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 The Political Round-Up

City budget process like greased pig chase

By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
To the average citizen, the city of Mobile's production of "As the Budget Turns" must seem like a greased pig chase, those numbers are so slippery nobody can get a grip.

Where to begin? Well, the mayor's office would be the logical place since he is responsible for presenting a balanced budget for the City Council's approval. And Mayor Sam Jones' administration has cut and conserved and delayed as much as it can, so it says, and still faces a projected $29 million shortfall for fiscal year 2012-13. 

Next, the City Council, most of whom could fairly be described at the outset as skeptical of Jones' doom and gloom forecast. Eventually, Council President Reggie Copeland and William Carroll eased into or very close to the Jones' camp and its call for a temporary re-instatement of an additional one percent sales tax increase which would have lifted the total tax on purchases within the city limits to 10 percent, a percentage consistent with many municipalities throughout Mobile and Baldwin counties. Those council moves were predictable but nonetheless significant. Why? In joining Jones' most ardent allies on the council, Fred Richardson and Jermaine Burrell, Copeland and Carroll advance Jones just one vote shy of getting the $30 million annual revenue boost that a one percent city sales tax represents. 

Ah, the last mile can be the hardest. The vote of Councilwoman Bess Rich, short of aliens kidnapping her and substituting a lookalike, will never be in play, leaving Councilman John Williams, who has made some public statements which suggest he is further out of reach for Jones than Rich, and Councilwoman Gina Gregory whose last turn as the "swing vote" is probably not her fondest memory.

The skeptics on the council, lacking the resources of the mayor's office, played "pin the tail on the donkey" and declared the deficit was probably in the $10-13 million ballpark. Lots of households would find a $16-19 million disparity from their elected leaders less than confidence inspiring.

At this impasse, Copeland appointed a blue ribbon committee of respected community leaders to study city finances and deliver an impartial report and recommendations. That Copeland himself, without input from other Council members, named all the members of the panel, despite their standing and credentials, immediately cast doubt on the findings, a segment of the community detecting a rubber stamp for Jones and a useful "independent" validation of the mayor's position. But, no. They did not endorse the one percent sales tax hike favored by Jones, at least not initially. No, they upped the ante or gave the Jones' administration greater bargaining power, recommending a temporary 1.5 percent, or $45 million per year, tax increase to address the near term shortfall as well as long deferred capital concerns with the city's deteriorating infrastructure. The committee ultimately backed off and its official recommendation called for the one percent sales tax boost temporarily, a more muted $30 million in line with the mayor. Still, their point, the mayor's point, remained.

So now, arguably, given that some members of the citizens' committee doubtlessly remained convinced of the validity of the $45 million amount, we have various elected officials and respected community leaders differing by as much as $35 million a year on the city's short-term revenue needs. Not really the ingredients for a political consensus, but terrific makings for heartburn for council members who must explain it all to their constituents.

Break out the popcorn. 

The next chapter in the entertaining saga was probably predictable, but in a satisfying way. A second citizens' advisory body was suggested and adopted by most of the council members, including Copeland, but excluding the mayor's amen corner, Richardson and Burrell, who presumably shared Jones' view that a second committee couldn't possibly deliver better "bad news" than the original, at least from the perspective of the cash-strapped Jones' administration. 

And the mayor will be proven right, apparently. 

The second committee -- a standing one that will not, unlike the first, dissolve upon delivering its verdict -- is set to report to the Council on Tuesday.

The early word is that in fact there is no real deficit at all, or one so small as to be negligible, $2 million or so.

So now we've got an array of elected officials and educated, experienced men and women of commerce and business affairs who, after considerable study, disagree by as much as $45 million on the city's revenue needs for a fiscal year that is set to begin in just a few weeks.

Assuming the standing Council advisory committee on the city budget/finances delivers conclusions as media reports suggest, what next? One can only speculate. What's the value in that? Probably none, but here goes anyway:

Jones' difficult task got notably more difficult. The standing committee's anticipated findings provide little to no political cover for either of the mayor's prospects for a fifth vote. While Jones' team surely sees the standing committee as slanted against him politically, they -- Page Stalcup, Paul Wesch, Bill Ishee, Ken Germany, John Thompson, CJ Small and Richardson (who appointed himself) -- nevertheless collectively clearly have the credentials to assess the finances of an operation while also reflecting a broader spectrum of the Council. If it fails to reach a consensus and only reports its observations, the standing committee further muddies the political waters. 

What's more, Gregory's appointee, Wesch, chairs the committee and Williams' appointee, Thompson, has been out front. With talk rife of no new revenues absolutely necessary, how do Gregory and Williams get drawn toward a tax increase? 

Among other reasons, because Gregory's appointee Wesch advocated a one-half percent sales tax increase for three years with the resulting $45 million dedicated to economic development incentives, Gregory again is the front-runner for the unwelcome mantle of "swing vote."   ​

Another complication is the ticking of the clock. Municipal election campaigns are less than a year away. Credible opponents for the incumbents will mull possible challenges over the next five months. While Jones' ire might well generate foes for both Williams and Gregory, a pro-tax vote is equally as likely to produce spirited and supported opposition. Both Gregory and Williams have reason to be skittish about their re-election prospects, not too unusual for any incumbent and probably the best attitude for an incumbent to have regardless of circumstances. But specifically in Gregory's District 7 where African Americans comprise about 35 percent of the vote, Jones, should he choose to weigh in, for or against Gregory, could be a major factor in that race. But Jones is virtually certain to have his own opponents to deal with and it is a confident, not to say foolish, politician who injects himself into campaigns other than his own. As for Williams, he was crushed in a bid for Mobile County Commission District 3 earlier this year and will be seen as vulnerable by some ambitious political aspirant. If he votes for a tax increase and wins re-election, Williams will gain a respect for political savvy far beyond that for which he is presently credited. But there are external factors at work as well. It is not all about the council members and the moves they make.   

A group of ministers during a public meeting weeks ago darkly vowed "hell to pay" on those council members who brooked Jones on the $30 million tax.​ Ever since, their silence has been deafening, a sure sign that cooler, more politically astute heads advised them that angry, televised threats were counter-productive both short-term to winning over allies to the pro-tax side and long-term in solidifying re-election support for the incumbents among neutral voters who find bullies offensive. Rest assured, though the memory of that ugly scene may have faded, it is not entirely gone. For the thought to linger that one caved in to such antics probably edges an undecided vote in the opposite direction.     

All of this -- divergent agendas, the pressure of time, the euphoria of the Airbus assembly plant announcement -- makes for quite the political cauldron.

Really though it all boils down to the same ol' same ol' --despite the bigger stakes, the greater complications, the longer timeline -- that legislative politics always comes down to -- compromise. Is compromise possible?

Let is be said for Jones, compromise is possible. Let it be further said for Jones, that the journey to compromise is a grueling, excruciating, exhausting and painful one. That is due, at least in part, because Jones, who has held public office for 25 years, never really has had to worry about re-election. Is that still the case? The mere posing of the question is perhaps noteworthy.

Players play to win. Compromise can be seen as a show of weakness. It can be a strength. It can be welcome and it can be unwelcome. It all depends on where the elected official feels he or she stands politically. Am I strong or am I vulnerable? How strong? How vulnerable?

Middle ground, a reasonable compromise would seem possible, somewhere in the vicinity of the proposal of standing committee members Wesch and Stalcup. They advocated the one-half percent sales tax increase over three years to generate $45 million to help Mobile compete for as many as 10 major employers who are expected to locate to this area to supply Airbus. Jurisdictions from Pensacola to Biloxi are also expected to vie for the businesses. With Thyssen Krupp, Airbus and other recent efforts, Mobile is tapped out as far as cash to "incentivize" companies. After all the work and expense in landing Airbus, would Mobile be foolish not to replenish its coffers and at least attempt to fully capitalize on its investment? To see outlying areas that had little to no skin in the cut-throat game for the refueling tanker contract stroll in and claim prizes nearly equal to those of Mobile and Mobile County would appear to have been a strategic error. Not that Pensacola, Baldwin County and the Mississippi will or should be shut out. It's just that the ratio of reward to effort ought to reflect in Mobile's favor.

But the "Wesch/Stalcup" idea won't fly, won't come close as advanced. Perhaps a start toward compromise could be found in splitting the $45 million from a three-year, one-half percent tax hike between economic development and the city's capital/operating needs. Nothing to sneeze at, $22.5 million toward each need over three years.

Even if a grand, all parties' compromise is reached before Tuesday's City Council meeting, laughably unlikely, the Mobile electorate can't help but feel this experience in city finances has been akin to a visit to a house of mirrors.

Highways to Heaven
Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson's 2012 "Pay As You Go" road paving program totals $7 million including almost $3 million inside the city of Mobile.

Big winners were Mobile City Council Districts 6 and 7. District 6 Council got $872,750 for 33 different projects. District 7 was awarded more than 1.4 million, almost half of which will be spent installing a "roundabout" at the intersection of Museum Drive and McGregor Avenue. District 5 got $160,000 and District 4 received $125,000.

Click here to see the complete list.

Dems taking charges seriously
Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Mark Kennedy, responded this afternoon to allegations concerning Harry Lyon, the Democratic Party’s nominee for Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice.

“The allegations made against Mr. Lyon are serious. We assure Alabama Democrats and voters across the state that we are taking the allegations seriously and have already begun the process of ensuring they are reviewed in a thorough, proper, and timely manner,” said Kennedy. “The law is the law and it is important, in our judicial races above all others, that our candidates respect and follow it.”

The complaint argues that Lyon should be disqualified as the Alabama Democratic Party’s (ADP) nominee because he is in violation of Alabama campaign finance laws, specifically the Fair Campaign Practices Act. 

similar complaint was lodged with the state Republican Party that outlines how several GOP judicial nominees have also failed to comply with the same state law.

They said it ...
"The first year, lots of visitors including all school children for 100 miles around; second year will be way down, less than 200,000 (if they get to 300,000 the first year). Look at Exploreum in the non-blockbuster exhibit years since opening. Why is Mobile giving millions to another attraction that doesn't even indicate it is in Mobile?" veteran tourist attraction official on the Mobile Maritime Museum set to open next year with projections calling for 300,000 visitors a year.

Armistead Mobile bound
State GOP Chairman Bill Armistead will be the special guest at the Mobile County Republican Executive Committee's fall meeting Monday, Oct. 1. A 6:30 p.m. reception will precede a 7 p.m. meeting. The place is to be determined.

Romney reception set
The Club in Birmingham will be the site Wednesday, Aug. 15 of an evening reception for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. The time is to be determined.

Various levels of participation in the fundraiser range from $1,000 to $25,000.

For more information contact Kate Anderson at 205-777-3734 or kate@kateandersonllc.com.

Reading between the lines 
U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz recently made his final flight as an active duty officer, piloting an MC-130E Combat Talon I on a local training sortie from Hurlburt Field, Fla. 

Schwartz, CSAF since August 2008, will retire from the Air Force after a 39-year career, effective Oct. 1. His retirement ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 10 at JB Andrews, Md.

Schwartz made a notable admission, particularly interesting to Mobile area followers of the military refueling tanker competition between Boeing and EADS.

The departing chief of staff admitted that he didn't "apply enough attention" in the acquisition realm during his tenure. He said he hopes that the new Chief of Staff will "lead the uniformed part of the acquisition community in a more direct and material way than, perhaps, I did." 

Schwartz said he probably "under-performed" by deferring too much to "those who have statutory authority in the acquisition realm." Asked what he meant by being too deferential, Schwartz said: "to the service acquisition executive [and] to the Secretary, who ultimately is responsible." 

The next Chief of Staff, said Schwartz, should be more assertive in laying out the "uniformed perspective" with regards to acquisition and take a more direct leadership role in it. 

"Most importantly," he added, the "acquisition professionals in the field . . . need to know" that their Chief is "attentive to their needs and represents their role in maintaining a ready and effective Air Force."

Gen. Mark Welsh, nominated to replace Schwartz, has acquisition experience, which Schwartz did not. For that reason, if the Senate confirms Welsh, "that's one area where Mark will lead, perhaps, better than I did," said Schwartz.

For his July 12 fini flight, Schwartz piloted Combat Talon No. 64-0568, which is assigned to Air Force Reserve Command's 919th Special Operations Wing at Duke Field, Fla.

Upon completing the sortie, Schwartz received the ceremonial hose down from his wife Suzie Schwartz, and friends and colleagues greeted him.

Young Repubs in Baldwin County
The Young Republicans Federation of Alabama will hold its summer meeting Aug. 10–11 in Fairhope. 

State Sen. Trip Pittman will address the group Aug. 11 on "the positive dynamics of the American free enterprise system and how it has generated the highest standard of living and quality of life for its citizens (and non citizens) of any country in history; and how important the election of Mitt Romney is toward keeping the American dream alive."

The event will be held at Holiday Inn Express Fairhope (Meeting) and the Grand Hotel Marriott (Welcome Reception). Registration Fee is $35 (includes catered meal on Saturday). Reservations must be made by Aug. 3. For more information, contact Jackie Curtiss at jackie.curtiss90@gmail.com.

Mobile Democrats to meet
The Mobile County Democratic Executive Committee will meet Thursday, Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. at the party headquarters, 918 Government Street in Mobile. Party officials are recruiting volunteers to work in the campaigns of local Democratic nominees Christian Smith who is running for Mobile County Treasurer, and Herndon Inge who is running for State Board of Education.

Work on Water Tower scheduled in fall
Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS) plans to paint the raised water storage tank on McGregor Ave. this fall.  

According to MAWSS officials, the aesthetics of a new paint job, while significant, are only a side benefit. The process will involve several steps that help ensure a safe and adequate water supply.

First, the two million gallon tower will be taken out of service and emptied so it can be inspected. During this time, the other water storage facilities in the MAWSS system will substitute for the Spring Hill Tank so residents will see no change in water pressure or supply.

An enclosure will drape the tank during the process to contain materials used in the repainting effort. The tank will be blasted both inside and out to remove the old paint as well as any rust or corrosion. All the blasting material is captured on site. Painting will involve multiple coats applied during ideal conditions to provide the longest possible lifespan.

During an Aug. 14 District 7 Community meeting, MAWSS will also discuss these plans and the future of the Spring Hill Reservoir and make residents aware of recent activity around the 10 million gallon in ground storage facility.

District 7 community meeting
Mobile City Councilwoman Gina Gregory at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 14 in the Museum of Art will host a community meeting as a follow-up to a similar meetings earlier in the year in which the "revolving door" at Metro Jail was the discussion topic. Mobile Police Chief Micheal T. Williams, Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran and District Attorney Ashley Rich have been invited to address the assembly. The Museum of Art is at 4850 Museum Drive.

For more information contact the City of Mobile Council office at 208-7441.

Vigor students to host
Prichard mayoral candidate forum
A group of teens from C.F. Vigor High School (VHS) will host a mayoral candidate forum Tuesday, Aug. 14, from 5:30-7:30 p.m., at the Vigor High School Auditorium, 913 Wilson Ave N, Prichard, AL.

About 15 students have been studying local government and preparing for the forum under the direction of the League of Women Voters of Mobile (LWVM), which has partnered with Jessica Norwood of Emerging ChangeMakers Network, an organization she founded that "pairs emerging leaders with allied supporters committed to making change happen in communities that have been historically disenfranchised."

This group’s aspirations go far beyond the election event. Troubled by the common perception that in order to survive Prichard, one must get out of Prichard, these high school seniors, juniors and sophomores endeavor to improve their city so that residents will want to stay and raise their families there.

“We can't blame the politicians for all of Prichard’s problems. Sooner or later the community has to take responsibility for its part,” said Shamaica Lewis, who is entering her junior year at Vigor.

The event is open to the public.

The VHS Civic Engagement Project aims to: 


Issues of particular interest to the students include crime rates and police response time, blighted property, bad roads, and a lack of parks and recreational areas. The group dreams of making Prichard a desirable community where people want to live again.

“I feel excited because these young adults are connecting to their community, to what matters to them, and they are discovering that they can make a difference. They recognize that voting is one way to have an impact, even though most of them are still too young to vote,” said Mary McGinnis, special projects director for the LWVM. Training and funding for this project was provided in part by NeighborWorks America.
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