Dear City of Tuscaloosa: Why Am I Paying Someone Else’s Bill?
The actress Mary Astor said, “Once you start asking questions, innocence is gone.” After recently daring to question local politics I have decided that this observation has merit. The question that robbed me of my political naïveté’ so to speak was “why?” I wanted an opportunity to ask Mayor Walt Maddox this most basic of questions and receive answers in response; to, if I may be so bold, engage in a dialogue.
Much like the great and powerful Oz, Mayor Maddox is difficult to reach. Gone with our former mayor, the beloved Al Dupont, are the days of the open door policy at city hall. While Mayor Maddox doesn’t hide behind a curtain pulling levers, he is carefully situated behind multiple locked doors, each requiring security badge clearance for admission and further buffered by a wall of security guards. To my knowledge, Nick Saban, one of the most sought after men in Tuscaloosa travels with no security guards- yet our mayor’s comings and goings about town are treated like those of POTUS. The closest thing to one-on-one access with Mayor Maddox is via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I grew frustrated that the only access I had to information, other than social media, was one-sided statements and video sound bites he would release from behind the castle walls. Desperate for real information I went so far as to spend two days of my life exploring his most recently advertised creation which I like to call the portal of transparency. (I used the word “transparency” because if I had a nickel for every time he has dropped the word I would be sitting on a beach somewhere instead of blogging to you.) While I enjoyed the colorful bar graphs and pie charts in the end I found the portal to be a big old gateway to nothing. The electronic equivalent of word vomit it makes lots of noise but provides no real information. Council meetings are likewise ineffective. You are allowed a brief time at the podium, carefully monitored by a large video stopwatch projected onto the wall, during which time you may express your opinion on a matter. There is no question and answer portion and certainly no debating positions.
But, I suppose my breaking point came when I viewed a tweet of a “mayor’s night out” event which was represented as an opportunity for his constituents to meet the mayor and discuss issues. There was a photograph taken at a local brewery as the mayor played some sort of video game…Mario Cart I think. And so I asked the mayor, via Twitter, when would he hold a substantive question and answer session for citizens to attend. In reply, he insisted that craft beer and video games was in fact the citizens’ opportunity to talk to their mayor. Ignoring the ridiculousness of that statement, I again asked when, if ever, he might hold a real forum. This prompted him to invite me to schedule a private meeting at his office. I want to know why we are still refusing to charge impact fees on new developments. That decision impacted all of Tuscaloosa, so shouldn’t the rest of the gang have an opportunity to weigh in? It was soon thereafter that the mayor blocked me from all of his social media accounts. Now I don’t consider myself a sensitive person but I’m not sure how I feel about being blocked by an elected official. Was it something I said? Perhaps it was something he didn’t want to say.
I have researched the limited information available regarding the death of impact fees which I will share with you now. Any omissions were an oversight. Perhaps you, my friends and neighbors, will have an answer for me….I hope so.
In May 2011, the Tuscaloosa Forward Task Force was created by executive order of Mayor Maddox and citizens throughout the community were appointed to serve. The goal was for Tuscaloosa to re-build better and stronger than it had been. We all drank the Kool-Aid so to speak and believed that everyone wanted to do what was best for Tuscaloosa.
In July 2013, Mayor Maddox issued an executive order creating the “Student Rental Housing Task Force” who in turn worked tirelessly and in October 2013, presented a comprehensive report to the mayor and city council regarding the rebuilding of student housing after April 27, 2011.
In November 2013, The Tuscaloosa News reported that the Student Rental Housing Task Force’s nine preliminary recommendations were discussed by the mayor and city council. One of the recommendations presented in that report was that the city review the utilization of impact fees to offset the related costs of upgrades, ongoing maintenance and improvements to the infrastructure system. Impact fees are utilized by local governments to assist in the funding of infrastructure or public services on new developments. These fees are designed to offset the demand new developments place on the existing infrastructure. Impact fees are not a new concept. One study estimates that approximately 60% of all cities with over 25,000 residents along with 40% of metropolitan counties use these sorts of impact fees on new developments. This recommendation was not addressed.
On February 5, 2015, at the request of Mayor Maddox, the Student Rental Housing Task Force was re-convened to review its prior recommendations. The task force stood behind its recommendations but took this opportunity to again encourage that the possibility of impact fees be addressed sooner rather than later.
But an olive branch of sorts was extended by the city when in April 2015 they voted to abolish their policy of reimbursing the water line extension costs for new developments within the city limits. If you have ever had a discussion with the City of Tuscaloosa on how, per their calculations, a water line located on their side of a property line is your responsibility to repair, you are probably shaking your head at this bombshell. Let it sink in for a moment, we, the taxpayers, were paying the costs associated with new developments water lines. The removal of this little perk was represented, at least by The Tuscaloosa News on June 12, 2015, as the city’s first step in adopting impact fees. I must respectfully disagree. No longer requiring your taxpayers to foot the bill for new developments is not imposing an impact fee on the developer for the strain the new development has placed on public utilities, it is simply placing a cost where it belonged in the first place.
The mayor, who has remained opposed to impact fees said, “I’ve been very reluctant on this issue. I want to make sure that whatever we’re doing, we’re not taxing the tax. I think slower is better, and I will certainly bend to the will of the council.” (Emphasis added.) His opinion was supported by Jim Page, CEO of The West Alabama Chamber of Commerce. There has been a great deal of attention paid to the influence the chamber seems to hold with the mayor which came to light when the city was working on revising its MX zoning ordinances. It appears that the mayor created yet another task force, this one called The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama’s Business Recovery Task Force, which met privately with the mayor and made recommendations that were not released to the public. But that task force is information for another day.
The Tuscaloosa City Council’s Administration and Policy Committee paid water and wastewater consulting firm Raftelis Financial $49,500.00 to help develop impact fee structures for new developments in Tuscaloosa. Raftelis project manager Tony Hairston estimated that the city’s then current rate of development could yield an additional 1 million dollars per year in impact fees. Impact fees for growth that has legitimately impacted the community that we, the taxpayers, wouldn’t have to foot the bill for.
By March 1, 2016, The Tuscaloosa News reported that instead of following through with impact fees that Tuscaloosa had instead opted to be the largest city in Alabama without them. Jimmy Junkin, then director of the Water and Sewer Board gave a short presentation to the council prior to their vote and said, “Current funding for growth-related capital projects is very limited. We’re really strapped.” Credited heavily with the council’s decision was the strong position of the mayor that the Student Housing Rental Task Force had only recommended impact fees on mega-complexes not impact fees on all new developments as the council was now proposing. “I believe that, quite frankly, this is nothing more than a back door tax” said the mayor. And per the article, “His opinion led the council’s public projects committee to let the proposed adoption of impact fees die for lack of action.”
So where does that leave us? In April 2015 the mayor said he would bend to the will of the council in regards to impact fees yet by March 2016 he shut down not only the of impact fees on mega-complexes but impact fees on any new developments. On March 6, 2016, WBRC quoted Mayor Maddox as saying that the city is, “well-positioned” to handle future infrastructure needs, citing $250 million in local infrastructure projects planned for Tuscaloosa over the next decade. I guess Mr. Junkin missed that memo.
On January 25, 2017, The Tuscaloosa News brought us news of one of many recent infrastructure breakdowns and proof, in my opinion, that karma indeed exists. Not surprisingly there was no press release from the mayor regarding the massive sinkhole that opened up near The Hilliard Fletcher Wastewater Treatment Plant but there was a great quote from a civil engineer for the city who appropriately recognized, “We’ve got a problem.” Well said sir. A 60-inch sewer line failed, creating a sinkhole large enough to house four sport utility vehicles. That definitely qualifies as a problem. But fear not citizens, the two contracts necessary for repair will only cost $800,000.00 and per the news “Each contract is a not-to-exceed amount, meaning likely taxpayers won’t be on the hook for more.” Well that’s a relief! City officials voted to shift the funds out of the Water and Sewer Fund’s Reserve for Future Improvement….I guess that means we are a little less “well-equipped” to handle future infrastructure needs? I for one think that $1 million dollars per year in impact fees would have come in handy during this little catastrophe but as you might imagine….the mayor could not be reached for comment.
COMING SOON…..MEGA-APARTMENT COMPLEXES