There have been conspiracy theories floating around lately about a certain lame duck mayor, a certain historically black college, and a plot to drive a small city into the ground until it is forced to merge with Birmingham. We have seen no hard evidence that such rumors are true. What we do know is that a series of bad decisions by the city’s leadership, combined with the circumstances of a changing economy, have led the city into a difficult situation. However, the commercial potential of properties along Aranov Drive, Valley Road, and Gary Avenue could soon lead to a Fairfield Renaissance under the right leadership.
Fairfield’s economy certainly suffered some when U.S. Steel began its first layoffs back in the 1980s. However, the real trouble started with a series of bad municipal decisions over the past few years. U. S. Steel used to occupy the Flintridge Building, a massive office structure on E.J. Oliver Boulevard, a convenient location for managing its plant just outside the city limits. A few years ago, the city passed an occupational tax, which representatives from the steel company say they would have been happy to pay going forward, but the city made the tax retroactive. Balking at this sudden expense, U. S. Steel built an office building in Hoover instead.
Something similar happened when the Department of Health wanted to build a new office building in Fairfield. The city wouldn’t work with them on changing the zoning of the proposed building, so they built it down the road in Midfield instead. According to one government official we spoke to, the recent closing of Wal-Mart in Fairfield may have been a response to the city’s stopping payment on tax incentives that had brought the big box store into the area in the first place.
Speaking to an audience of voters at the recent “Forum on the Future,” State Representative Rod Scott said that when he was on the Fairfield City Council in 2002, the city had a municipal income of $9 million. Before that, it had as much as $15 million coming in annually. Currently, the city is bringing in only $3.8 million annually. Scott said “we can survive on that if we cut expenditures, restructure, and right-size services.”
Scott said that there has been no audit of Fairfield’s finances since 2012 and no real budgeting process for several years. However, he said, he has examined the most recent budgets for the city of Fairfield. Scott claims that these older budgets seem to indicate that there about thirty revenue streams that the city has not been utilizing in recent years.
One of these is the solid waste management system that the city hires out, which Scott said the city has been subsidizing. He says that the solid waste utility fees should be bringing in over $600,000 per year. However, out of 3220 people billed in the last billing cycle, approximately half are in arrears. So the city has cut off services to those customers. However, on top of that, according to our source, there are an additional 1384 customers who should have been billed and never were. Some of those who owe money have allegedly received bills of up to $1500, and they’ve been told that services will not be resumed until the bill is paid in full.
The upshot there is that the city is not collecting money that it is rightfully owed, and when it does try to collect, it does so in a ham-handed way that causes discontent. All told, there is more than a million dollars in back fees for solid waste that the city has not collected.
There has also been neglect in collecting fees for other revenue areas like business licenses and municipal court fees. Scott said that there are stacks of warrants that haven’t been issued, some going back to as early as 2006. According to Scott revenue that could be coming in from these court fees could be anywhere from a half million to a million dollars. He also says that business licenses and sales tax have not been collected from many local businesses. The business licenses alone should be bringing in up to $600,000.
A source within the city government backed up Scott’s claims. He told us, “A lot of people seem to be suffering under the mass delusion that the only city revenue comes from sales tax,” he says. “Thirty-something other revenue streams exist, or should exist, but many have gradually and mysteriously dried up over the past few years . . . Basically, people pay if they want to pay. Nobody is out there asking for the money. If you wanted to destabilize a small city so you can take over, this would be a good way to do it.”
It’s a more subtle type of corruption because it can easily pass for a lack of bandwidth within the mayor’s office due to shrinking resources. At worst, it would be seen as incompetence, which isn’t illegal. Our source believes that Fairfield has approximately $55 million in untapped assets. He tells us, “People say Birmingham won’t touch it because Fairfield has $8 million of debt, but with those assets, I’d buy up that bad debt all day long.”
Is Mayor Coachman solely to blame for this neglect? Not entirely.
To borrow a popular movie cliché, it’s like a perfect storm:
- The economy started suffering
- The Mayor failed to replace some key positions, which would have helped revenue
- The Council started crossing over into the Mayor’s lane on decisions
- The city outsourced business licenses and fees to a person with no accountability to the city
To borrow another line from a film, what we have here is a failure to communicate. The Council has largely been working in the dark with little communication from the Mayor. What people need to know and remember though is that Fairfield’s situation was caused by a series of bad decisions by its leaders, not by the capacity of the community. The community itself, we continue to argue, has great commercial potential.
All this being said, we aren’t fully ready to buy the conspiracy theory, but we think somebody needs to look a LOT closer at the city’s finances—somebody impartial and with authority. The coming municipal elections have the potential to clean house—if it isn’t too late already. Coachman isn’t running for re-election, so he’s already done all the damage he can. Nearly everyone on the city council is running again, and only Willie Hardley is running unopposed as an incumbent.
We feel strongly that Fairfield is a jewel, and if it gets absorbed into Birmingham, it won’t be. It will just be another neglected neighborhood struggling to get by. Fairfield has a lot more to offer than that, and its greatest asset is its people.