
Where to now? The gaze falls upon Jones and Copeland, a broke city turns its lonely eyes to you.
Copeland suggested a blue ribbon committee of city business leaders to brain storm the problem. And a knotty problem it is: Your mission, should you choose to accept it ... cue the Mission Impossible theme ... when faced with an $18.5 million deficit, how do you balance the budget without increasing revenues or reducing expenses? We're counting on you though!
Besides the merits of whatever the committee might conjure, it would turn down the political heat a few degrees. And clearly, unless armed with magic wands and pixie dust, the committee members would almost surely recommend some combination of cuts and new revenue.
One suspects, whether by outside committee or inside City Hall chambers, a key piece of the next proposal will be the revival of a garbage collection fee. Councilman William Carroll has previously advanced a $17.53 monthly charge for garbage pick-up, but it ultimately was discarded as insufficient financially and/or politically. The banner of the sales tax hike was raised instead, only to fall in an inglourious and tattered heap.
Where is Copeland on the garbage fee? Oddly, despite his willingness to back the sales tax increase, the veteran councilman seems almost as stoutly opposed to a fee for garbage collection as Jones is to layoffs. No, the money has to come out of the left pocket, not the right? Surely it is more complicated than that. The last time the city charged a garbage collection fee, for about six months in the mid-90's, many exemptions were granted which not only decreased revenue but also sparked grumbling of political favoritism and unfairness. Copeland is the Council's only remaining member from that period.
Without Copeland on board, a proposal whose centerpiece is a garbage pick-up charge would likely meet the same fate as the sales tax hike, if it even got to the formal vote stage.
Whatever Jones' expression betrayed Thursday with the sales tax hike in a smoldering rubble at his feet -- anger? disappointment? disgust? all three? -- his abrupt and immediate exit conveyed finality, whether sincere or merely reactionary, who knows? Layoffs are an abomination to Jones and, with the defeat of his proposals first to cut expenditures and second to increase revenues, the mayor holds the council responsible. His body language said at least that much.
Of course, the Council would not agree that the blame is theirs, seeing many shades of gray, and certainly not Councilwoman Connie Hudson who said last summer that the city should face financial reality rather than deal with a fully involved budget afire in the spring.
Most likely, with all the warriors back in camp and a break for wound licking, the parties will reconvene and agree to yet another budget operation by scalpel rather than ax.
On the other hand, if Jones' demeanor Thursday morning was not a passing pique but a sign of coming political hard ball, then Mobile could be on the brink of a mean and ugly day.
It is passing strange going back 25 years and three mayors ago to the creation of the city's present form of government to consider: The government was conceived as a strong council/weak mayor format. However in practice -- dozens of reasons and war stories aside -- Mobile's government has reflected a strong mayor/weak council.
Thursday's rejection of the sales tax hike was exceptional for the reason that on this occasion of a budget crisis, it was the Council, not the mayor, with the bigger biceps.
Whether boys in the schoolyard, dogs in the park or politicians in City Hall, issues of dominance arise and get settled, not always pleasantly.
This conflict may have an amicable resolution as soon as this afternoon. I would not bet on it though.
Other than providing a glimpse, albeit an ironic one, of what its creators intended -- a council strong enough to thwart a mayor -- the financial crisis is a political powder keg sprouting several fuses. With deep operating cuts in their departments and Jones' proposal to cut their pay by 10 percent, city workers are seeing more red than City Budget Officer Bubba Young. Residents are spitting mad and now on high alert about city efforts to get deeper into their pockets despite a crippling recession. The politics, personalities and pressures within and among the City Council and the mayor's office are myriad other "UXB's," or unexploded bombs.
Back to the irony of the "triumph" of the City Council on Thursday: the assumption in 1985 with the installation of this new government was the need to safeguard and ensure that the rights of the minority were not trampled. Thus the requirement that almost all votes of the seven-member City Council require for passage a super-majority or five votes rather than a 4-3 simple majority.
Obviously to a much greater degree then than now, the minority was seen as Mobile's black community and the three black council members. The super-majority assured that at least one black representative had to be in favor of whatever was adopted.
That Mobile has a black mayor today and that one of Thursday's three votes in favor of the sales tax increase was a white city council president are irrelevant.
But for the super-majority law, the sales tax increase would have passed 4-3 (For: Copeland, Carroll, Jermaine Burrell and Fred Richardson; Opposed, Gregory, Hudson and John Williams). As it was, Carroll abstained when it became apparent that his vote would not be decisive. Carroll said he wanted the measure's sunset provision to repeal the tax in its entirety Sept. 30, 2011 rather than roll it back to one-half percent for another year with a provision for the Council to revisit it then.
The minority whose rights were safeguarded Thursday by the super-majority clause were .... drum roll .... Tea Partiers, the "taxed enough already" legions, whether active members or subconscious adherents.
Now it is quite possible, nay likely, that today's Tea Partiers were yesterday's critics of Mobile's super-majority provision.
Politics can be funny that way. Life, too.
Gounares to open campaign HQ
GOP congressional candidate Peter Gounares will have a Grand Opening of his Mobile Headquarters Friday from 10 a.m.- 7 p.m. The headquarters is located on Airport Blvd. at the Loop in the 2032 Plaza shopping center. Refreshments will be available all day, and hotdogs will be served during the lunch hours as well, according to Gounares.
A Rich dinner
A $25 per person barbecue dinner/fund raiser is scheduled Tuesday, April 20 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Inca Grand Hall at 3556 Halls Mill Road in the GOP campaign of Ashley Rich for district attorney. The casual event will feature barbecue pork and all the trimmings and a cash bar (beer, $2; wine, $3). For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rich and Mark Erwin vie in the June 1 primary for the GOP nomination to face Democrat Don Foster in November.
Bonner, Bentley top ESRW card
GOP political candidates Dr. Robert Bentley and U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner will address the Eastern Shore Republican Women luncheon meeting Monday, April 19 at 11:30 a.m. at the Fairhope Yacht Club. Guests and prospective members are welcome. Lunch is $16. Reservations should be made by Thursday, April 15 to Lucy Sundbeck, email@example.com or call 929-0081.
Bentley, a state legislator from Tuscaloosa, is running for governor. Bonner is seeking re-election to Congress.
Scheduled to speak to the Knollwood Republican
Women’s Club in coming weeks are:
- May 12 -- Hank Erwin, candidate for Lieutenant governor;
- June 9 -- Open invitation to all run-off candidates.
The club meets at Gordon Oaks Retirement Community at 3159 Knollwood Drive, Building B Dining Room
at 2 p.m.