Tag Archives: government

Free Magazine Review – Sort Of, But Not Really

Many of you know all about the Free Magazine Reviews that we do on this site. They are among our most popular features, and we get piles of emails about them. Many hands have been wrung about how cruel we are to poke fun at the crappy wastes of paper that we have picked up around town.

It has come to our attention that there is a new-ish entry onto the crowded free magazine scene. Perhaps you have seen “The Pride of Montgomery.” No, it’s not a gay pride magazine, although that joke has already been made by everyone.

What it is, dear reader, is actually something even more interesting. This “Pride” is a glossy free monthly magazine that appears to be published by a Prattville dentist, yet features a column from Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange at the start of every issue.

The issue we got today is certainly funny enough to merit the full “Free Magazine Review” treatment. Anytime a magazine publisher uses his own magazine’s pages to write a column titled “Toothpaste 101,” you know you’ve got some serious humor potential. However, this isn’t the column where we make fun of Pride’s font selection (which is atrocious) or the laughable so-called articles (“New Tips for Glam!”)

Rather, this is simply an opportunity to examine the details of Mayor Strange’s column in Pride, which can be found on page 4. In a world where we rarely hear these kinds of big picture perspectives from elected officials, it’s worth taking a look at our mayor’s vision for Montgomery in 2014.

Headline: Continued Growth, Prosperity for Montgomery in 2014

Is this really a headline? Is this Strange’s goal? Is it a bold prediction or merely aspirational? If it’s aspirational, well, duh, yes, who is against prosperity? I guess the pro-chaos and blight candidate didn’t win the election. I’m glad the mayor is willing to exert the leadership needed to say that he wants the same things as us everyone else ever. But if Mayor Strange is going on the record predicting joy, why not fold that into a snappy headline like, “Mayor Forecasts Good Things, Doubts Prospects For Evil?”

Here’s the text of the mayor’s column (in bold) followed by some reactions:

“Many of us use the month of January to review the previous year and anticipate the 12 months ahead.”

So very wise. Go on …

“Both exercises reveal good news for Montgomery, the Capital of Dreams, and perhaps a challenge or two.”

So, 2013 was good. 2014 will also be good. Audacious stuff. And way to work in the Official Branding™. Much better than “Cradle of the Confederacy,” which remains emblazoned on countless public buildings and signs.

“We can be proud of the stabilization of the City’s finances accomplished in 2013. The retirement plan for City employees was revised to ensure new employees will have a fund that is solvent without burdening taxpayers or taking resources from other needs.”

Oh, so we “revised” the retirement plans for city workers? That means “cut,” right? Or “slashed?” Did we “decimate” them, or merely “reduce” them? Were city employees becoming big time fatcats with gold watches and cars made out of diamonds? Why did we have to “revise” their retirements? Do they not need as much money to live on when they retire? Do they plan to eat catfood when they get old? What flavors? It better not be Fancy Feast because if it is, we might need to “revise” those retirement plans some more.

How much did we make from this “revision” of city worker retirements? Enough to start a citywide curbside recycling program? Oh. I guess not. OK, go on …

“The City’s reserves, which were depleted during the Great Recession, are now up to $15 million. Ratings agencies view healthy reserves as an indicator of sound management. Standard and Poor’s awarded Montgomery with an “AA” rating.”

Let’s be clear, AA rating isn’t the highest, but it’s good. Government entities often get good ratings because they can, say, raise taxes and are often seen as likely to pay back their debts. Cities can issue bonds to pay for projects, so bragging about credit ratings is fine (“Hey, we’re not Jefferson County!”) but it isn’t the key measure of economic health. The City of Calera also has AA rated credit and nobody ever says, “Hey, let’s be more like Calera.”

How about the fact that the City of Montgomery is tied (with Birmingham) for the single highest sales taxes in the United States? We (and Birmingham) pay TEN PERCENT SALES TAX on pretty much everything we buy, including groceries. The next highest in the nation is a tie between Chicago, Glendale (Arizona), and Seattle. I’ve never been to Glendale, but I know we are not getting as much cool stuff for our astronomical sales taxes as the people that live in Chicago and Seattle. Look, I understand that nobody wants to raise property taxes, so we’re stuck relying on regressive sales taxes that punish poor people, but I’m embarrassed to admit that no city in American has higher sales taxes than mine. That says a lot more about our city’s economic health than the fact that S&P rated us AA.

“Montgomerians can also take pride in the many key projects that took place in 2013. The Wright Flyer replica and park salute our notable history in civilian aviation. Maxwell Boulevard has been upgraded and is primed for further development. The demolition of the State House Inn will lead to an improved Madison Avenue corridor. Genetta Park in West Montgomery is protecting our watershed and will soon be a spot for recreation and education. The former Steve and Barry’s store at the Montgomery Mall has been converted into a Public Safety center for Police and Fire & Rescue services.”

Wow, that’s quite a list. Slow down! That’s five things! Projects! Let’s take them one at a time.

1) Seriously. Who is into that Wright Brothers statue? Anyone? Anyone? The park is great, yes. But that was true when it was Overlook Park. Now that it is named Wright Brothers Park and has a metal plane in it? It’s about the same. Does anyone look at that hyper-literal model of a glider and feel pride? It’s OK, I guess. I might have opted for something a little more artistic and evocative of the transcendentally beautiful human aspiration for flight, something suggesting innovation and soaring. But if it’s a large metal THIS IS WHAT IT LOOKED LIKE replica that we get, I guess that’s OK too. I just don’t see showing that thing off to visitors or putting it on postcards. But yes, we should be proud of our history and stuff. For sure. Agreed.

2) Maxwell Boulevard has been upgraded. Wooo! Let’s get fired up for some medians! Wooo! New striping on roads! Ya’ll feeling that surge in civic pride?

3) State House Inn has been torn down. Good. It was a disgusting eyesore. But can we at least all agree that this happened because “Evil Big Government” interfered in the private free market and “rewarded failure” by purchasing private property and using PUBLIC MONEY to “bail out” a “failed investment” and turn it into something else? For all the talk about tea party this and capitalism that, for the “I’m just a businessman” mayor to tout these kinds of projects, it’s pretty mind boggling.

4) Genetta Park: Let’s be clear. This area has been called “Genetta Ditch” for years. That’s not the most appetizing branding, but it has always been a ditch and it still looks like a ditch. If they stick a park between McDonald’s and the Interstate, great. Parks are awesome. But this thing appears to be on a 10-year timeframe and it’s a bit too early to share the enthusiasm about whatever the heck this thing is going to become.

5) They’re sticking a police station and fire station in the bombed out abandoned husk of Montgomery Mall. OK. Cool. See above regarding Issue #3. They took a failed investment and a bad business plan from a businessman who allowed his giant building to fall into decay. He let his investment deteriorate and then sold it to the city. We like police stations and fire stations (unless those fatcat city employees are getting too much money in their retirement plans … see above). And we are glad something is being done about the depressing spectacle of Montgomery Mall. Certainly police and fire stations will be immune to the market forces that dragged an entire mall into oblivion and caused tax payers to purchase it with Socialism disguised as “we’re just free market loving businesspeople.”

“We will devote attention in 2014 to exploring other occupants at the former mall, encouraging the Board of Education as it reviews plans for the LAMP and MTEC programs, as well as the Central Office consolidation. Special attention will also focus on avoiding the inordinate increase in homicides we sustained in 2013.”

We’re blurring three issues into this paragraph. First is “we’re trying to find other tenants for the mall.” Good. Fine. See above about Uncle Strange’s Big Government Real Estate Bonanza seeking to make sweetheart deals with potential tenants. Book stores and video game arcades and shoe stores aren’t coming back to that side of town any time soon. Second, we have a glancing mention of the school system, which experienced a catastrophic grade changing scandal in 2013, resulting in the firing of the Superintendent and the quasi-takeover of the entire system by the State Board of Education. Funny how that didn’t rate a mention in the ol’ year end wrap-up. Third, the murders. Yes, we agree that we’d like to have fewer of the murders please.

Sidebar: How great is the mayor’s use of the word “inordinate?” As if having 25 murders instead of 50 would be a totally ordinate number.

Update: Since I wrote this, we have learned that the schools aren’t moving into the old mall. That is dumb. How could the city and the school system not get on the same page about this? I bet the mayor is mad.

“2014 will be marked with continued progress. The improvement to the Dexter Avenue streetscape is already underway. To meet the demand for living spaces downtown, developers have plans to build apartments on Maxwell Boulevard East and the Frank Leu site at Bibb and Commerce. Questplex, the home for the Children’s Museum of Alabama and the Library of the 21st Century will revitalize Court Square.”

Again, there’s a lot going on here. First, Dexter: Yes. Good. It’s horrible how merchants have fled downtown. A once-thriving retail scene is now a sorry collection of faded storefronts. Also, the Internet has murdered retail everywhere. We look forward to hearing what will be purchased on Dexter that can’t be ordered cheaper from Amazon. Also, see above about Municipal Socialism rewarding holdout building owners by using public funds to buy decrepit buildings at above-market cost. We support this, of course, but it’s good to be clear about what we’re talking about. Maybe the city should buy that stuff and just keep it and open some restaurants and bars. Bet the local economic developers would love that.

Second, downtown living: Good. Build nice lofts. Someone should do it. But it’s funny how this gets a single sentence and not a word about, say bicycles or a downtown grocery store. People don’t want to live where there is no commercial ecosystem. Downtowns with residential living all need drug stores and places to buy food and maybe a place to throw a frisbee.

Questplex? Sure. Do your thing. The city needed to buy more real estate from the market failure known as Colonial Bank. So put a museum there for kids or whatever.

“Like many agencies, the City will find a way to stabilize increasing health care costs. It’s the right thing to do for the health of our employees and as custodians of taxpayer dollars.”

Oh, for real Todd Strange? We can’t stop a citywide murder spike nor provide curbside recycling, but we’re going to as a mid-sized municipal government going to DRIVE DOWN THE COST OF HEALTH CARE? Even the federal government, undertaking one of the most ambitious social and regulatory projects ever attempted in American history cannot do that. How is the City of Montgomery going to make MRI scans cost less? Oh, sure, we can cut health plans for city employees. That would certainly drive down health care costs … at least the costs borne by the city. It’s not like those people would stop getting sick. It’s just that we’ll be picking up the tab for those people when they go into emergency rooms because their city health plan no longer covers preventative kidney treatments or whatever. And didn’t you just brag up above about “revising” the retirements of city employees? Is this a threat to gash their health plans as well? Next time some bored city worker treats a resident like crap, I hope everybody remembers the good people that could have taken that city job but declined because they instead took a job that wasn’t hacking away at their benefits all the time.

So two of the main fiscal things Mayor Strange tells us to be proud of are the cutting of city retirement plans and the upcoming cutting of city health plans. Take that, you fatcat city workers! Our fiscal conservatism with your benefit plans is what allows us to buy failing businesses around town and sell them to motivated developers who want to open theme pubs and lofts. #FreeMarket

“Indeed in 2014, we will continue to pursue our vision of “sustaining a safe, vibrant and growing Montgomery in its entirety, that we are all proud to call home.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

MPD: Annual Reports

Recently, we used the Desmonte Leonard manhunt as an excuse to give an overview of our local police department. It was nothing major, just a look at some of the civic leaders and a few of the MPD basics, attempting to be as honest as possible, while admitting the limitations of our knowledge.

In that post, we mentioned that the MPD has a section of its website called “Annual Reports.” Sadly, there has not been an annual report since 2009. And 2008 is listed but not hyperlinked on the site. That means if I want to look at the most recent “annual” public reports of my local police department, I’m stuck with reports from 2009 (three years ago) and 2007 (five years ago). What’s in ’em? Let’s take a look! {Note: Feel free to download the PDFs and follow along at home … at least until they pull them down from the site!}

2007: A lovely year. The iPhone 2G is released. Seung-Hui Cho shoots up Virginia Tech, killing 32. The Dixie Chicks won a bunch of Grammy Awards, and George W. Bush is still President of the United States. Here in July of 2012, the fine year of 2007 is the second-most-recent year for which we can find an annual report from the Montgomery Police Department.

Art Baylor is the Chief during the heady days of 2007. Page 2 of the report offers the table of contents, along with four blurry photos, two of which are from the zoo. The page employs the font known as comic sans, which three years later would be employed by Dan Gilbert in a hilariously petulant public letter about LeBron James.

Page 3 is a letter from then-Chief Baylor to then-Mayor Bobby Bright. Baylor mentions having over 800 sworn officers, which contrasts with the figure given by current chief Kevin Murphy (510). Evidently, from January 2008 (the date of Baylor’s letter) until July 2012 (which is when I’m looking at Murphy’s webpage), the MPD lost 300-plus police officers. This is profoundly shocking. Evidently crime can decrease while laying off 300 police officers. And that’s important to note: Everyone says crime is decreasing.

Baylor lists several initiatives that I have never heard of: the Crime Reduction Team (CRT), the “Digital Patroller,” and “the Omega Crime Mapping System.” Do these programs still exist? Unclear.

Great Seal

The next page is numbered page 2, although it is the fourth page in the report, counting the cover. From here on out, we’ll use the numbering from the bottom of the pages of the report. This page is notable because it contains the “Great Seal of the City of Montgomery,” which we heard (from current Mayor Todd Strange) that the city has since discontinued. We are not so sure that this controversial seal has been fully retired, but it’s interesting to see it in an official city publication.

Page 3 is the org chart of the MPD. This is a useful document that helps the average citizen understand how the department is structured. Running a police department is tough work.

Page 4 contains actual stats for the police chaplain. I guess if you don’t document how many “direct contacts” you have, preaching to officers and such, you might get cut out of the budget. Wouldn’t want that. Cops need tax-funded “pastoral care and spiritual guidance,” that they can’t get from their own churches.

Page 5 shows that the ’06 MPD budget was $38.5 million, raised to $41.8 million in ’07. More on this below.

Page 8 suggests that in 2006, there were 28 murders handled by the detective division. In 2007? up to 46. This is not mentioned by Chief Baylor in his cheery introductory letter. Looking ahead to the ’09 report, it claims that there were 87 murders in 2008, and 83 in ’09. If I’m reading the numbers right, that’s a heck of a spike. Back to the ’07 report:

Page 9 suggests that $16,000 worth of livestock were reported stolen within MPD jurisdiction in ’06. This seems like a lot of livestock for a dense urban area. $4,500 worth was recovered. And if that’s shocking, nearly $27,000 worth of livestock was stolen in 2007, with none of it recovered. That is a lot of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and/or pigs.

Page 10 suggests that 39 arrests were made in ’07 at local schools. This trend is awful. Kids getting arrested at school is a travesty. Birmingham City Schools are being sued for actually using mace on students, so I guess we can be glad we aren’t doing that. Also note that 24 arrests were made for sodomy. Given Lawrence v. Texas, it would be interesting to know why arrests were made under Alabama’s anti-sodomy statute and not other sex abuse prohibitions.

Page 13: A surprising number of dogs (2,500) were picked up. Only 280 citations issued. What was the one animal tranquilized? How can they not tell us? I’m going to go ahead and assume it was a Komodo dragon.

Pages 14-15: District 4, which is up Federal Drive, had 23,584 service calls. The next highest number of calls was from District 10, at 16,913. What is going on in District 4 that caused them to call the cops 6,000 times more than the next highest district?

Page 19: Evidently, MPD still calls Asian people “Oriental.” Sigh.

Page 22: Seems that 22 people died in 2006 in traffic accidents, a total that skyrocketed in 2007 to 34. Increased texting while driving? Shouldn’t these totals go down from year to year as cars become safer? Unsurprisingly, it’s safest to be on the roads on Sundays and most dangerous on Fridays. The list of “most frequent accident” locations is a fantastic idea and should be heavily-circulated information.

Page 28: There are lots of caption-free photo montages in the report. While it probably makes sense to the officers reading the report, to civilians seeking a greater understanding of the police department, a ton of photographs with no captions is not all that helpful (or interesting).

The 2009 Report:

Gone is the sweet cover page with fireworks over the river. The ’09 report begins with a bunch of portraits and email addresses. The interesting thing here is that the ’09 chaplain made 309 direct contacts (in person). In ’07, the chaplain reported making 6,245. Are we to believe that Rev. Jackson made TWENTY times the number of visits that Rev. Morris made? What happened?

Also gone in the ’09 report are the helpful page numbers. Page 2 contains the budget figures. Using the ’07 report, we can create the following chart, showing the city’s spending on the MPD:

I guess the collapsing economy didn’t hit MPD all that much. The city had to cancel curbside recycling pickup, but when the economy cratered, the most that could be cut from MPD’s budget was a million bucks from ’08 to ’09. It seems likely that federal stimulus money (from ever-reviled Obama) came in to boost things in ’08. Making things extra bizarre is the letter from Baylor saying MPD had 800 sworn officers in 2008, and Chief Murphy’s current total of 510. The mayor recently said we have 524 sworn officers, which he says is the highest number in city history. Maybe gasoline costs went up faster than I’m calculating, but fortunately Montgomery is free of any professional journalists who’d pay attention to municipal budget issues.

Page 5: It’s notable that the value of stolen livestock has plummeted since ’06 and ’07. Also another mysterious space-filling photo montage is probably cool if you know the people in the pictures, but is otherwise incomprehensible.

Page 6: With only 24 arrests for sodomy in the ’07 report, ’09 figures show a sodomy epidemic of 68 arrests that year. What is going on with Montgomery-based sodomites?

Page 14: At first, there didn’t seem to be much to report about the value of drugs confiscated by MPD in 2009. $12.8 million in cocaine? Sounds reasonable. How much was it in ’07?

Holy crap! The 2007 report (on page 19) claims that MPD confiscated $371 million worth of cocaine in 2007. This is evidently more than a single typo. The total amount of drugs claimed confiscated? $372,823,395. Someone typed this out and published it. That total represents more in cocaine confiscated in Montgomery than the wealthiest state in the nation plans to spend on school construction and upgrades, a project that will employ 11,650 Marylanders. A news report from ’09 suggests that 100 kilos were grabbed in one bust, worth $10 million. How could they have possibly gotten $371 million worth of cocaine? Maybe somebody ought to proofread these reports once in a while.

It may also bear noting that in ’07 there were 433 SWAT training hours. In ’09? Merely 194. I guess the SWAT team got all the training it needed back in the day.

Pages 18-22: Five more full pages of captionless photo montages. The stats on arrests may not add up from year to year, but these annual reports sure are full of anonymous people getting plaques. Look, a baby! And a guy at his desk!

All in all, the reports are fun to look at. They raise as many questions as they answer, namely, why can’t the MPD figure out a way to put the report online every year. Or maybe they just stopped producing them. We have no idea. Still, when you are a taxpaying resident of a city, funding a $44 million police department, it’s good to know about the ways that your tax dollars are being used.

Downtown Smoke Monster

We don’t watch a ton of TV.

But one of the shows we did plow through (thanks to Netflix) was the popular ABC show “Lost.” If you’re unfamiliar with the show, we commend you. If you’ve seen the show, you understand how mass produced popular entertainment can pollute your mind to the point that when you are walking around downtown and you see a giant column of smoke, you think of the mysterious smoke monster.

This is the first view, taken August 2nd, from near downtown Troy State:

Then, I got a bit closer and this is the view from over by the Post Office:

Turns out, it’s some old abandoned apartments (housing projects?) that are on fire. I get a little closer, but it’s a bit dicey back there with broken glass and weeds and, well, a giant inferno. Firefighters have closed off several of the roads and there are hoses connected to hydrants and it’s overall quite a big scene:

Cruising the news the next day, I learn that the fires were actually intentionally set by the Montgomery Fire Department as a training exercise. They were/are called the Caroline Street Apartments and I certainly support our city’s first responders having the very best training possible, with realistic simulations and everything. But there’s also something sort of sad about these apartments downtown, owned now by the city, being torched. The article says they were/are an “eyesore” and that’s certainly true. I’d honestly be afraid to go up there and poke around too much. It’s not like the surrounding neighborhood is all that much better. But there was a time when people lived there, and the city didn’t own it, and it was nice to be downtown, by the river.

It’s sort of like those weed-covered lots, where there are brick retaining walls and sometimes even steps … that lead up to nothing. Downtown revitalization is a popular phrase, and progress has been undeniable. We love everything from the Biscuits Stadium to the Train Shed to the Urban Farm and the proposed Cypress Pond Park project. But there are also places like the Caroline Street Apartments and all of the mansions (and shacks) there on the hill — some hurting areas and neighborhoods that could use a grocery store and a park and some bike lanes. And we don’t see a lot of promise for the Chamber of Commerce slogan, “Montgomery: Come See Our City-Owned, City-Torched Downtown Abandoned Housing Project Fires.” And it’s not like the place is gone now, burned into ash that drifted away on the river breeze. It’s still there, still abandoned — just with scorch marks on parts of it now.

Somebody somewhere will be a better historian of the Caroline Street Apartments than me. Nobody is going to be living there again, although the property might get redeveloped into something good, provided the city can find a buyer with some money and a vision for downtown living.

For now, we can just drive by and wonder if they ever freed Mike White, over there on Mildred Street.