In watching the City Council pass the mayor’s new budget last week, many thoughts danced through my mind about the city’s situation.
First I couldn’t help thinking about how spectacularly bad a job the previous administration did handling money during Silent Sam’s eight-year reign. When your idea of a budget is to just make things up so the numbers come out to zero, that’s not really so much budgeting as it is a fairy tale with a bad ending. Things like forecasting outlandish amounts of employee attrition or budgeting half of what the city normally pays for its part of the jail can’t even really be accidents can they?
No wonder Sam was so surly about nosy reporters asking questions. Somebody could have had a calculator that worked.
The second thought I had was more of an amusement in listening to Council Vice President Fred Richardson attempt to explain his concepts of how 1. the city isn’t in financial trouble; 2. the budget passed by the previous administration was just fine; and 3. his own tortured understanding of budgeting and economics.
Fred’s diatribe wandered around the solar system as usual but essentially made the point there is no budget problem because the city could just take money out of other accounts to pay for accounts where there is no money. Fred must think if he needs $10 but only has $5, moving that sawbuck to his other pocket will cover the deficit.
But beyond all of that silliness, my thoughts wandered toward what we must do next. The mayor and his staff appear to have come up with a structured budget, but it is tight as my pants after Thanksgiving dinner, and that’s not leaving much room for improvement. Remember, things would be far worse if it were not for what is projected to be an $8 million increase in revenue for this year.
If that number drops or even stays the same, austerity will still be the name of the game.
Because so much money has been transferred out of the capital budget and put into the general fund over the years, Mobile is millions short and years behind in repairing roads and other infrastructure. Even their computer system is like something that might be studied by technological archeologists (if that profession exists). I would bet $100 million could be poured into just the roads, waterways and buildings alone and wouldn’t make much of a dent.
And then we still have issues like the cruise ship terminal, a beast that will continue to be a money hole until we can either land a ship or find another use. Personally I think a casino is the only project that jumps to mind — besides another cruise ship — that has more than a 50-percent chance of working. It’s not like we’re against gambling around here, we’ve got a dog track just a few miles away. Still I doubt that idea’s getting much consideration.
Someone has floated the idea of a big ‘80s-style, “Miami Vice” sort of night club. I guess that would be cool to hang out at then blast across the bay in your cigarette boat after shooting someone with an Uzi. Or maybe we could get Hugh Heffner to open a Playboy club there.
The GulfQuest Maritime Museum is another potential issue. I was fortunate enough to take a tour of the as-yet-incomplete museum a few weeks ago and I believe it will be a great maritime museum. It’s that word “maritime” that worries me a bit, because I’m just not sure lots of people are going to want to pile in the car and go see exhibits on container shipping.
Not trying to be negative here. The few things that were operational when we were there were very nice, and I’m sure the Titanic tour will draw well. But it still seems like its best chance of doing really well is if there is a boatload of tourists coming off cruise ships every few days. But I’m certainly hoping to be pleasantly surprised. The place should look great when it’s finally ready — which is now looking like it will be closer to the end of the year.
So that’s the negative side of the ledger, and it sounds like a pretty daunting mess. Still, regardless of everything I just wrote about, there is still a lot more to be positive about right now.
First, going back to the original subject, it appears the current administration is very interested in living within financial means and even getting back to doing crazy things like paving roads. (Feel free to squeal.) The fact that they are willing to sit down and answer questions and provide documents gives me hope Stimpson’s crew is serious.
Of course, it’s still the honeymoon phase and things could change, but let’s hope they don’t.
Hopefully the attitude at the top will start to trickle down to the others working in the city and the sullen Jonesitude will eventually go away. That in and of itself will mean a great deal for the city’s future.
But we still need ways to improve city finances that don’t involve pulling money out of one pocket and putting it in another. Airbus should provide a good boost in that regard, and other new companies and retail developments promise more bucks. But there is another opportunity the city now has as well — annexation.
With Jones in office any large annexation of WeMo was a pipe dream, but I’d bet if the new administration is capable of living up to its word this year and showing financial progress, the hoards of people and businesses now outside the city limits might be more amenable to the idea of becoming proper Mobilians. Like it or not, their own fates are tied to that of the city and the city’s fate is tied to growing.
With the passage of this new budget, nothing has been magically fixed, other than the rushing sound of money being sucked into the abyss, and there are plenty of hurdles to hurdle. (That’s what you do with hurdles.) But I can also see a path to something better, even if it doesn’t include a Playboy Club on the river.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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