If I seem dour or jaded, it’s because I’ve seen the enemy, too, Pogo, and yes, he is us.
Last week the county’s legislative delegation sat around a long table at the office formerly known as the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. You could tell the group had had an attitude adjustment since its last meeting. The long lines at the courthouse, the prospect of the Alabama National Guard providing police protection in some corners of the county, it was all converging into the delegation’s worst nightmare — a daily reminder to county residents that their elected representatives actually exist and have responsibilities.
The white suburban Republicans sat at one end of the table. The mostly black urban Democrats sat at the other end. In the middle sat Rep. John Rogers ready to offer his compromise.
In truth, the compromise was brokered mostly by the governor’s office at a Business Council of Alabama beach retreat the weekend before. Rogers was one of the few Democrats invited. He chuckled as his party colleagues derided it as the “Point Clear Summit.” The governor may have done all the work, but Rogers would get all the credit.
The compromise was roughly this: The legislature would reenact the county’s occupational tax at a rate of 0.45 percent. The exemptions for licensed professionals would be eliminated. In 2012 county voters would decide to keep or kill the tax. If the referendum failed, the tax would be phased out over five years.
Additionally, Republicans would offer an “accountability” bill. The legislation would require the county commission to hire a county manager, and it would create a new position called a comptroller.
The delegation voted whether to inform the governor that they had reached a compromise. Most voted for it, among them Rep. Greg Canfield. The next day, I sat in a radio studio with this Vestavia Hills Republican on the Matt Murphy Show, as he told the listening audience he was opposed to the plan. The duplicity of this bunch is amazing.
The occupational tax is a problem, sure. As is the sewer debt crisis, which is beginning to awaken from its legal dormancy. But that’s not what has me so despondent. Rather, it’s the lack of imagination that’s going to kill us. Too much time around a group like this will leave you ready to run, not walk, down Larry Langford’s Golden Brick Road of Good Intentions.
I wish for one month — heck, just a week — this same bunch of legislators would be confined to the Jefferson County Courthouse, to watch, listen and learn. If they did, I think this is what they’d see:
Jefferson County’s finances are impossibly complicated, even without the bond swaps, auction rate securities and variable rate demand warrants. Set all that aside for the moment. I’m talking about basic issues such as who’s in charge of the money.
Is it the finance director? The treasurer? The tax assessor? The budget management director? The tax collector? The revenue director? The still-vacant position of chief financial officer?
There are six people and seven positions in charge of handling one aspect or another of the county’s money, and that’s before you even get to the three commissioners on the finance committee or the legal department that lost all those vendor contracts.
That’s not all. According to Dante’s Inferno, hell has only nine levels, but Jefferson County has 16 separate operating budgets. The reason is that the legislature has earmarked so much of the county’s revenue that the county has to maintain separate budgets to keep those funds segregated from each other.
Maybe I’m just lazy, but I believe simple is better. Say what you will about the city of Birmingham, but it has one operating budget and one finance director. That’s something a hack like me can understand and keep tabs on. In comparison, following the county’s financial process has been like memorizing an encyclopedia.
Add to that the basic problem of who’s in charge. The commission works as five little fiefdoms, each commissioner being responsible for a separate part of the county’s business. By dividing responsibilities, the commissioners distance themselves from the blame.
Most of the delegation, particularly the small-government Republicans, want to fix the bureaucracy by making it bigger — by adding a county manager and comptroller. That sounds good on talk radio, but what does it really mean? Instead of seven positions in charge of the county’s money, we’ll have nine. The people who hold these new positions will be hired by the same political body that hired Jack Swann to be director of the sewer department before he went to jail.
What’s worse is that a real opportunity is being wasted. Jefferson County government is as screwed up as a thing can be without being literally radioactive. As Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, says, never let a crisis go to waste, but that’s what our political leadership is doing. We’re wasting a moment of creative destruction.
It might sound like a namby-pamby thing to say that the county’s failure is a product of the system, but I’m a big believer in cause and effect. Systems have parts and pieces. In this case, function follows form. Our county government is malfunctioning because the form is wrong.
Imagine for a moment, the courthouse burned down, and with it burned all the enabling legislation that instituted the government there. If we had to start all over, from scratch, to create a government that does what we need county government to do, what would it look like? If we had to give home rule to the county, entrusting it with the power to raise or rescind taxes, to write its own laws, what would be required to make this work well?
There are good, smart people in this town who’ve been dreaming a long time about that scenario. Unfortunately, none of them are in the Alabama Legislature.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org