Around the time City Councilman Fred Richardson began railing against the new budget submitted by Mayor Sandy Stimpson last week is when the concept of blame first raised its head publicly.
Even as Stimpson carefully outlined why the budget he’d been examining was complete fantasy, Councilman Moonpie rushed to defend the man who dreamed the broken thing into existence, while also deflecting blame from those who approved it.
Fred was pounding his fist and telling the assembled crowd neither Jones nor the council had anything to do with a budget that was roughly $21 million out of round when the fiscal year began. Yes, even though it was Ex-Mayor Sam Jones who submitted the budget, and Fred and most everyone else on the council who voted for it, Richardson is working hard to make sure nobody points the finger at him or his political hero.
But it was Fred who brought up blame in the first place. Stimpson has continued to dance like Fred Astaire around the path of destruction left by Jones — obviously feeling that finger pointing is only going to anger some he’ll need to make his own visions reality. Most members of the council who were there when Jones passed his last two quicksand budgets are also probably ready to focus on the here and now, too. Jones certainly tried to keep them in the dark when it came to city finances, so they can quietly blame that for supporting these busted budgets.
But as Dr. Brown said in “Back to the Future,” “those who don’t deny the past are doomed to own it.” (I think that was him.) For our purposes that means understanding why, as Stimpson tried to tiptoe around the elephant in the living room in explaining how the past two budgets were disasters full of fantastical projections and numbers snatched from the ether without mentioning Sam Jones’ name, Richardson saw fit to “go there.”
“So really we’re not solving the budget problem with this because we don’t have no more or no less after we get through with this than we did when did when we started,” Richardson told the assemblage as Stimpson introduced the new budget. “So if we’re having a budget deficit, we’ve got to have some more money.”
You see, it wasn’t Sam’s fault that his budget included lots of unnecessary positions, anticipated huge reductions in payments that had been in place for years or collections of fees that have never been paid. Sam’s budget was fine, we’ve just “got to have some more money.” Brilliant. It’s worked for the U.S. Postal Service, why not the city of Mobile?
In other words, there’s no way to fix a budget deficit other than bringing in more money. It’s a wonderful notion endorsed by the federal government. The mayor could just tell Chief of Staff Colby Cooper to go down to the basement and “push the money button” and all issues would subside.
Unfortunately, though, the same people who built the roof at Government Plaza also constructed the money button, so when you push it IOUs come out.
Here’s how the deficit that is nobody’s fault was explained to the media, well, except they didn’t mention who was running things when all this happened:
When the city’s previous administration took over a little over eight years ago, they began hiring lots of people, moving the total city employment from around 2,000 to roughly 2,500. On top of that, the previous mayor — through no fault of his own — approved several hundred more positions, most of which were never filled.
Money was moved around throughout the city’s budget without department heads ever really having any input into what was happening or understanding what they could actually spend. At the end of the day, the city — which projected a fancy “aren’t we the well-run municipality” $12 million surplus for FY 2013 — actually overspent by about $16 million and ended the year $4 million in the hole.
Then a terrible thing happened — Sam Jones was booted out of office. But thankfully he still got to put together one more budget. They’re required by law to be balanced, so how bad could it be, right?
Sam even felt he’d left the city in such dandy shape that he plugged in an across-the-board pay raise for city workers. But then someone fired up their smart phone’s calculator function and it suddenly became clear the massive overspending from 2013 had just been continued in FY 2014.
With the $4 million hole from last year, it looked like the overbudgeting would ring in right around $21.6 million. Yoinks! But now about five months into the year, Stimpson’s people say we’re going to be ahead on revenue projections by about $8 million, and just like Fred said, that’ll help. That still left the new mayor with about $13 million to cut out of the budget the old mayor left behind.
So Stimpson has vowed to get rid of all the funded-but-unfilled positions, while also letting true attrition take place. And while that still wouldn’t get us down to Dow-era-level staffing, Sandy’s people say this, along with overtime reduction and some other general belt tightening, will get the city to a balanced budget this year.
But now it’s got to get past the council. This is probably a different experience for many of the councilors because they should have all the information they want and need to make informed decisions this time.
The biggest question will be whether Stimpson can get this past a council that has at least one or two members who look at adoption of an actual balanced budget as also an insult to Sam Jones and maybe even themselves. Richardson certainly seems to have expressed that opinion already, even as Stimpson has almost acrobatically tried to avoid landing on Jones.
Hopefully Fred and other councilors won’t take a stand on the bones of Jones’ failed budgets. There isn’t a way to make ends meet without some cuts and at the end of the day if anyone wants Sam’s legacy burnished, getting rid of his last disastrous budget is their best bet.