Jon Reed

Journalist in Birmingham, Ala.

Category: Portfolio

Where have Alabama’s dairy farms gone? Amid rising costs, falling profits, only a few dozen remain

by admin

This story originally appeared on AL.com on June 17, 2015.

 

An old pump sits on a trailer outside the milking barn at the Gilmer Dairy Farm. The Gilmers bought it off another Lamar County dairy that closed in the past few years. They got the equipment for about $4,000. It would normally cost upwards of $6,500 used.

When their pump goes out — and it could be soon, because it’s old and starting to sound like it — they’ll have something on hand to replace it.

“You buy used stuff and make it work,” Will Gilmer said.

That’s the recipe the Gilmers have used to keep their farm alive for six decades. Gilmer spent much of the day Thursday on his tractor, injecting fertilizer into his corn fields. The equipment he used hadn’t been used in about 10 years before Thursday, and it was originally designed to spread granulated fertilizer. Liquid fertilizer is about $100 cheaper per ton, though, so with about $40 worth of parts, the Gilmers converted it in order to save money.

The Gilmers always try to find a way to make do with what they have.

“That’s why we’re still in business,” Will Gilmer’s father, David, said.

Dairy farms like the Gilmers’, near Vernon in rural Lamar County, are an increasingly rare sight. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s last ag census, in 2012, showed 219 farms in Alabama with milk cows. Most of those farms — 140 of them — had fewer than 10 milk cows. Only 49 had more than 50 milk cows.

This year, according to data from the USDA, there are only 37 commercial dairy farms still producing milk in Alabama.

Before the workers at the Gilmer Dairy Farm milked their 208 cows Thursday afternoon, they counted the number of dairies that have closed in Lamar County in the past two decades. The count filled two hands. Then they counted the dairies left in Lamar and the counties around them. That count couldn’t fill one hand.

Alabama’s total of 37 dairy farms this year is down from 68 in 2007, and milk production last year was just under 106 million pounds, down from more than 195 million pounds seven years earlier. The state’s milk production has fallen every single year since at least 2007.

Dairy farmers are giving up the dream because dairy farming is a difficult, time-consuming job, and the financial strains have become, for many, too much to bear. As more and more leave the industry, it gets even harder for those who stay to make a living.

The family business

David Gilmer gets up before 3 a.m. each day and, with a few dogs who are occasionally helpful, starts getting cows ready to go into the milking barn. By 3:30, they’re lining up in two rows of 10 for the mechanical milkers. The cows’ udders are sanitized, wiped down and hooked up to a machine that milks them and pumps the milk into tanks, where it’s cooled to around 37 degrees.

It takes a few hours to milk 200 or more cows, and by then it’s finally time for breakfast. Between breakfast and lunch, the work varies by the day. Some days Will Gilmer is on the tractor working on the crops — corn, wheat, grasses they use as feed — and some days they’re working on equipment maintenance. After lunch, a little after 1 p.m., it’s time for the second milking of the day.

The cows are milked twice a day, every single day. For a dairy farmer, there’s little opportunity for a day off, whether it’s for a vacation or because of a mechanical breakdown. There are a few other guys who work on the farm, but Will and David Gilmer are working almost every day.

“The typical size of a dairy in Alabama is such that you can’t just be a manager of it,” Will Gilmer said. “If you own and operate it, you’re going to be an operator of it and you’re also going to be doing a lot of labor.”

That demand for labor is one reason dairy farming tends not to appeal to younger farmers. Will Gilmer, 36, isn’t just an anomaly because he’s a dairy farmer in Alabama. He’s a young dairy farmer. He came back to work the farm after he graduated from Mississippi State University, where there were a good number of agriculture students, few of whom planned on going into dairy.

Dairy is in his blood, though, and the farm has always been home. David Gilmer also came home from Mississippi State and took over the farm from his father, Will’s grandfather, who started raising dairy cows between Sulligent and Vernon in the early 1950s. The family had been on the land another generation before, raising cotton, livestock and other crops.

“We’ve had cows milked on our farm for the last 60-something years,” Will Gilmer said.

Will Gilmer plans to keep the family farm alive, but it hasn’t been easy. About six years ago, they were pretty lucky at a time when many farmers weren’t.

Supply and demand

After milk prices hit all-time highs in 2007 and near that in 2008, the recession hit the dairy industry hard. When consumers, faced with less spending money, stopped going to restaurants, demand for cheese fell. Cheese accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. milk production and about 60 percent of that is used in restaurants, according to a 2009 Reuters report. So wholesale milk prices plummeted by about 50 percent in less than a year.

The drop in demand cost some farms $200 per cow each month, according to Reuters.

The Gilmer Dairy Farm survived, through a bit of luck. They were in pretty good financial shape to begin with, and they had just taken out a loan with the goal of upgrading their facilities. That plan changed when the price of milk crashed. The loan helped them cover the cost of feed and other needs and kept them afloat until the price recovered.

“Luckily we didn’t have to borrow so much that we weren’t in a hole we would never be able to get out of,” Will Gilmer said.

Many weren’t that lucky.

Max Runge, an extension associate at Auburn University who specializes in agricultural economics, said the crash in the price of milk — which was paired with rising feed costs — put a lot of dairy farms out of business.

“It’s sort of rebounded as far as milk production is concerned,” Runge said, “but we haven’t had as many dairy producers come back.”

Economies of scale

Alabama dairy producers face a few economic hurdles that put them at a disadvantage, too. There are only two milk processors in the state — one in Birmingham and one in Dothan — who take the raw milk from the farm and prepare it for the supermarket shelf.

At the Gilmer Dairy Farm, a truck picks up milk every other day and hauls it to a processor in Kosciusko, Miss. The Gilmers are part of a cooperative that handles the logistics of getting the milk to market, but they’re still responsible for paying to have it hauled off.

The Gilmers are in the co-op because it guarantees they’ll always have a place to sell their milk. A lot of Alabama farmers are independent and sell their milk directly to a processor. Will Gilmer is worried the shrinking number of dairies in Alabama will lead those processors to focus more on dairy-rich states like Wisconsin, when there aren’t enough Alabama dairies to make it worth running the trucks.

“At some point in time those milk plants may decide it’s not worth their effort running a truck, picking up all these little dairies across the state and say, well, y’all go find a new home for your milk,” he said.

The Gilmers used to sell their milk to a processor in Montgomery before it closed down.

“We’re losing the processers because there’s not enough dairy to process,” Runge said.

The falling number of farms also affects each farm’s ability to find parts and people to fix them. If something major goes wrong with the equipment, the strict milking schedule doesn’t leave much room for error. The Gilmers use a father-and-son outfit out of Brooksville, Miss., for major repairs. If needed, they can be there in a few hours to fix the equipment, but they also service dairy farms as far away as Randolph County, Alabama, and the father and son aren’t young and aren’t getting younger.

With fewer and fewer dairies, those who specialize in things that support the dairy industry don’t have much demand anymore.

Why not Alabama?

As the cows come in for their afternoon milking, the smell in the Gilmers’ milking barn isn’t as intense as you might think. It builds as the cows move through, 20 at a time, but it doesn’t get unbearable. That’s partly by design, a tradeoff made with the unforgiving Alabama summer in mind.

When they were planning the barn, David Gilmer toured larger dairies in Kansas to get ideas. Alabama’s weather is a bit different than the Great Plains, though, so the barn isn’t built to withstand cold winters. In the handful of days each winter when the temperature doesn’t break the freezing mark, there can be some problems with pipes and equipment and cold. That’s OK, because the barn is built for the several months a year the temperature induces a steady stream of sweat.

It’s more open at the top, with bigger windows, to allow the breeze to come through. It’s still hot, but when you stand under the fan in the middle of the barn, it’s bearable for hours at a time.

The heat doesn’t just affect the workers, though. It affects the cows, and it puts Alabama at a disadvantage when it comes to dairy production. The cows don’t produce as much milk in the summer because of the temperature.

“It takes a certain amount of energy for them to keep cool,” Will Gilmer said. “If they’re expending energy trying to keep cool, that’s less energy to have to actually make milk. Their milk production goes down in the summertime, appetite goes down.”

Because of that, the Gilmers plan for more of their cows to give birth in the summers, so the two-month dry-off period before calving comes during what would be an already slow period.

The heat is one reason the South doesn’t produce as much milk as cooler parts of the country. Most of the states in the South are what are called milk deficit states, meaning they bring in more milk than they produce. The USDA said Alabama had around 8,000 milk cows in 2014, compared to 16,000 in South Carolina, 13,000 in Mississippi , 15,000 in Louisiana and just 7,000 in Arkansas. Some southern states are doing better — Georgia had 81,000 and Florida had 123,000 — but the region as a whole pales in comparison to the Midwest and the West. Wisconsin alone had 1.2 million, about 300,000 more than the total of every state with a college in the Southeastern Conference.

The future

Alabama isn’t without its advantages for dairy farmers. It’s easy to grow crops to cut down on feed costs. The Gilmers grow corn, grasses and other grains that all go straight to the cows. It also rains often, which is an advantage Alabama has over California, the state with the most dairy cows, which is mired in a years-long drought. The drought there is forcing far more dairies out of business each year than Alabama has total, according to The Los Angeles Times, and with no end in sight, farmers are looking to move.

Despite those advantages, Alabama’s dairies continue to disappear. Part of it is the hard work.

“Some of the children don’t want to do that anymore,” Runge said. “They grew up in this hard work and they’re looking for other opportunities, being able to travel and do things. Dairy is very confining.”

In Lamar County, Will Gilmer isn’t planning on going anywhere.

“As long as there are people willing to drink milk in Alabama,” he said, “I’m sure there’s a few of us willing to get up every morning and make sure there are cows to be milked here.”

See inside a 105-year-old abandoned Alabama jail

by admin

This story originally appeared on AL.com on June 16, 2015.

 

Some say the old Bibb County Jail is haunted. Some say it’s an important piece of history.

The county says it could soon be demolished.

The 105-year-old former jail on the courthouse square in Centreville saw its last execution in 1949, its last inmate 15 years ago.

For about seven years, starting in 2007, the empty old jail sat in the hands of a group of citizens known as the Better Hometown Group. Last year, that group transferred the jail to a historic preservation group in Centreville, who then handed it over to the Bibb County Commission, who had originally sold it to the Better Hometown Group for a dollar.

Faced with the prospect of millions of dollars in renovation costs, the county commission has gotten bids to demolish the building in the hopes that an empty space will be easier to do something with.

“At the end of the day,” County Administrator Mark Tyner said, “that building served its purpose.”

The jail entered the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. According to its nomination form, the three-story jail was built around 1910. It’s made of brick in the Renaissance Revival style, and has a one-story porch with brick piers and thin columns.

It was added to the Register alongside 25 other structures in the Centreville Historic District, mostly bounded by the Bibb County Courthouse, which was built in 1902, and the court square. The area was nominated because it reflects “the character of a turn-of-the-century rural county seat,” according to the nomination form.

Its age and character make it a vital element of Centreville’s character, said Judy Herron, the secretary-treasurer of the Better Hometown Group. When her organization acquired the jail in 2007, they had plans to protect the building and find new uses for it, maybe as an event space.

“It needs work, don’t get me wrong,” Herron said. “Anything that gets neglected and the life is out of it, it goes downhill and it goes downhill fast.”

Since the Better Hometown Group took over, various groups including paranormal research groups have visited the jail. Vivian Abbott, with the Tuscaloosa County Paranormal Research Group, said the old jail’s history is of interest because of its gory history — inmates who were executed were hanged inside the jail itself until 1949. She said the county could possibly market the jail as a tourism destination similar to the face in the courthouse window in Carrollton.

“It’s a gory history,” Abbott said, “but it’s a lot of history.”

The jail’s distant past may be bloody, but its recent history is filled with politics. Herron said her group lost control of the jail through illegal means, that the group’s former president resigned last April, then presided over a meeting that July in which she oversaw the group’s dissolution. The group’s assets were given to a city historical association.

“She had no right to vote, she had no right to sign her name to anything, and they allowed it,” Herron said.

Herron and others, who felt the dissolution was illegal, got the organization reinstated at the end of September, she said. But they weren’t able to get the deed to the jail back. Herron said the group has been in talks with attorneys to see if any legal action can be taken, but it’ll all be moot if the jail is demolished first.

The city historic group deeded the jail back to the county, its original owner, and Tyner, the county administrator, said the commission wasn’t directly involved in taking it away from the Better Hometown Group.

Commissioners looked at what could be done with the jail, and saw what the cost of full renovation could amount to. Another historic building on that block was renovated at a cost of between $2 and 3 million, Tyner said, and it’s been vacant for several years.

“I don’t know what we’d do with it,” Tyner said. “There’s not any feasible reason to renovate it and put that amount of money into it.”

He said they decided to demolish it because restoring it would be prohibitively expensive, and an empty lot would be easier to market. It could also be used as parking.

“Parking has been discussed, but ultimately the commission will decide based on what’s best for constituents,” Tyner said.

The commission went with a bid from a firm out of Cottondale for just over $70,000, Tyner said. The only other bid they received was for $192,000, he said.

But the demolition isn’t a sure thing: Tyner said they’re waiting to see if any other options become available, such as possible buyers for the property.

“We’re not hell-bent on demolition,” he said.

Whether the building comes down or not, Herron isn’t done fighting. The group has started an online petition in order to try to save the building.

“As taxpayers, we need to make our voices be heard,” she said, “that we’re not going to stand for this to happen.”

How Regions Field went from an idea to a catalyst for growth

by admin

This article originally appeared on AL.com on June 10, 2015.

 

Before it hosted a million fans in two and a half years, before it saw Thirsty Thursdays, Fireworks Fridays and a Southern League championship, before players who now call Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field home walked on its infield, Regions Field was just Robert Simon’s crazy idea.

Simon had been on trips with the Chamber of Commerce to other cities of different sizes — Nashville, Atlanta, Denver — and saw how the big drivers of their development came to be. He saw that these major developments fit the size of their cities. A big enough city could sustain a massive football stadium, but a smaller city could parlay a minor league ballpark into a similar effect.

So Simon, the president of Corporate Realty, got an idea. In 2009, he pitched it to Don Logan the owner of the Birmingham Barons. The Barons, who then played at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium — then called Regions Park — would come back to Birmingham. A downtown ballpark would mean much more than baseball.

“Minor league baseball is perfect for secondary and tertiary markets in the country,” Simon said. “I felt like this was very doable for our area.”

At that breakfast, Logan asked Simon if it was possible. Simon said he thought it was. Logan told him to go make it happen.

It’s been six years since Simon pitched the idea, three since Regions Field opened in downtown Birmingham. The park has hosted more than a million fans, but it’s what’s around the park that’s most exciting for Simon. The growth of the new Parkside District, Simon said, is about four years ahead of where he thought it would be.

Regions Field turned from idea to reality, Simon said, because everyone had a seat at the table, from developers and team owners to city leaders and even UAB. It’s a model that could work for any project, perhaps a recipe supporters of a new UAB football stadium could follow.

“There were so many people who helped along the way because they knew it was the right thing for Birmingham,” he said.

Setting the stage

When Robert Simon started to pitch the idea of a downtown ballpark, the Barons were playing in the sprawling confines of the Hoover Met, a park that was close to home for those in Birmingham’s southern suburbs but far from the city center. Simon wanted to draw people back into the city after they left work at 5 p.m. He wanted to disrupt their commutes.

So Simon and Corporate Realty found partners all over the city, from the Birmingham City Council and Mayor William Bell to UAB’s then-President Carol Garrison and Athletic Director Brian Mackin. He and others visited more than a dozen other cities to see how they built similar facilities and what effect they had on the surrounding areas. They knew they wanted a small, intimate ballpark, with fewer seats than the Hoover Met.

“The naysayers of the park were the ones who didn’t understand what it would do,” he said. “They didn’t understand that it didn’t need to be bigger, it needed to be smaller.”

Simon and other developers and investors put together a proposal and feasibility study for the ballpark. That report estimated the park would generate direct and indirect spending of more than $500 million over 30 years, and economic impacts similar to parks in other cities.

“Everything is positive within the draft,” Mayor Bell said at the time. “It’s positive to the point that we are comfortable taking the next step.”

Location, location, location

Simon said they also developed strategic plan for the area around the new Railroad Park. From the start, that’s where Simon wanted the park, though the first plan was for it to be at the site of the old Merita Bakery building, across 14th Street and First Avenue South from where it ended up.

“We felt like the location was going to be a game changer,” he said.

There were other ideas. One plan put the park just north of the railroad tracks, in the Civil Rights District. Land near the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex got a look.

The Merita Bakery property ended up not working out, but another space nearby started to come together. The space across First Avenue South from the western end of Railroad Park was partially controlled by UAB. The university and the city worked together to put together a parcel of land that could fit a ballpark. The city swapped land with UAB to secure the space.

UAB officials weren’t worried at the time, in 2011, about the ballpark conflicting with the school’s proposed location for a football stadium. The two proposed venues would be a block apart.

There was one holdout: The owner of the B&A Warehouse building didn’t want to sell. Bill Mudd eventually worked out a deal with Barons owner Don Logan to build the park around his building, an event center in a 100-year-old building.

Getting it built

The city took out $64 million in loans at the end of 2011 to pay for the construction. The city added 3.5 cents to its lodging tax to pay back the debt, bringing the total lodging tax, with state and county taxes, to 17.5 percent in Birmingham.

When the city council voted 8-1 in 2010 to approve the tax increase, Bell praised it as a big step forward for Birmingham.

“It gives the city a sense of momentum,” Bell said at the time. “We’ve not acted like a major city that we are, and it’s long past time that we act like a major city.”

Regions again paid for the naming rights to the stadium, ensuring the Barons would move from Regions Park in Hoover to Regions Field downtown. The bank is paying $500,000 over 20 years — half to the city and half to the Barons — for the rights. The city broke ground on the site in February 2012.

There were some hiccups during construction. A sinkhole opened up at the plaza entrance of the park in January 2013. It was repaired but forced the relocation of some sewer lines.

Construction costs did run over what was expected: Developers billed the city for $8 million in cost overruns, a number that the city has negotiated down to $4.1 million, but is still in the midst of legal disputes.

Those problems didn’t slow down the project. On April 10, 2013, the Barons took the field for the first game in their new home. In front of a sellout crowd of 8,505, the Barons came from behind to win 9-5, taking the lead for good when Marcus Semien hit the Barons’ first home run at Regions Field, a two-run shot to left to break a tie.

Continued success

Since then, the Barons have drawn more than a million fans to Regions Field. They won the Southern League title that first year and led the league in attendance. They proceeded to top that attendance number again the next year. This season, their third in the new park, they’re drawing even more fans a game than the past two years.

But the impact isn’t just on the baseball field and in the stands. It’s in the space around the park, towering cranes hint at things to come within a few blocks of home plate: apartment developments, more retail space and the Negro League Museum.

“In 2013, when we moved down here, I think people certainly saw it as a sign of great things happening in Birmingham,” Barons General Manager Jonathan Nelson said. “When they came down in 2015 one of the things we promoted was all of the active construction sites within a four or five block radius of Regions Field.”

The growth of the Parkside district was one of the reasons Simon pushed for the ballpark to begin with. His company, Corporate Realty, has had a hand in more developments in the area.They’re currently working to turn the former Merita Bakery building into restaurant and office space.

All of that development in turn helps the Barons sustain the growth they’ve seen over the past three years.

“It adds to that total experience of attending a game at Regions Field,” Nelson said. “When you go to any major league ballpark or minor league ballpark, you want to be able to go to a restaurant prior to or after a game. I think that lends itself to the total experience and makes it an even more enjoyable night for everybody.”

23-year-old Brandon Dean wants to help his hometown of Brighton, so he’s running for mayor

by admin

This article originally appeared on AL.com on May 8, 2015.

 

Two cars stop on Main Street a block past Brighton City Hall. The driver in front, a woman in blue, puts her car in park and gets out to yell back toward a red Honda Fit.

“You’re running for mayor, right?” she shouts to the man she recognized from her rear view mirror. “You know you’ve got my vote.”

The two talk between opened car doors in the middle of the street for a minute or two. As a couple of other cars maneuver around them, the young man says he plans to do everything he can to help her grow a new business in town.

Brandon Dean is already pounding the pavement in his campaign to be mayor of this western Jefferson County town of about 3,000 people even though the election isn’t until August of next year. Sixteen months is long for a campaign like this, but if the campaign is a little unorthodox, it’s because the candidate is.

Brandon Dean, who wants to be the mayor of Brighton, is 23 years old.

When he cites blight, vacant properties and overgrown lots, Dean isn’t talking about properties across town. The lot next to his grandmother’s blue house on Letson Street, where he lives, is empty except for the end of what once was a driveway and knee-high grass. The house burned down years ago, he said, and was unlike most of the burned houses in Brighton in that someone lived there when the fire happened.

There are more than 100 dilapidated structures in Brighton, he said, and many that burned years before still stand as just charred frames.

The blight is just one problem the city faces. It’s seen five homicides so far in 2015, up from just a single homicide last year. In some areas, water pressure is so low that residents wait for a slow drip from their faucets and firefighters can’t put out those fires as quickly as they should be able to. The city doesn’t have the kind of parks or recreation facilities it needs to help residents stay active and children stay off the street corners.

Dean said the current city government hasn’t been responsive to citizens’ demands, that it hasn’t had the difficult discussions and fought the hard fights. He said he wants his campaign, over the next year and four months, to tackle those issues. He acknowledges he’ll have missteps, but he wants the campaign to be a voice.

“I think it would be a disservice to wait five months out, six months out from the election to begin a conversation that should have been happening already,” he said.

During a visit to the Brighton Senior Center, Dean talked with people who taught him in school, people who knew his family members, and one woman who recognized him from when he helped her with her voter registration eight years earlier, when he was just a teenager.

The people at the senior center act supportive of him, but also offer advice. One woman reminds him he needs to go to church.

“If you don’t go,” she said, “you’re going to get a whooping.”

Many of these people have seen Dean grown up. Brighton is his home.

Dean can drive down Letson Street and point out his family’s history in Brighton. His great-great-grandparents owned one house, where they raised livestock. His great-grandparents lived in another, where they grew pecans to sell.

He grew up between his grandmother’s home and his mother’s home in Bessemer, attended Brighton schools through eighth grade and graduated from Hueytown High School in 2010.

His grandmother worked 50 years as a maid, he said, and his father worked 20 years as a steelworker. They worked hard so he would have opportunities.

“With the limited resources that they had they made it very possible for me to make a better life for myself,” he said. “That was the encouragement I needed to get involved in public service.”

After his eighth grade year, he interned at City Hall, and knows some staffers personally from that experience.

After high school, Dean left Brighton for Howard University in Washington, D.C. He worked on campaigns and interned for political leaders, including two mayors of the nation’s capital.

He credits Muriel Bowser, the current mayor of D.C., with teaching him an important lesson about public service. She’s not in the position for the power or prestige, he said, she’s in it for the service. That’s what he wants to emulate.

“When you realize, ‘I’m not a three-piece-suit-wearing type dude,’ it can become a little bit daunting to stay in the game,” he said. “When you see people who are really in this for the service, it can inspire you to keep going.”

Since coming back to Alabama, Dean has worked as a field representative for the American Federation of Teachers and as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union. He cites his union experience when he says he understands that Brighton needs jobs, and jobs that pay well. He said he wants a government focused on helping people make a better living.

“When this discussion is over, who’s leaving the table trying to figure out how can I make it so that we can employ more people and make it so they make more money?” he said. “I’m a union organizer. I know you can’t survive off $7.25.”

Dean knows he doesn’t have a lot of experience, that his possible opponents already in local government can beat him in that area. He said his long campaign is partially a way to overcome that. He said he wants to listen to people, to have time to make mistakes and show he can overcome them.

For now, he campaigns by listening. He asks everyone he comes across what problems need to be solved. He asks volunteer firefighters, teachers, senior citizens and the young people on the corner what they want from Brighton.

“Everywhere we go, we meet people, different types of people, old people, young people, sick people, well people, people who go to work every day, people who’ve been displaced for 10 years,” he said. “They say ‘I want to be a part of what you’re doing because I’ve never seen something like this in our community.'”

‘This sinking city': In Fairfield, budget woes and politics take their toll on services

by admin

This article originally appeared on AL.com on Feb. 8, 2015.

 

Marvin Rogers pointed to a small house across from his mother’s place on 62nd Street in Fairfield. The porch was wobbly, the yard was ragged and shingles seemed close to sliding off the roof. In fact, the house appeared to be crumbling in plain sight, just like two others alongside, all of them vacant.

Families once lived in those houses, Rogers said, but when they moved on, new generations weren’t interested in coming back.

Now, Rogers said, “People go in there and smoke dope all night. That’s what they do. They go in there and smoke crack.”

In Fairfield, say Rogers and many others, widespread empty properties have become dens for criminals and drug abusers who roam the streets in defiance of the city’s police.

In anonymous letters given to city and state officials at the end of January, citizens said drug dealers work openly on the corners; that people use drugs and carry guns on the street; and that would-be burglars walk alleys during the day scoping out targets.

“The fact of the matter is the thugs outnumber the police,” one wrote. “Our police department needs help. Our neighborhoods need help. Our entire community needs help.”

Fairfield police have plenty of struggles that don’t involve blue lights and billy clubs.

City budget straits and political infighting have nearly idled the police department, almost stopped bus and garbage service, and, at times, halted city insurance benefits and paychecks and silenced city phones.

The travails have led some City Council members to call for state or federal intervention.

As of Feb. 4, according to council President Darnell Gardner, the city had at least $1 million in the bank, enough to pay bills, but was nearly $8 million in debt.

Running on fumes?

The latest focus of Fairfield controversy is gasoline.

On the afternoon of Jan. 30, Police Chief Leon Davis sent bracing emails to officers and the heads of other Fairfield departments: The city was out of unleaded fuel.

Gas became an issue as the council started looking for ways to cut costs.

Council members have asked for logs of who gets how much gas and for which cars. There have been suggestions that officers were running up the bills by driving their cruisers home as far as Northport and Calera.

Once city gas supplies ran low, officers had to reduce their patrols and limit their responses to serious calls.

Gardner said the city has averaged spending more than $11,000 a month on gas. “We’re not trying to shut the police department down,” he said. “Our goal is to have the cars in the city. We’re only a three-mile-radius city. How can we allow this to happen? We can’t. We can’t pay for this gas.”

At the Feb. 2 council meeting, the council again decided not to pay its $12,955.84 bill to Warrior Energy, or a bill of more than $4,000 to Jet Pep, where city workers went when the council refused to pay an earlier bill to Warrior Energy.

In following days, however, the city sent Warrior Energy a partial payment, although it still owes more than $5,000, according to Gardner.

Mayor Kenneth Coachman, meanwhile, accuses the council of trying to micromanage affairs, and says it doesn’t understand the costs involved in maintaining a city fleet.

Coachman is entangled in a court battle with several council members about control of city finances. According to the mayor, the council is refusing to sign checks rather than let a judge settle the issue.

Cell phone shutdown

On Jan. 13, Fire Chief Kevin Sutton wrote to Coachman to inform him that there was a possibility, if the city couldn’t get diesel fuel, that the fire department could lose its response capability within 24 hours.

Diesel, though, was just one of the department’s problems that day. That morning, there was an arson fire at the old Villager Lodge property off E.J. Oliver Boulevard. While on the Villager fire, the department missed two calls elsewhere in the city.

According to Sutton’s letter, he had to write the mayor rather than call, because city cell phones had been shut off.

The cell phone bill had taken a back seat to another city expense: payroll.

For years, Fairfield has deeply depended on regular deposits by the state of sales tax revenue.

City workers’ last paychecks of 2014 came four days late, on Dec. 30, when the Christmas holiday delayed the state’s deposit.

The city made its first payroll of 2015 on time, but only after refusing to pay two phone service bills and holding back $16,667 owed to the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority for missed payments for MAX bus service in 2014.

For Fairfield, scrambling to cover a payroll is nothing new.

Coachman said that making a payroll was the first thing he did after taking office seven years ago.

“There are three things, in my opinion, that are must-haves for a city,” he said. “One is the fire department. Two is the police department. Three is the street and sanitation department. In order to keep those in place, the people must be paid.”

Coachman said he’s been able to keep meeting payrolls by partnering with businesses or moving money from city accounts that aren’t the general fund.

One of those funds is an account the city got by obligating its warrant taxes in 2012, giving the city $1.5 million up front. It was, in a sense, an advance on a specific revenue stream. The city got cash up front, but that revenue is now obligated to a bank.

What to do next?

Where or how Fairfield might grow revenues is anyone’s guess.

As the city’s business base declined and the number of abandoned properties mounted, the budget became beaten down.

Walmart and Home Depot are the only large retailers still around. Gone are Belk, JC Penney and Sears.

Gardner, the council chief, said that worker morale has waned as troubles seemed only to grow.

“This interferes with people’s livelihoods, the way they live,” Gardner said. “Some of them probably got some overdrafts, because most of us live from payday to payday.”

Even with a lawsuit in play, Gardner said the council and the mayor need to learn to work together.

“It’s not about me, it’s not about the mayor, it’s not about the council, it’s about what’s best for the city,” Gardner said. “If we don’t put the city first, we can close the door and lock it up and not come back. That’s something I don’t want to see happen.”

Still, it’s acrimony that’s usually on display.

Gardner has spoken of layoffs as a way to shore up the budget, but Coachman counters that the city is “already down to bare bones.”

“What are you going to lay off?” the mayor said.

The rumors heard on the streets and in the corridors of city hall are of annexation; that Fairfield could be absorbed into Birmingham, or into the other cities on its border.

Coachman said that such rumors have been around for years.  He’s heard talk of Fairfield dissolving and being annexed into Birmingham since he was in elementary school, he said.

“At some point in time, we’re going to have to come and sit at a table, if not this one, and make some hard decisions about how we are going to save this sinking city,” he said.