Fighting City Hall

By Robert Carpenter, Editor | August 2011, Vol. 66 No. 8

Sewer rates have already risen more than 300 percent in recent years as officials desperately tried to meet payments and stave off bankruptcy. Whatever the settlement, rates will rise again. A court-appointed receiver recommended a rate hike of 25 percent, but county commissioners were hoping to keep the increase lower.

That this dire situation should never have happened is a given. Those people serving their well-justified prison sentences aren’t the only ones to blame. Equally culpable are those officials whose failure to address the city/county’s obvious infrastructure problems which included a sewer system in an extreme state of degradation. They ignored the problem for years until it reached critical mass and the health of its citizens was at high risk. When comparing the funding required to address the problems with the impacted area’s population, the Birmingham consent decree has one of the highest cost ratios of any consent decree to date.

Even in good times, very few cities want to raise their sewer/water rates, float new bonds or even change long-term spending habits. No doubt this is a time of economic hardship for many, including cities, large and small, all across the country. But cities are largely on their own to find answers. Right or wrong, federal funding assistance for cities to address their sewer/water issues has all but disappeared.

But the EPA mandated prosecution of municipal violators marches on and the health of U.S. citizens must remain a priority. Cities cannot avoid their infrastructure problems any longer. Elected officials must take responsibility for current conditions – and act, even if it’s painful medicine.

There’s an old saying that you can’t fight City Hall. Unfortunately, the sad story of Birmingham/Jefferson County is that City Hall fought the people and the people lost to the tune of $4.1 billion. I appreciate that current officials are trying to bring back integrity to their municipal government and regain the respect and trust of the residents. Regardless, it’s going to be a long time before Jefferson County, AL, will be able to restore local confidence in a responsible municipal government that their citizens so desperately need and deserve.