I said this out loud to the other regulars at the Garage Café, and they began elbowing each other, pointing, laughing. Finally one of them said it.
"I told you so."
Yes, but not quite.
Months ago, it was obvious what would happen in the end to our crazy mayor. And my cohorts said to me then, "What's going to happen when Larry's gone? You won’t have anything to write about."
I got sick of hearing that line. There's been plenty to write about. We've had two mayors since Langford and there’s another one on the way. And, even without Langford wrecking hell on the city's finances with pipe-dream projects and fraudulent budget numbers, in his absence, there's still a lot to write about Langford wrecking hell on the city's finances.
And that's just it, you see. After Langford, the city is left with all the lousy aspects of Langford's tenure, but not the zany headline-fodder of his kooky ideas.
This has happened before in other places — Fairfield, VisionLand, Jefferson County. Financial destruction is the calling card of Larry Langford politics. And now it's happening again. Confused bureaucrats and befuddled office holders are left to sort out the mess Langford has left behind. Meanwhile, Langford skips off, one step ahead of his own mess, albeit this time to jail.
The city is still hurtling toward financial destruction, but instead of the aneurysm-inducing antics, we're left with the unbearable depressing plodding of city councilors who can't do simple math.
If you crunch the numbers the city has released so far, the results are alarming. Without major budget cuts, the City of Birmingham is on track to spend more than $45 million more than its revenue projections.
Officials from the Birmingham Finance Department have proposed cutting expenses by $32 million in one plan and $23 million in another option. Instead, interim Mayor Roderick Royal is pushing a plan to cut spending by only $8 million. That's right. Royal wants to fill a $45 million hole with $8 million of dirt. If he can pull that off, then he'll prove once and for that he's as smart as he's always said.
But Royal's proposal and the finance department's alternative plans only looked at half of the problem. Yes, the city is on track to spend tens of millions more than it projected to take in, but no one has taken a hard look at whether the city would take in as much revenue as it had projected.
That is, until this week.
Again, the bookish Councilor Valerie Abbott has taken that task upon herself, and she's trying desperately to explain what she's discovered to her council colleagues. She's having a little more success than she might explaining quantum physics to a dog.
Using spreadsheets the finance department had provided to the city council, Abbott was able to extrapolate some answers to what might be the most important question: Is the city making more money or less than it did last year?
In a sensible world, city officials would have answered this question a long time ago, and it speaks to either the incompetence or the malfeasance of city officials that the answer hasn't been provided until Abbott figured it out for herself.
The answer is not surprising, of course. In the first five months of the 2010 fiscal year the City of Birmingham has collected $11.1 million less than it did at the same time in fiscal year 2009. (The city's fiscal year begins in July.)
Abbott has extrapolated those shortfalls out to make an educated guess at where the city is headed. She projects a shortfall in revenue of $28 million.
I've done some back-of-the-envelope math, too, and Abbott's analysis is appropriately optimistic when compared to mine. She includes an excess in spending of $32 million, rather than $45, and my guess from those revenue numbers is that the city is headed toward a revenue shortfall of $36 million.
Regardless, in Abbott's best-case scenario the city of Birmingham is headed toward a total budget deficit of $60 million. (My math says it could be as bad as $80 million, but a final quarter upswing in the economy and a good Christmas could easily account for the difference.)
That's all bad, but we're not done yet.
For the 2010 fiscal year, the city projected $11 million in business licence fees over its actual 2009 collections. Those fees are remitted to the city by business in January. Anyone who's looking at this realistically has to question how the city's finance department could justify that projection. The economy has stabilized, but it has not yet produced the kind of recovery needed to meet that figure.
Supposing business license revenue is flat this year (and it could be down), then the city can add another $11 million dent to its deficit.
There is a worst-case scenario in which the city's budget deficit is actually greater than the city's fund balance reserves, the technical budget term for its savings. That probably won't happen, but at this point some sort of deficit is unavoidable. The city has not done anything to stave it off. At the halfway point of the fiscal year, it is all but impossible for them to fix the damage.
In her brief tenure as Birmingham Mayor, Carole Smitherman said that she did not want to incite panic over the city's finances. Sometimes, though, panic is the appropriate response.
At the very least, it would be more interesting.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org