Leak leaves Langford in the lurch
It's dark and quiet in the bowels of the parking garage. I hear the usual rumble of the city. A wild dog barking in the distance. (So much for Animal Control.) But mostly I hear my own feet shuffling, trying to stay warm. And then, someone else's footsteps echoing off the hard concrete - sound plays tricks, the direction is indiscernible, but the footfalls are getting closer, until they're behind me.
"Did you change cabs?" my Secret Source asks.
Are you kidding? I say. This is Birmingham. You're lucky to get one taxi here, much less two.
"Whatever. Here are your football tickets," the Secret Source says, while extending to me a small yellow envelope.
But I'm not allowed to take anything of value, I say. It's against the paper's policy.
"I don't care if you use them or give them away to someone else. Just take them."
No, really. I'm not allowed.
"Will you at least look in the envelope before you throw it away?"
I tear open one end of the manila envelope. Inside are four sheets of paper. The largest and most important reads, "The Birmingham Economic and Community Revitalization Ordinance."
Is this Larry Langford's Secret Plan?
"Well, it's not so secret anymore," my source says.
Quickly I scan the papers. Something seems amiss. There's one large sheet with a few line items and real numbers, but the others are ... well, bizarre. There's a page copied from Time magazine that shows a picture of the XO computer created by Nicholas Negroponte. There's a photocopy of a column by Birmingham News editorial writer Eddie Lard. Finally, there's a comparison of sales taxes in Jefferson County.
This can't be real, I say. This is the Secret Plan? This looks like it was put together by a fifth grader.
"Yeah," the Secret Source says before stepping back into the shadows. "But not one of those smart fifth graders from the TV show."
On Thursday afternoon, Mayor Langford had given copies of the Secret Plan to the Birmingham City Council. Each of the large envelopes was marked "Personal and Confidential. Not for Distribution. Only Mayor May Comment on Contents."
Langford asked the councilors to review the Secret Plan over the weekend before discussing it the following week. He told the councilors that he wanted them to vote on it November 27. According to Langford, he wants all the councilors to be on the same page, and of course there was only one real page in the packet.
As mayor of Fairfield, Langford raised sales taxes there one percent. As president of the Jefferson County Commission, he raised sales taxes another one percent. Now, as mayor of Birmingham he proposes again to raise sales taxes one percent. In addition, the plan would double the cost of business licenses in Birmingham.
"Birmingham voters know is you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten," the plan says. "Well, it's clear that the people of Birmingham want us to give them something different than what they've been getting, so it is incumbent upon us to do something different."
The increase from business licenses will bring in an additional $36 million per year. The city would then spend $17 million more per year on mass transit and put $19 million per year toward $500 million worth of bonds for a domed stadium. The document does not say whether the $500 million figure is the face value of the bonds or if it includes interest.
One thing is clear from the document. When it comes to a domed stadium and mass transit, the City of Birmingham plans to go it alone. Regional cooperation is a dead issue. Besides, if Birmingham had to cooperate with the county or state to pay for a new convention center, how would Birmingham direct the bond business?
The second portion of Langford's Secret Plan focuses on a one percent increase in sales and use taxes, which also would raise about $36 million more per year. Those funds would pay for a shopping list of projects:
- $6 million for a college scholarship program;
- $5 million for police and fire improvements;
- $10 million for economic development;
- and $15 million for streets and sidewalks.
The plan has all the signs that it was thrown together as hastily as Langford is insisting the council approve it. While the packet includes a picture of the One Laptop Per Child XO computer, it doesn't include a line item for the estimated $3 million cost of those computers. The finance department has projected that the police and fire raise - mandated by the council - will cost between $7 million and $8 million per year, more than what Langford has allocated. The package offers absolutely no details about the scholarship plan - neither who will qualify for it nor how much those students will receive.
The plan says that the sales tax hike will sunset in six years. So what happens then to all the programs, such as the scholarships, that the tax supports? And when was the last time the sun ever set on a tax without it being renewed?
The projected income from the tax is consistent with current revenue, but Langford includes economic impact figures that are not supported by anything in the packet. Nor do those projections make sense. His plan predicts that the expenditures from the business license hike will bring an economic impact of $2.06 billion, plus another $100 million impact from projects supported by the sales and use tax. However, the plan later states its total impact at $1.355 billion.
By Langford's math, 2 billion plus 100 million equals 1.355 billion. Also, the projections don't show the impact of taking $72 million annually from business owners and citizens.
It's no wonder that Langford wanted to keep the Secret Plan from the media. It has all the thoroughness of a homework assignment completed on the bus ride to school.
In a press conference Friday, Langford sulked and smarted. He blasted the city council for revealing his Secret Plan and said they'd lost his trust.
Never mind that Langford might have already broken the Alabama open records law. There are few secrets in Birmingham politics, especially when they're not worth keeping.
Welcome, mayor, to Birmingham City Hall.
War on Dumb is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.com