I have to admit being shocked when our intrepid reporter Dale Liesch went out recently to engage in every little boy’s dream of getting to ride a garbage truck and instead came back with a story not only about the truck breaking down, but the city having just nine functional garbage-getters.
Suddenly it made perfect sense why my garbage can spends more time sitting on the side of the road waiting to be picked up than a hitchhiker holding a severed head.
Yet another gift from inept administrations gone by. Mobile is supposed to have about 35 of those “automated” bad boys hoisting tons of dirty diapers and empty beer bottles — no curbside recycling — for a final ride to the dump, but the previous administration took that function about as seriously as it did paving roads or telling the truth. Now we’re left with a functional fleet of garbage trucks barely big enough to service Grand Bay after the Iron Bowl.
So what do we do? The city has to pick up the garbage, right? Right. The mayor rightfully isn’t interested in heaping more debt on the city. So it didn’t take long for the mayor and council to come up with the easy answer — BP money.
Remember just a few weeks ago the city got its $7 million settlement from the British oil giant, and after giving more than $2 million to the lawyers, a neat $4.7 million pile of found money was left. And dang if it’s not going to buy trucks now.
I can certainly understand where Mayor Stimpson and the Council are coming from. If the financial situation inherited from Silent Sam Jones could be loaded into a 50-gallon garbage can, one of our nine functional trucks would immediately be dispatched to collect the festering, reeking mess. Jones and his crew left the city’s finances in the same fiduciary shape one might expect of a meth addict’s checking account. We need a lot of things — road paving, garbage trucks and and new police cars being high on the list.
In this newest budget, the mayor indeed proposes buying a number of police cars, but there wasn’t money for garbage trucks. Luckily there was that BP money. So now, as quickly as it appeared, the windfall has been assigned to help cover gaps in the budget. It’s kind of like using a surprise inheritance to buy a new car because you could never save enough money to buy that car, even though you know it would be smarter to use that money on an education. And that’s the issue I have with the way we’re using this money.
BP probably doesn’t care what we do with their money, but we should. There are arguments we lost tax revenue during the oil spill and this is making up for that and should be spent like tax money. But when I looked over our revenues during the oil spill years, it was pretty hard to see what we lost. Frankly, downtown was booming for months during the spill as people flooded in to make money on cleanup.
A list of the city’s tax revenues shows in 2009 they were $188.3 million and in 2010 they were $201.7 million. “Da penny” came along in June of 2010, a convenient knee-jerk reaction to the spill voted in about two weeks after the explosion, but that could only have accounted for a portion of the $13 million annual increase. Even if you take away “penny money,” it looks like taxes for 2011 would have been greater than 2010, which were greater than 2009, so it’s hard to sell me on the idea we’re just replacing lost tax money.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m happy the city got BP money. My brother got money for fish he “should” have caught. They’re scratching checks at BP. But using that money to buy “groceries” is a mistake. It would make more sense to juggle some of the police car money buy this year and get garbage trucks and cop cars over the next few years out of the operating budget. Use the BP money for something that will last generations.
As I wrote last week, the city’s first priority ought to be buying the old golf course at Brookley from the University of South Alabama Foundation and creating a majestic city park with a huge pier jutting into the bay. It could be our Audubon Park — a place that will help keep Mobilians living on this side of the pond as it gives our quality-of-life quotient a giant shot in the arm.
Right now USA Foundation wants to develop that area as “Brookley by the Bay,” a place for hotel rooms, office space and industry. If that happens, the last remaining opportunity for a bayside park in Mobile goes away.
Too often we think small in this city. For instance, the Mayor pushes an innovative idea for ice skating downtown along the river for two months during the holidays — an idea that has every opportunity to pay for itself — and people whine they’d rather have a Christmas (oops, Holiday) parade that’s a one-day event sure to cost money.
This Friday, that sleepy little town of Pascagoula 30 miles to our west is naming part of its beach after singer-songwriter-business tycoon-author Jimmy Buffett, but his hometown of Mobile continues to snub him. We can’t seem to find any way to honor one of our most famous sons. Jimmy and his millions of fans are just another “natural resource” we don’t seem to even notice. If he’d only played football too.
I’m sure the die is cast on the garbage trucks already. Using that piece of BP money was the easy way out, but there is much more left to spend and I pray someone will think beyond the next election and put it toward a transformative project that connects this city with the bay. Or we could take the easy way out again and name a garbage truck after Jimmy.