4 months ago

‘Pork’-laden proposed Jefferson County budget blasted ahead of Thursday vote

Jefferson County’s proposed 2020 support budget is under intense scrutiny amid allegations of “pork” funds and “an unconscionable lack of fiscal discipline.”

Birmingham Watch reported that the county commission recently took a non-binding, preliminary vote on the proposed budget, which would take effect on January 1 of the coming year.

Two Republicans, Commission President Jimmie Stephens and Commissioner Steve Ammons, voted against the measure. Meanwhile, Republican Commissioner Joe Knight voted with Democratic Commissioners Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson in favor of the proposed budget.

One of the controversial proposed budgetary items is a $1.225 million “public service fund.”

Stephens explained that he voted against the proposed budget because it funded many programs he thought should be paid for through commissioners’ discretionary spending.

“Each commissioner has $225,000 for such expenditures,” he told Birmingham Watch. “I remind you that we had to borrow money from general fund reserves and economic development fund balance to pave our roads. We funded the sewer relief fund and the construction of storm shelters. I fully support those efforts, and I am disappointed that the commission added so many pork projects.”

Ammons also has serious concerns.

“I was not comfortable, number one, with the amount of money that was being spent, and some of the things it was going to I didn’t agree with,” he advised, per Birmingham Watch. “There are way too many questions for us to just be throwing money at things. It’s just irresponsible, in my estimation.”

After Birmingham Watch’s article on the subject was published, former Commission President David Carrington sent an email to the current commissioners, expressing his “blunt” opposition to the proposal and the result of the test-vote.

This email was obtained by Yellowhammer News on Tuesday (mere hours after it was sent) and warns that the current proposed budget is “scarily similar to the historical root causes that led the last Commission to file, what was at the time, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.”

After outlining in detail his issues with the proposed budget and asking for relevant data in the form of a Freedom of Information Act request, Carrington called on the commissioners to pump the brakes on holding a final vote on the measure.

While the Jefferson County Commission has until September 30 to hold this official budget vote, they are currently scheduled to do so at their meeting on Thursday.

Carrington’s full email as follows:

Commissioners,

After reading Solomon Crenshaw’s Birmingham Watch article on the County’s proposed General Fund budget, I have to ask, “What are you thinking?”

To be blunt, the County’s proposed General Fund Budget appears to display an unconscionable lack of fiscal discipline, scarily similar to the historical root causes that led the last Commission to file, what was at the time, the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. It clearly reflects a “spend today without considering tomorrow” attitude.

Based on Crenshaw’s article, two glaring problems with the proposed General Fund budget are readily apparent.

First and foremost, the proposed budget is unconstitutional, because the Sewer Relief Fund violates Section 94 of the Alabama Constitution, which states “Municipalities [are] not to grant public money or lend credit to private persons or corporations. The legislature shall not have power to authorize any county, city, town, or other subdivision of this state to lend its credit, or to grant public money or [any] thing of value in aid of, or to any individual, association, or corporation whatsoever …” The last Commission spent countless hours trying to make a similar fund work, to no avail. These funds need to be raised from the public.

Second, the bottom of the waterfall on the special one cent sales tax is being misused. It was recognized and acknowledged that some $15-$17 million at the bottom of the waterfall each year would be used to fund ongoing operations, but the remainder was to be primarily used for funding contingencies and building reserves.

Among other things, it is my current understanding that an additional $1,125,000 million in district “pork” funds ($225,000 per commissioner) and $1,225,000 for a new “Public Service Fund” are also coming out of the bottom of the waterfall (after the $15-$17 million). This new fund includes (1) items that should be funded out of each Commissioner’s $225,000 District Funds (like the ACTA in Trussville); (2) items that shouldn’t be funded at all (like the $250,000 to the transit authority on top of the $2,000,000 they are already getting from the sales tax proceeds); and (3) items that should be included in the $15-$17 million for ongoing operations (like TASC).

Based on the Freedom of Information act, I am formally requesting …
• a complete line item proposed budget for next fiscal year;
• a year-to-date comparison of the original budget to the actual expenditures for the current fiscal year;
• a complete, detailed break-down of the entire waterfall expenditures year-to-date and in the proposed budget;
• a complete, detailed break-down of the Road and Bridge Fund year-to-date and in the proposed budget;
• a complete, detailed break-down of the entire Economic Development Fund year-to-date and in the proposed budget;

  • included should be the rationale, resolution and agreement for the $5,000,000 the Commission “borrowed” from this fund for Roads – this is a precedent that concerns me greatly;
  • in addition, I would remind the Commissioners that there is a significant difference in “economic impact” which already exists, like the Magic City Classic, and “economic development” which results in job creation and additional tax revenues, like Shipt;
  • while I am not opposed to using “Economic Development Funds” to land a project like Amazon (where road improvements were critical), I am opposed to a single penny of this fund to be used for anything other than pure economic development – this is exactly what the last Commission represented to the citizens, the legislature, the rating agencies and the warrant holders in order to secure the one cent sales tax refunding;

• a detailed listing of the budget cuts [by department with descriptions and amounts] that were made by the commissioners during the budget hearings;
• a detailed listing of any transfers “out of” and “in to” Fund Balance year-to-date and in the proposed budget; and
• all cash amounts budgeted for contingencies and reserves in the proposed budget.

As a citizen of Jefferson County with “a lot of blood on the trail” to nurse the County back to financial health, I urge you to vote, “no” on the proposed budget and to “go back to the drawing board” to develop a fiscally disciplined budget that doesn’t tap the bottom of the waterfall for more than $15-$17 million for the General Fund. The remainder – or at least a minimum of $10 million, approximately 5% of this year’s General Fund budget – should be used to fund contingencies and build reserves. Otherwise, this Commission is beginning to move the County toward a “slippery slope” that could very well lead to a future bankruptcy.

It doesn’t have to be that way!

The economy is cyclical. The sales tax decline the County experienced late in the last decade will occur again. We just don’t know when. That’s why cash reserves are so important to an organization’s financial health and stability.

Which leads me to one final question, what’s the rush? The budget doesn’t have to be approved until September 30 – that’s almost 2 months away! There is plenty of time to get it right.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

14 mins ago

Birmingham Business Alliance reveals new mission, economic development approach

The Birmingham Business Alliance revealed a new mission and a new approach to economic development as it heads into 2020.

The BBA’s 2019 Chairwoman’s Annual Meeting was at the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham Dec. 11. Chairwoman Nancy Goedecke passed the gavel to Jim Gorrie, president and CEO of Brasfield & Gorrie.

Gone is Blueprint Birmingham, which guided the BBA through its first 10 years. In its place is a strategy that keys in life sciences, advanced manufacturing and technology. Those are some of the main industries the Alabama Department of Commerce is expected to emphasize in its revision of Accelerate Alabama, the state’s economic development plan.

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“Those are the three areas that we’re going to focus on,” said Fred McCallum, interim CEO of the BBA. “I will tell you that when you look at our state plan, there are a lot of similarities.”

Birmingham Business Alliance announces new direction from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

A main component to Blueprint Birmingham was a set of metrics that measured Birmingham’s success against a cluster of peer cities. Doing so often looked too broadly, McCallum said.

“Blueprint was a good plan at the time,” he said. “It was very wide and in some ways it was successful and in other ways it wasn’t so successful. I think what we’ve come to now is a point in time where we’ve got to focus in on jobs and economic growth.”

There will be a new set of metrics created and benchmarked in a new BBA strategic plan, McCallum said.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin did highlight one comparison between Birmingham and other cities.

“Since the great recession around 2008, 60% of all jobs have only gone to 25 cities in America,” Woodfin said. “You need to know that Birmingham is not on that list.”

Woodfin feels Birmingham should measure itself against its own potential instead of comparing itself to others.

“We don’t have to be like Nashville or Chattanooga or Atlanta or Austin,” he said. “We need to be the best version of ourselves. But that is going to require us to shake off the way we’ve always done things.”

Woodfin said the companies and organizations that make up the BBA should be prepared to take greater risks and push boundaries.

“Being risk-averse at this time as we move into 2020 … will not work for us – as an organization or for our city,” he said. “So the question becomes when you walk out of this room, are we prepared to invest in our competitiveness? Do we want to compete? Do we want to set ourselves apart, not be like any other city in America?”

A primary goal for the BBA is to find a new CEO. McCallum has led the organization on an interim basis after former CEO Brian Hilson stepped down at the end of March. Hilson now works on rural economic development initiatives in the state.

Other changes will include aligning the BBA’s internal strategy to execute the new strategic plan, updating its governance structure to be more effective and efficient and aligning the funding model to support the BBA’s new strategic plan.

“I think the organization will be more focused on specific strategies and focused on doing what we do well,” McCallum said.

McCallum believes Birmingham leaders and economic developers can tell the region’s story more forcefully and proactively.

“We’re on a good trajectory. I feel good about where we are as a community,” McCallum said. “Our leadership is strong. Our public leadership is strong. Our private leadership is strong. I feel good about where the BBA is focused.”

This year’s annual meeting was more a call to action than the rah-rah sessions of the past.

“Usually I would get up here and give you all some stats about what we’ve done and what we’ve accomplished,” Woodfin said. “I think it is fair to say that 2019 has been a good year for many of your organizations individually and collectively for our Birmingham Business Alliance.”

It was a good 2019 in the Birmingham metro area. Halfway through the year, the region reached and surpassed its pre-recession height of employment. There were 32 projects with 1,180 jobs and $492.2 million in capital investment announced in the region in 2019.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

The biggest birthday party in Alabama history is TODAY!

The biggest birthday party in Alabama’s history is taking place today, December 14, and you are invited! Join us in Montgomery for the grand finale celebration of our state’s 200th birthday.

Watch the parade, listen to concerts and performances, visit open houses and much more.

This is sure to be a day you don’t want to miss. The event is free to the public and lasts all day starting with an elaborate parade at 10:00 a.m. The parade will travel from Court Square Fountain in downtown Montgomery up Dexter Avenue to the State Capitol. There will be marching bands, city floats and unique displays of Alabama history on wheels, such as the USS Alabama and U.S. Space and Rocket Center.

The parade is a great opportunity for families to enjoy the celebration together – and it’s only the beginning of a packed day. Following the parade, Governor Kay Ivey will dedicate Bicentennial Park. The afternoon will offer performances, exhibitions and open houses throughout downtown Montgomery. The day will conclude with a concert featuring popular musicians from Alabama and the history of Alabama presented in a never-before-seen way.

Visit Alabama 200 Finale for a complete rundown of the day’s events.

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2 hours ago

ADCNR officers help spread Christmas cheer at Academy Sports

Imagine elves filling baskets with goodies to load on Santa’s sleigh and you get a snapshot of what it looked like last week when Academy Sports + Outdoors provided Christmas cheer for numerous youngsters who needed that encouragement the most.

At Academy stores across Alabama, youngsters were chosen to go on shopping sprees with a budget of $150 each, assisted by first responders from the local area. In two locations, Huntsville and Foley, Alabama Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) enforcement officers assisted the kids in choosing the items that were loaded into the shopping carts.

Into the baskets went bows and arrows, footballs, basketballs, soccer balls, clothing, athletic shoes, candy canes and more. The youngsters proved more than adept at keeping track of just how far that gift card would go, counting down until the funding was exhausted.

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“Academy Sports + Outdoors is excited to partner with first responders across the state of Alabama to help 150 children enjoy more sports and outdoor fun this holiday season,” said Rick Burleson, Academy’s Regional Marketing Specialist. “As the shopping destination with the most fun gifts and gear, we look forward to making the holidays merry for our local communities across Alabama.”

Chris Blankenship, ADCNR’s Commissioner, said the shopping events presented a special opportunity for outreach to the younger generation.

“I appreciate Academy Sports + Outdoors for sponsoring this program,” Commissioner Blankenship said. “Opportunities like this where enforcement officers can interact positively with citizens, especially youth, are so valuable for building trust on both sides. Our Conservation Enforcement Officers participate in many programs to promote hunting and fishing for youth. This is just another example of the good people we have in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“In the photos, you can really see the joy in the faces of the kids, the officers and the employees of Academy Sports + Outdoors. The giving spirit of Academy, our officers and the community is evident in the outpouring of support for this program. With this scene replicated at hundreds of Academy stores all over the country, good relations with law enforcement are being built nationwide and will pay dividends for many years to come. My desire to work in conservation came from encounters such as this with Marine Resources conservation officers when I was a kid. You cannot underestimate what effects the little things like this will have on a person and a community.”

At the Foley event, Conservation Enforcement Officers from the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division and the Marine Resources Division aided 10 youngsters from the afterschool program at the John McClure Snook Family YMCA in Foley.

Melissa McGhee, associate branch director of the Foley YMCA, said the youngsters ranged in age from 5 to 13.

“All the kids we chose are highly scholarshipped kids,” McGhee said. “They just don’t have a lot. For three of them, this is their Christmas. This was such an honor to be picked for this. When I talked to some of the parents, they just started crying because this is what their kids are doing for Christmas.”

Jason Ford, Academy Store Director in Foley, said providing a venue for officers and youngsters to interact in a positive way during the holiday season was well worth the effort from Academy and the associates who also assisted during the shopping sprees.

“We love that we can reach out to people in our community who are less fortunate,” Ford said. “But it also strengthens the bonds between our first responders and our community. Right now, we can use that unity more than ever. To be able to impact the community in such a positive way really goes a long way in warming my heart, and hopefully seeing the kids gets some good Christmas presents and develop some goodwill with our law enforcement.”

WFF Conservation Officer Steve Schrader wore a perpetual smile while he helped a young lady fill her basket with gifts from shoes to candy cane-shaped containers filled with M&Ms.

“This has been great,” Schrader said. “My shopper has been very generous and has bought more for her family than herself. I hope she now sees us (enforcement officers) more friendly than the other side of the fence. They can see us as real people, too. I think it went really well.”

At the event in Huntsville, Beth Morring with the Boys and Girls Clubs of North Alabama echoed the need for the sponsored kids to find out more about the ADCNR enforcement officers and what those officers actually do.

“Before they started shopping, we asked the Conservation guys to explain what they do every day,” Morring said. “The officers told them how they protected the wildlife and help those who fish and hunt and enjoy the outdoors. It was neat because our kids probably never knew these men and women existed. It was a learning experience just to meet these officers, which was great.”

Morring said 10 kids from the Seminole Boys and Girls Clubs in Huntsville were chosen for the event.

“These were the kids who needed it the most,” she said. “With $150 to shop, we did kind of steer them during their shopping, as did the officers. We started with shoes first and then went to get some essential clothing. They were able to get a goodie or two as well. It was a great time, and everybody wanted new shoes. These kids were predominantly from the public housing area where the club is located, and they were thrilled to get some new, shiny tennis shoes. In fact, some of them wore them out of the store that day, which was fabulous.”

Morring said the event was much more than just a shopping spree for the kids.

“To watch them interact with the officers and for our children to see men and women who serve and protect us, that they are good people,” she said. “Many of our children don’t have as positive an exposure with first responders sometimes. For them to be able to meet these first responders who can talk to them and realize these are dads and moms and husbands and wives – just regular people even though they might be in a uniform. So that positive interaction was so important. That was really impactful for our children.”

Morring said it was great to see the officers meet the kids on the same level.

“I loved watching these big grown-ups with these little children and them kneeling down on the floor to help them try on shoes,” she said. “Not to mention for our children, it was the first time they were able to walk into a store and have a budget for gifts where they got to make the decisions and choices. To watch these kids whose families struggle financially, for them to have $150 and then think about family members before themselves is admirable and amazing in light of their circumstances.”

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

14 hours ago

Ivey visits hometown Camden to commemorate bicentennial — ‘Y’all, Alabama has come a long way’

CAMDEN — On Friday, on the eve of the culmination of Alabama’s Bicentennial celebration set to take place in Montgomery, Gov. Kay Ivey paid a visit to her hometown to take part in an event marking the milestone in her home county of Wilcox.

Not far from where Ivey attended high school as part of Wilcox County High School’s class of 1963, the governor participated in a ceremony that also included Camden Mayor Bill Creswell and Wilcox County Commissioner Bill Albritton.

After offering a list of the state’s achievements, Ivey remarked on how far Alabama had come.

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“During these 200 years, Alabama has celebrated some pretty incredible people and milestones,” she said. “Building a rocket that took a man to the moon, our rich Native American history and culture, becoming the birthplace for civil rights, and becoming an international market for goods and products. Y’all, Alabama has come a long way.”

She also noted that the events leading up to the bicentennial celebration kicked almost immediately after she assumed the role governor in 2017 and led her to make at least one visit in all of Alabama’s 67 counties.

(Jeff Poor/YHN)

While speaking to the press at the return to her hometown, Ivey expressed how great she felt about being back in her hometown and what her goals were as the state heads into its third century.

“We’re proud to be here in Wilcox County and in my hometown of Camden to celebrate the bicentennial of Wilcox County, and tomorrow we’ll celebrate the bicentennial of Alabama. It is sure great to be home,” Ivey stated.

“Certainly, we want to keep the economy going, keep the everybody working, get more people that are not working to work,” she continued. “We just want to make the quality of life in our state really good, so everybody has an opportunity to be and do what they want to do.”

(Jeff Poor/YHN)

Ivey also offered some words of advice for her hometown and county in the pursuit of a better quality of life.

“Y’all just make this place an attractive place to live and do business, have a strong education system so people can put their children in schools, then in touch with the Department of Commerce to get prospects to look us over,” she said.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.

15 hours ago

Three Crimson Tide players, Auburn’s Derrick Brown named Walter Camp All-Americans

University of Alabama football players Xavier McKinney, Jaylen Waddle and Jedrick Wills, Jr. have been named to the Walter Camp All-America second-team, while Auburn University’s Derrick Brown made the first-team.

McKinney is a safety, Waddle is a wide receiver selected to the team as a returner on special teams, Wills is an offensive tackle and Brown is a defensive tackle.

The Walter Camp Foundation announced the honors Thursday evening at the ESPN Home Depot College Football Awards Show.

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McKinney, a junior, ranked 12th in the SEC in tackles with 85 through 12 games. He was also the Crimson Tide leader in tackles this season, including 4.5 for loss and two sacks. He forced four fumbles and added three interceptions to go with five pass breakups and four quarterback hurries. The star defensive back also returned one of his interceptions for an 81-yard touchdown.

Waddle led the nation in punt return average at 24.9 yards per return with 19 for 474 yards and a touchdown, including a long of 77. The sophomore also returned four kickoffs for 152 yards and one score and added more than 53 yards and six touchdowns on 32 catches at wideout this season. Earlier this week, he was selected as a first team All-American at returner by Pro Football Focus and named SEC Special Teams Player of the Year.

Wills anchored an offensive line that has surrendered only 12 sacks in 381 pass attempts this season. He graded out at over 91% for the Tide along the front allowing only one sack all season and only 3.5 quarterback hurries while missing only seven assignments in 714 snaps for a success rate of 99.9%.

Brown had a monster season on the defensive side of the ball and landed as a finalist for just about every national award possible. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year by both the conference coaches and The Associated Press.

This is the 130th edition of the Walter Camp All-America team, the nation’s oldest such team.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn