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