Governmental Fragmentation in Jefferson County
Look at the map of Jefferson County and its patchwork quilt of municipalities and unincorporated areas. The most common adjective used to describe a community governed in this way is “fragmented.” Yet Jefferson County is a community, despite all the boundaries that divide its people from one another. Every day, thousands of them cross those boundaries to work, shop, and enjoy the amenities of the area. They expect—and deserve—efficient local governance of public services.
Imagine how difficult it is for dozens of local governments to come together in order to manage a network of roads, coordinate a mass transit system, provide police and fire protection when and where they are needed, and create good schools to serve every neighborhood effectively.
The task is even more complicated than this visible representation of fragmentation conveys. The map does not capture the overlapping of county and municipal functions, or the power of state legislators to intervene in local matters. Nor does it reveal the social and economic divisions that lie underneath the municipal boundaries.
How can a landscape so divided be drawn together around broad community goals?
How can Greater Birmingham act like “One Great City”?
These questions have been asked in Birmingham and Jefferson County throughout its history. Through the decades, various attempts have been made to draw our collection of communities into a greater whole. More often than not, those endeavors have failed.
Greater Birmingham is by no means alone in grappling with these questions. Communities across the country engage in continuous conversation around these issues. Some bring governmental functions together under a consolidated government structure. Others forge agreements and cooperative ventures that tie governments together in partnership.
The general concept that governments within a region should cooperate or even combine to deliver services more efficiently and effectively is commonly spoken of in positive terms, at least in a theoretical sense. However, when it comes to forging a formal arrangement for cooperation, the theoretical concept runs into more difficult realities.
Cooperative arrangements require trust. They often require a party to give up control or share resources. Greater Birmingham has a particular history that makes cooperation and trust difficult.
The region has a long tradition of fragmentation. It has a history of division along racial and economic lines. Recent problems with corruption, political disputes, and intergovernmental competition make it more difficult to forge cooperative arrangements.
However, tradition and history should not be a barrier to examining current arrangements with the aim of improving them. Regions change demographically. New generations rise to leadership for whom the baggage of past conflict does not weigh as heavily. Time brings greater clarity to the fact that the region is interconnected, that we should be engaged in encouraging prosperity and facilitating its spread, and that problems in one place, if left unaddressed, will affect conditions elsewhere.
With Jefferson County recovering from bankruptcy and Birmingham showing signs of growth and revitalization after five decades of population loss, there has been a renewal of conversation about how we, as a community, can best organize ourselves to nurture growth and encourage broader shared prosperity.
In light of the positive momentum currently enjoyed by Greater Birmingham, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham has commissioned the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama to conduct a study of the current structure of government in Greater Birmingham, with Jefferson County as its primary focus.
In this first chapter, we will examine Birmingham’s current landscape with comparisons to other cities, and we will review the history that shaped Birmingham and its governmental arrangements. In subsequent reporting, we will explore a variety of approaches other cities have taken to foster unity and look at the results of those efforts. A final installment will consider the research on other models, take into account Birmingham’s current landscape, and point to approaches that might be desirable and feasible here.
The Concept of Fragmentation
We form governments to pursue common aspirations and to address community challenges. In our region in general, and in Jefferson County in particular, we have organized in smaller units and therefore lack the leadership to address issues that transcend the boundaries of those smaller units.
Individual municipalities pursue their own self-interest and sometimes find themselves in counter-productive competition. The fractured nature of local government reflects and to some extent drives racial and economic segregation.
Greater Birmingham spent the past 50 years growing apart: a diminished center city, surrounded by a jigsaw puzzle of municipalities. Some of those municipalities have prospered and grown, while others find themselves at an increasing disadvantage. Viewed as a whole, the metropolitan area lags its peers in population and economic growth, and in other measures of economic and social health.
Jefferson County government, which could be a unifying and coordinating force, has been plagued by ineffective organization, corruption, and dysfunction. The County has made major strides since emerging from what was at the time the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. The 2011 appointment of a County Manager, who carries out executive functions under the supervision of the Commission, has significantly improved county government operations.
However, the county still lacks elected executive leadership. County voters never come together to elect an executive, like a president, governor, or mayor who would be elected and empowered to pursue a shared vision for the county.
Instead, the five members of the Jefferson County Commission work to represent the county as a whole, but are elected from individual districts. Furthermore, under Alabama’s constitutional structure, Jefferson County’s state legislative delegation plays a major role in local affairs. Too often, the working relationships between the delegation, the county, and the various municipalities have been contentious rather than cooperative.
Regional cooperation is talked about as a civic good, but we have yet to develop effective governmental structures for achieving cooperation. In dividing itself so intricately, Greater Birmingham has difficulty coming together around common purpose, marshaling community resources, and pursuing projects that would benefit the larger populace.
Thus, the question arises: What steps can be taken to more effectively align ourselves? For cities and metropolitan areas across the country, this is a recurring question. A wide variety of approaches have been employed, and each solution has aspects that are unique to the conditions of that locale. To generalize, there are four basic approaches to such reform efforts:
- Functional Consolidation Cooperation through inter-local agreements, in which existing governments either jointly manage particular services or divide responsibility for particular functions.
- Modernizing County Government Empower and properly structure county government to enhance its ability to provide for and manage a set of services that are regional in nature.
- Cooperation Through Regional Entities Creation of an independent, area-wide entity to support and even deliver selected governmental services.
- Political Consolidation Merging governments, most often governments of the largest city with the central county.
Each of these approaches is aimed at coping with the tendency of regions to develop multiple independent governmental entities to answer the immediate needs of a local community.
Various regions have undertaken these reforms because they believed that fragmentation mattered.
DOES FRAGMENTATION MATTER? REGIONALISM VS. PUBLIC CHOICE
Over the past 30 years, there has been considerable debate over whether an area’s form of government has a bearing on its socioeconomic health of communities. There are two main schools of thought. One can be described as the regionalist approach. Regionalists hold that a more inclusive, less divided governmental framework is better able to harness public resources within a metropolitan area for the common good.
Regionalism: A Case for a Unified Vision
David Rusk, former Mayor of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been one of the most vocal proponents of this regionalist way of thinking about urban development. His influential book, Cities without Suburbs, was first published in 1993 and has since been updated, most recently in 2013.1
Using Census and other economic data, Rusk compares the demographic and economic performance of cities and metropolitan areas across the U.S. Rusk and other regionalist researchers who have studied this issue argue that communities that overcome fragmentation can better focus a region’s public resources toward addressing issues of community concern. They argue that a larger, more diverse political structure allows communities to come together around a common vision for the area’s future. Governance on a more extensive scale leads to effective administration of services that are regional in nature.
As regionalists see it, communities where governance is fractured do not have political or governmental structures in place that can develop and carry out functions of area-wide significance. Divided communities tend to have higher levels of racial and economic segregation. With more concentrated poverty comes associated problems like higher rates of joblessness, eroding home values, and blight.
The Public Choice Approach: A Case for Efficiency
An opposing group of researchers favors what is known as the public choice approach. Charles Tiebout was one of the originators of this theory with his 1956 piece “A Pure Theory of Public Expenditures.”2 He and his successors hold that competition between governments fosters more efficient provision of services and promotes higher quality service delivery. Given a choice of municipalities, residents and businesses are able to shop for the package of services they want and for which they are willing to pay.
This theory rests on a number of assumptions, most notably that citizens accurately state their preferences, that these preferences are not mutually exclusive, and that citizens are willing and able to relocate based on these preferences. Perhaps more important for this study, the theory assumes that the positive and negative effects of municipal independence can be isolated within a given community. That assumption doesn’t take into account that negative effects, like higher poverty or crime in one city, can have a spillover effect into other jurisdictions. Nor does it account for the fact that beneficial actions and investments in one community, like environmental protections or the provision of cultural amenities, can benefit citizens in surrounding jurisdictions.
Research by public choice theorists calls into question the assumption that a single consolidated entity can be more cost-effective in delivering services. They point out that studies of consolidated governments have failed to document systematic evidence of the hoped-for cost-savings.3
Across the landscape of our region, one can find conditions that support both theoretical approaches.
Greater Birmingham offers appealing choices. Several local public school systems rank among the best in the state. Several municipalities in Jefferson County see consistently appreciating home values and stable or growing populations, markers of satisfaction with the level of services offered.
At the same time, though, viewed as whole, Greater Birmingham lags peer cities in terms of economic and population growth. Competition and migration between municipalities has created inequities, a concentration of problems in some cities and a concentration of advantages in others. The region has difficulty planning for and providing services in a coordinated fashion, particularly those services that cross municipal boundaries.
A Pragmatic Middle Approach
While the theoretical debate continues, there is a pragmatic middle approach.
This approach recognizes that the political and practical challenges of moving from fragmented to more cooperative governance are formidable. Such changes in organization are rarely accomplished in one fell swoop. Existing municipal lines and school district boundaries are rarely erased. And from the standpoint of efficiency, bigger is not always better. Some governmental services are best delivered at a small scale and in an arrangement in which the authorities in charge of delivering those services are close to and responsive to the people served. Other services are more efficiently delivered at a larger scale, with coordination that transcends municipal boundaries.
The pragmatic approach recognizes that it is important to make distinctions between which services are best delivered at a smaller scale and which benefit from larger economies of scale. It recognizes that it is important to identify areas where coordination is desirable and the pursuit of it worthwhile, and where it is not.
Measuring Fragmentation: Common Markers
The debate over fragmentation and its effects is complicated in that fragmentation can be measured in a variety of ways. Because of the wide range of regional differences in municipal organization across the country, it is difficult to identify, with a single metric, which areas are fragmented and which are not.
In the discussion that follows, we identify some of the markers of fragmentation and determine how Birmingham stands. For the purposes of this discussion, we have identified 20 peer cities from the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the U.S.
Included are cities that the Birmingham Business Alliance considers comparison cities: Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville, Memphis, Louisville, and Oklahoma City. Added to that list are Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Denver, four cities that have taken steps toward more unified regional governance. Also added to the list are Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, seven cities that share the pattern of extreme suburbanization that affects Birmingham.
This pattern is marked by a decline in the dominance of the central city and a proliferation of suburbs surrounding the central city, cutting off avenues for growth for the central city.
ERODED DOMINANCE OF THE CENTRAL CITY
The most obvious marker of fragmentation in a metropolitan area is the central city’s population as a percentage of the central county’s population. Generally speaking, the more the population of an area is divided by municipal boundaries into separate, independent jurisdictions, the harder it is to foster cooperation. Local self-interest naturally tends to create a barrier to ventures that cross political boundaries.
In communities where the central city represents a high proportion of the central county population, the city is in a better position to act as the central organizing unit. On the other hand, a central city that has a smaller share of the central county population is in a more competitive environment and cannot function as effectively as the leading unit of local government. This competitive situation is sharpened when the central city’s population is declining while suburban growth is occurring, and when the municipal boundaries tend to encourage a sorting along economic and racial lines.
Table 1 shows the central-city population share for the peer 20 communities. The eight highest central cities on this measure all have 79 percent or more of their central county’s population and suffer least from fragmentation so measured. The eight lowest have 40 percent or less of the central-county population and are at the center of fragmented metro areas.
Lack of a dominant central city population is associated with, but does not automatically condemn an MSA to, poor economic performance. There are cooperative alternatives that allow a community to overcome this as other barriers.
For some cities, this measure fails to capture unique local conditions. Minneapolis, for example, ranks relatively low on this list. However, it is one of the few places in the country that has a regional council in place, a governing body that addresses issues on a regional basis, creating a unifying regional force not reflected on this measure.
Raleigh also ranks lower than it might otherwise since the rapid growth of its core city has been relatively recent. Thanks to North Carolina’s permissive annexation laws, the central city of Raleigh should be able to grow in population relative to the rest of the county. Beyond that, Raleigh—like its fellow North Carolina city, Charlotte—makes extensive use of inter-local contracts to overcome the barriers to regional cooperation.
Faster growing Southern cities, either through annexation or consolidation with the surrounding county, have been able to capture suburban growth. In those cities, the central city remains the dominant force and voice in the development of the region.
By contrast, Greater Birmingham has organized itself as a confederation of “little boxes” around the central city.
Birmingham is surrounded by more incorporated suburbs than any other Southern city.
A PROLIFERATION OF SUBURBS
Birmingham has followed a pattern of municipal organization found in industrialized cities in the North, like Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. In those areas, the central city has been surrounded and hemmed in by independent municipalities. In Birmingham and its Rust Belt cousins, the central city lost out to the suburban expansion of the last half of the 20th Century and the first decades of the 21st.
Older industrial suburbs in these Rust Belt communities have suffered along with the central cities. The population exodus has taken a toll on the central city and the surrounding central county, creating a drain on resources and resulting in greater economic and racial segregation than is found in communities with a more unified governmental structure.
The absence of a dominant, broadly representative central city or central county creates a vacuum in regional leadership, with no overarching organizing body and executive to address regional issues.
In 1950, the City of Birmingham accounted for 60 percent of Jefferson County’s population and, at 43 percent, the largest share of the MSA population as well. For all intents and purposes, Birmingham City government was the governmental body that spoke for the region, the organizational unit that led economic development and the provision of governmental services. Today, the population of the City of Birmingham represents only 32 percent of Jefferson County’s population and 19 percent of the region’s population.
One way to visualize the fragmentation of a metropolitan area is by simply looking at a map. The long-run health of a metropolitan area is tied not only to the population of its central city but also to the growth potential of that central city. When a central city becomes hemmed-in by suburbs, its potential for new development shrinks, potentially to zero.
Figures 1–4 are maps that depict the municipal landscape of the central counties in four fragmented metropolitan areas. The central city is represented in red, while the surrounding suburbs are pictured in shades of gray and the unincorporated remainder is shown in white. Municipal suburbs are independent of the central city and possess the same municipal powers and political establishments. They represent a barrier to the expansion of the central city.
Cleveland, Cincinnati, Birmingham, and Detroit are all surrounded by dense rings of suburbs. Of the four, Birmingham is in the most favorable position; 52 percent of the land area of Jefferson County is unincorporated territory. However, this unincorporated area isn’t well-connected to Birmingham, is sparsely populated, lacks infrastructure, and is largely inaccessible. Though there may be some expansion possibilities, a large-scale consolidation with Birmingham would be greeted with strong opposition and the area would be very expensive to develop.
Once a central city has become hemmed-in with suburbs, particularly if its population is not dominant in the region, the options for solving regional issues are significantly reduced. The natural advantage of a central city’s leadership fades, particularly if the region has become stratified along economic and racial lines. Who will provide leadership becomes a crucial question.
The logical alternative is the central county, which may retain a dominant position in terms of both population and land area. But counties, for historical reasons, typically have weak governance structures, lacking an elected executive branch.
Another possibility is intergovernmental cooperative ventures, possibly led by the central-county government. These are entirely dependent on trust among participants, and require the willing participation of the central city and central county in order to address key issues. Inter-local contracts are a major strategy fueling metropolitan progress in North Carolina. In the Charlotte metro, for example, the central city runs the transit system and the police force, while there are countywide schools and planning.
Figures 5-8 are maps of four metropolitan central counties that are not plagued with rings of municipal suburbs. Three of these have been formed by voter-approved consolidations of a central city and the central county that surrounded it. Nashville-Davidson County was the first of them, with the voters approving a merger in 1962. The Jacksonville-Duval County consolidation followed in 1967; the Louisville-Jefferson County merger is the most recent, taking place in 2000. As shown in Figures 5–7, suburbs are generally not required to merge with the central city and central county but are able thereafter to join the consolidated government. In the meantime, the consolidated government acts as a county government to them.
Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have followed a different path to avoid the problem of becoming landlocked by the proliferation of suburbs. First, North Carolina law is favorable toward annexation. Since 1959, cities have been able, at their discretion, to annex contiguous areas when they become urbanized. No vote is required. By making use of this power, Charlotte has expanded as development occurred along its boundaries. Additionally, the city and county cooperate in delivering services, using inter-local contracts that have built trust between city and county governments.
STAGNANT CENTRAL CITIES MEAN SLOWER REGIONAL GROWTH
In the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Economic Review, senior economist Jordan Rappaport documents a phenomenon he describes as the “Shared Fortunes of Cities and Suburbs.”4
Rappaport describes the correlation between the health of the center city and its suburbs. While it is often thought that cities and suburbs tend to grow at each other’s expense in competition for residents and jobs, Rappaport observes that a deeper looks shows cities and suburbs are fundamentally linked: “while cities and suburbs do sometimes grow at each other’s expense, more often they grow or decline together.”5
Rappaport argues there are strong incentives for cities and suburbs to cooperate to make their metro areas attractive and productive places to live and work.
Rappaport examined data throughout the 20th Century and came to similar conclusions as Rusk: in places where the central city has remained healthy, viable and growing, the entire metropolitan region has enjoyed a higher rate of growth. On the other hand, in regions where the central city struggles, the MSA grows more slowly as well.
The most recent population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau support this notion. In looking at population growth between 2010 and 2015, the fragmented communities in our comparison group lag behind more unified cities. This is true when we look at the central cities and counties, but it is also true at the metropolitan level. The health of the central city appears to have an effect on the region as a whole. The results are shown in Table 2.
The top seven metros in Table 2 had population increases of 8 to 15 percent among both their central cities and central counties, and 8 to 17 percent in the MSAs as a whole.
In contrast, the bottom six metro areas in the table, which included Birmingham, experienced little or no growth in the central cities, central counties, and MSAs as a whole. All of the lagging metros are fragmented regions.
It is clear that the prosperity of cities and suburbs, counties, and metropolitan regions are linked.
FRAGMENTATION IS LINKED TO SLOW JOB GROWTH
Fragmented metropolitan areas have experienced anemic growth in employment in comparison to less fragmented metros.
Table 3 shows the rate of job growth for selected MSAs during the period from 2007–2015, which bridges the recent “Great Recession.”
On this measure, the more fragmented metro areas fared poorly; as of 2015, they still had not recovered the level of employment enjoyed in 2007. Most of the metro areas in the table did better, with the top-performing areas achieving double-digit growth in employment over the period.
In May 2016, The Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA) announced that in 2015 the surrounding seven-county area recorded $1.1 billion in capital investment and 3,509 announced jobs in new and expanding industries, one of the largest investment years in Birmingham history.
The region’s central county, Jefferson, captured 61 percent of the new jobs and 72 percent of the investment. Birmingham, the central city, accounted for 42 percent of those jobs and 47 percent of the region’s investment.
The good economic news was rightly celebrated. However, Greater Birmingham’s recent gains need to be viewed in comparative context. It was not until 2015 that Birmingham’s total number of jobs in the metropolitan area finally returned to the level reached before the economic downturn.
The causes of sluggish job growth and lagging economic performance in more fragmented MSAs are complex. In Birmingham’s case, the region’s traditional reliance on heavy industry is a factor. Technological change and foreign competition have fundamentally reshaped those industries.
Birmingham’s relatively low levels of educational attainment, rooted in the state’s history of segregation and lack of investment in schools, can also help explain the region’s competitive disadvantage. Persistently high levels of poverty are a related contributing factor.
But it is also worth asking whether the way we have organized ourselves governmentally has had a negative effect on our ability to improve the region’s fortunes.
FRAGMENTED REGIONS LAG ON ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL INDICATORS
Whether we look at the central city, the central county, or the MSA as a whole, we also find that fragmented metro areas fall behind their peers on social and economic indicators of performance.
Table 4 looks at our comparison group of 20 metro areas, focusing on the central city in terms of four socio-economic measures drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2014.
On these measures, note the similarities between the performance of the bottom six—all fragmented metros like Birmingham—and how they contrast with the performance of the faster-growing areas at the top of the table. It is clear that the more fragmented areas at the bottom of the table have significantly higher percentages of the population not participating in the workforce, lower median income, and higher poverty rates.
The same characteristics also generally hold true for the central counties in the metro areas, as shown in Table 5.
At the MSA level (Table 6), there is some differentiation in the ranking, but the basic pattern holds true again, with the metro areas.
1 Rusk, David. Cities without Suburbs: A Census 2010 Perspective. Fourth Edition ed. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013. Print.
2 Tiebout, C. (1956), “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures”, Journal of Political Economy 64 (5): 416–424
3 Leland, Suzanne M., and Kurt Thurmaier. “When Efficiency Is Unbelievable: Normative Lessons from 30 Years of City-County Consolidations.” Public Administration Review, 2005.
Rappaport, Jordan; “The Shared Fortunes of Cities and Suburbs.” Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Economic Review, Third Quarter, 2005.
The Evolution of Fragmentation in Birmingham
Birmingham is the central city of Alabama’s largest metropolitan area. Jefferson County is the region’s central county. Surrounding these central jurisdictions are six “out-counties” that are connected to the center of the region by commuting patterns. These counties make up the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Statistical Area and the economic region represented by the Birmingham Business Alliance.
Historically, the six out-counties have not always been as closely tied to Birmingham as they are now, but it is useful to look at today’s region in historical context to see how the connections have been created. By analyzing the growth of the metro area in terms of its three geographical components (central city, central county, and out-counties), we can see that the region has developed in a divided, or fragmented, way, socially and economically. It is no accident, then, that its governance is also characterized by fragmentation.
A fourth of Alabama’s population resides in this urban region. According to Census data, the Birmingham metro area’s population (defined in terms of today’s seven-county configuration) has grown at an annual rate of a little over 1% per year (11% per decade) since 1900. The increase has been relatively steady over the years, as shown by the red line in Chart 1.
The chart indicates that the population of the seven counties in today’s official Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) increased from 267,000 residents in the Census of 1900 to 1.1 million in the Census of 2010. However, when we divide this growth into its geographical components, we find a striking pattern in the data.
BIRMINGHAM AND JEFFERSON COUNTY DOMINATE EARLY GROWTH
The blue band in the chart shows that the City of Birmingham had fewer than 40,000 residents in 1900. In the first decade of the 20th Century, several surrounding municipalities were annexed into the City, boosting its 1910 population to more than 132,000, making Birmingham the 36th most populous city in the U.S. From 1910 to 1960, the City continued to grow and maintained this high ranking among the country’s large municipalities. Growth also occurred during this half-century in suburban Jefferson County, outside the Birmingham city limits, as shown by the red band in Chart 1. Together, the population increases in these two central jurisdictions drove the growth of the Greater Birmingham area for the 50-year period that stretched from 1910 to 1960.
POPULATION BEGINS TO SHIFT TO OUTLYING COUNTIES
Around 1960, an accelerated period of out-migration began as new highways stretched out from the city and as racial conflict and school integration rocked Birmingham.
Birmingham’s population began a slide that has continued in every Census since. In the 2010 Census, Birmingham had fewer residents than it had in 1930, and its ranking among large U.S. cities had dropped from 36 to 9. Subsequent Census population estimates indicate that the city’s population has stabilized, but because of growth in other cities, Birmingham has fallen out of the top 100 cities, ranking 102 according to the latest estimates.
Suburban Jefferson County continued after 1960 to show population increases, but they have been sufficient only to maintain the county’s overall population at a stable size. Population growth in the metropolitan area from 1960 to 2010 shifted to the out-counties (Bibb, Blount, Chilton, Shelby, St. Clair, and Walker). There was virtually no growth in the central county of the MSA.
Chart 2 contrasts the population growth rates for Birmingham, Jefferson County, and the out-counties during the two 50-year periods. In the first 50 years (1910 to 1960), population growth was concentrated in the center of the metro area; in the second half-century (1960 to 2010), virtually all growth occurred in the out-counties.
The dramatic population shift from the center to the periphery of the metropolitan area during the period from 1960 to 2010 is pictured in Chart 3, which shows that Birmingham’s population fell by almost 129,000 (38%), while the remainder of Jefferson County grew by 152,000 (52%) and the out-counties gained over 294,000 residents (166%).
In 1960, Birmingham had the largest share of the regional population, with slightly more residents than the remainder of Jefferson County and double the population of the out-counties. By the time of the 2010 Census, this population distribution had been reversed, with Birmingham making up the smallest segment and the out-counties having the largest share. The out-county population is now more than double the Birmingham population. The out-county population also exceeds that of suburban Jefferson County.
What is occurring, in population terms, is the hollowing-out of the Birmingham metro area.
To put it another way: the periphery has grown at the expense of the region’s center.
The population density of Birmingham has declined sharply, while the densities of the remainder of Jefferson County and the out-counties of the region have increased markedly. Table 7 shows changes in population density that have taken place over this 50-year period, as tabulated by the Census Bureau. Birmingham’s population per square mile has fallen by 69%, while the density in the remainder of Jefferson County has increased by 64%. The out-county population density has risen by 166%. While Birmingham’s population density remains higher than the other portions of the metro area, the trend is away from the center of the region and toward the periphery. Had Birmingham’s population remained stable over this period, the City would have had a 2010 population density of 2,244 persons per square mile, 60% greater than the density shown in the table.
FRAGMENTATION’S SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC IMPLICATIONS FOR GREATER BIRMINGHAM
The population shift from the center to the periphery of a metropolitan area tends to be accompanied by economic and social stratification that divides the metropolitan community along race, income, and poverty lines. These patterns can be seen in the Birmingham metro area.
As the population of a metropolitan area shifts from the center to the out-counties, those who remain in the central city tend to be disproportionately from minority groups. Chart 4 shows how this pattern has developed in the Birmingham metro area. In the City of Birmingham, over 70% of the current resident population is black. In suburban Jefferson County, blacks comprise less than 30% of the residents, and in the region’s out-counties, the black population is less than 10% of the total. Conversely, as we move from the central core to the out-counties, the white percentage of the population rises from 20% to 86%.
After a metropolitan out-migration, the population remaining in the central core of the metro area tends to have higher rates of poverty, lower per capita income, and lower participation in the labor force than the population residing in the outer parts of the region. Charts 5–7 show how this pattern has played out in the Birmingham metro area.
Chart 5 shows the poverty rates in Birmingham, suburban Jefferson County, and the out-counties of the metro area. The poverty rate among residents of Birmingham is twice the rate in the remainder of the metro area.
Chart 6 shows the per capita income of the three geographic parts of the Birmingham metro area. The per capita income of Birmingham residents is $10,000 below the level of income in suburban Jefferson County and $6,000 less than that of the out-county area.
Chart 7 shows the labor force participation rates in the three geographical components of the Birmingham metro area. Participation in the work force is lowest among Birmingham residents, highest in suburban Jefferson County, and midway between the two in the out-county area.
As the preceding charts show, the population dynamics of the Birmingham region and similar metropolitan areas, such as Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis, tend to stratify residents geographically, dividing the region along racial, poverty, income, and workforce participation lines.
On the other hand, the financial investments and resulting economic activity that fueled the initial growth of the area tend to remain concentrated in the central core of the metro region, where they benefit from economies of scale. This results in a mismatch between the social and economic effects of regional growth.
Charts 8 and 9 provide a basic picture of the concentration of financial investments and economic transactions in Birmingham, at the center of this metro area.
Chart 8 shows the distribution of real and personal property value, excluding the value of personal automobiles, within Jefferson County, measured on a per-capita basis. Similar property values in the out-counties of the region were not readily available.
In Birmingham, the market value of business and utility property (Classes I and II) amounts to $64,000 per capita, compared to $26,000 of residential and agricultural property value (Class III). The business-related classes are 72% of the total market value.
A very different pattern is seen in the remainder of Jefferson County, where residential and agricultural property make up 59% of the total value. The high value of business-related property in Birmingham reflects the concentration of investment in the central city, while the high value of residential property in the suburban area of the county reflects the higher value of residential property in the suburbs.
Chart 9 pictures the concentration of economic transactions in Birmingham. The blue bars in the chart show the 2010 population distribution within the region: Birmingham (19% of the region’s residents), suburban Jefferson County (39%), and the out-counties (42%). These population shares are compared with other bars showing the distribution of manufacturing shipments, wholesale transactions, and retail sales within the region. Birmingham’s shares of the region’s economic outputs are higher in every case than its 19% share of the regional population. In the remainder of Jefferson County, the economic and population shares are consistent with each other, while in the out-counties, economic outputs are much smaller than the population share for this segment of the region’s population.
The economic divisions pictured in Charts 8-9 run in opposite directions from the social divisions described in Charts 4-7. Whereas the population dynamics of the Birmingham region favor the periphery, the metro area’s economy is concentrated in the center. This results in a mismatch between workers and jobs across the region, as shown in Chart 10. The light blue bars show how jobs are distributed. The dark blue bars indicate where workers reside. Birmingham has the largest number of jobs in the region, but the lowest number of resident workers. Its jobs are filled by commuters, most of whom come from the suburban parts of the region, where there are more workers residing than the number of jobs provided. This situation places stress on the transportation network and can create a mismatch in resources available to serve radically different daytime and nighttime populations.
The data in the charts above describe the social and economic patterns by which the region has developed in a divided, or fragmented, way.
While it is apparent that the entire region is interconnected and that there should be opportunities throughout the metro area, we will focus on Jefferson County and its municipalities for further exploration of fragmentation and its effects.
Governmental Fragmentation in Jefferson County
Local government in Jefferson County
The map above pictures the current structure of local general-purpose governments in Jefferson County, the central county of the Birmingham metropolitan area.
There are 35 municipal governments in Jefferson County. The City of Birmingham is pictured in red, other municipalities in various shades of gray. Table 8 lists the municipalities, their population, estimated change in population since 2010, and the racial and ethnic composition of their populations.
Birmingham is surrounded by suburbs; it occupies just 14 percent of the land area of the county and is home to only 32 percent of its population.
Suburban municipalities occupy 30 percent of the county’s land area and account for 57 percent of its population. All of these municipalities exist to provide basic services such as police and fire protection, and most do so independently. The unincorporated remainder of the county has only 16 percent of the population but occupies 56 percent of the land area. This area is served solely by the county government, which has limited governing powers.
Examination of the table shows that the County is divided among a large number of relatively small municipalities, 20 of the 35 cities and towns have populations under 10,000. About half of the municipal population (296,709 people) live in cities or towns that are predominately white. About half the population in municipalities (283,202 people) live in cities that are predominately black. About 16 percent (107,147 people) live in unincorporated Jefferson County. The population of the unincorporated portion of the county (not shown in the table) is approximately 71 percent white. (Totals do not equal to total Jefferson County population due to municipal boundaries that cross into adjacent counties).
Not shown in this map are the 12 local school systems in Jefferson County. In Alabama, each county has a school system, and every municipality that reaches 5,000 residents may opt out of the county system and create one of its own. Eleven of the 18 eligible municipalities in Jefferson County have separate school systems, and a twelfth is in the process of separating.
Table 9 shows the number of counties, municipalities, and school systems that have been created in the seven-county Birmingham metro area. In the six out-counties, there are 54 municipalities and 11 school systems in addition to the 35 municipalities and 12 school systems in Jefferson County.
SCHOOL SYSTEM FRAGMENTATION IN JEFFERSON COUNTY
The ability of local communities in Jefferson County to create and control their own schools has created an atmosphere in which the citizens of the county are highly engaged in their local schools. According to Census estimates, more than 90 percent of school-age children in Jefferson County attend K-12 public schools. Comparing that to the peer group of cities identified earlier in this chapter, that rate of participation is greater than 18 other counties in that grouping. Only Wayne County in Detroit has a greater public school participation rate.
The establishment of independent systems reflects the desire of individual communities to exercise more direct control over and put extra investment in their community schools. Public schools in Jefferson County are generally better funded than those in the rest of the state of Alabama. Three of the top four school systems in the state on measures of academic success (Mountain Brook, Vestavia, and Homewood) are located in the county.
However, the proliferation of school systems has also had a negative effect. Historically, some of this proliferation was due to communities wishing to avoid court-ordered desegregation of schools. The exodus of whites to these suburban schools has left some systems overwhelmingly black. As time has passed, more affluent blacks have also moved to suburban systems creating an additional economic segregation within the schools.
The socio-economic composition of a school strongly correlates with measures of academic performance. In Alabama and throughout the country, students who grow up in households in poverty don’t perform as well as their more affluent peers. Chart 11 compares the schools in Jefferson County both in terms of the academic achievement and percentage of the student body coming from poverty backgrounds. Data is from the 2014–2015 school year.
In the upper right-hand corner of the chart is a cluster of schools in which poverty levels are lower, and the percentage of students measured as academically proficient is higher. School poverty percentages are measured by the percentage of students directly qualifying for free lunches through the National School Lunch Program, a qualification based on their families’ low level of household income. Academic performance is measured by a composite of reading and math proficiency scores in grades 3-8 on the ACT Aspire, a test administered statewide in all school districts.
In the lower left-hand corner is a cluster of school systems where the percentage of students in poverty is higher and the percentage of students deemed to be academically proficient is lower. The smaller gray circles on the chart represent other systems in Alabama outside of Jefferson County. The trend line that cuts across the chart represents the average performance rate for schools along the spectrum from low poverty to high.
In the lower poverty systems, (Homewood, Hoover, Mountain Brook, Trussville, and Vestavia), the average percentage of students scoring proficient ranges from 59 percent in Trussville to 83 percent in Mountain Brook. Among the higher poverty school systems (Bessemer, Birmingham, Fairfield, Midfield, and Tarrant) the average percentage of students scoring proficient ranges from 21 percent in Tarrant to 14 percent in Midfield. Two systems with slightly lower poverty percentages (Jefferson County and Leeds) sit between the high scoring and lower scoring systems, with student proficiency rates in the mid-30s.
Thus, fragmentation in Jefferson County’s school systems has produced distinctions in both the socio-economic composition of the schools and the academic proficiency rates of the various systems. Again, it must be said that neither school segregation stemming from housing patterns nor gaps between poverty and non-poverty students are unique to Birmingham. These disparities can be found in consolidated city and county systems but may not be apparent, hidden in the overall broader average.
When it comes to providing funding to schools, differences in funding levels also exist between the systems. There are some mechanisms in place aimed at leveling the playing field. Support from the federal government goes predominately to districts with higher rates of poverty. The state funding formula for schools also contains a mechanism aimed at creating some measure of equity among schools: 10 mills of local property tax is sent to the state and redistributed on a school enrollment basis.
Furthermore, in Jefferson County, a portion of the property taxes for schools (8.2 mills) is collected throughout the county and distributed back to the schools based on enrollment. The County also collects countywide a 1 cent of sales tax for education, which paid for a bond issue for school construction, which was also distributed on the basis of school enrollment.
Despite those measures, there is a difference in per student funding for schools in Jefferson County. Local communities impose property taxes within their jurisdictions to support schools. In addition, some cities provide support for schools from other tax revenues. The ability of individual communities to provide such support is determined both by the willingness of voters to support taxes for education and also by the tax base of the city. Cities with higher property values or greater taxable resources are able to generate more revenue for schools.
The net result of federal, state, and local revenue for education produces a range in per-student funding across school systems, with budgeted revenues from the 2016-2017 represented in Chart 12. At the upper end, Mountain Brook schools have almost $12,000 per student per year to provide for its students’ educations while Leeds schools have about $7,500 dollars per student to spend.
Whenever greater cooperation or consolidation between governments is discussed, concerns about the merging school districts arises as the principal objection. Existing municipalities and school systems are virtually always left out of efforts to consolidate. In cities like Nashville, Jacksonville, and Louisville, consolidated school systems existed prior to city-county consolidation.
Still, the existence of independent school systems should not be an impediment to exploring cooperation between local governments. Nor should the existence of independent school systems be a barrier to discussing cooperative arrangements through which the education of all children can be improved.
“VERTICAL” FRAGMENTATION: THE STATE LEGISLATURE’S POWER TO ENACT LOCAL LAWS
Another form of fragmentation, less frequently noted, exists on a vertical axis. Municipal governments are not completely autonomous. They are subdivisions of state government, and their actions are to some extent governed by state legislatures. Counties were created as arms of the state government, to provide local administration of state-level functions such as courts and elections. They possess only those powers given them by the State Legislature. County government can serve as a vehicle for addressing the needs of a broader community of interest. However, county government, even more so than cities, is intertwined with state government and in particular, the State Legislature.
The ability of governments to operate to serve constituents depends on aligning the interests and perspectives of multiple layers of government. Too often in Jefferson County, conflict, overlapping authority, and poor structural organization impede the ability of Jefferson County to come together around shared goals and purpose.
Fragmentation comes from too many voices speaking from narrow perspectives. In the Birmingham community, fragmentation stems not only from large numbers of local governments, each focused on its own short-term interests. It also derives from the active role of the State Legislature in local affairs.
The State Level
Local government in Greater Birmingham begins in Montgomery. It is in the State Legislature that the form of local government is spelled out. Beyond those basics, the Legislature, principally through the work of the 26-member Jefferson County delegation, often becomes intimately involved in local issues, despite the fact that they are elected to pass laws and create budgets that apply to the state as a whole.
In Alabama, much governmental power is retained in Montgomery rather than being delegated to local cities and counties. The Legislature keeps a tight rein on local governments, particularly when it comes to questions of taxation.
The primary method by which the Legislature exerts its will in community matters is by adopting “local acts”—statutes that apply only to specified units of local government rather than the state as a whole. In the Legislature, local acts are processed through local “delegations,” which are committees composed of the lawmakers from a given county. To enhance the role of local delegations, the Legislature long ago developed the practice of “legislative courtesy,” through which the entire Legislature normally defers to the decisions of a county’s delegation. Often members don’t even vote on local bills from other areas.
The County Level
A metropolitan county may well have Senators and Representatives from districts that cross county lines. In Jefferson County, the Senate delegation has eight members, with five crossing county lines; the House delegation has eighteen members, with five crossing county lines. One or two members of the delegation can bottle up a local bill, including members who actually live outside the county and may not place a high priority on the smooth functioning of the county’s local governments.
Many Alabama counties are dependent on direction by local legislative act. Jefferson County’s governmental structure, for example, has been defined by local acts for over a century; whenever there is need for change, going to the Legislature is the only way to make it happen.
Strange as it may seem, Jefferson County has been given governmental responsibilities but has no inherent power to levy any taxes other than property taxes at rates up to 7.5 mills (0.75 percent). The Legislature has levied or authorized virtually all of the County’s taxes—and specified how much of the money is to be spent.
Table 10 lists the Jefferson County taxes levied or authorized by the Legislature since 1947. It is a long and varied list. All of the acts are local in nature, which means the taxes were approved by the legislative delegations in the Senate and House (GBLA’s or “General Bills of Local Application” are sometimes known as “bracket bills” because they identify the locality by its population bracket rather than by name.) Most of the acts concerning local taxes earmark the uses of the revenue and distribute some or all of the money to entities other than the County.
Because these local tax bills not only raise but also spend county revenues, they are actually budgets—decisions about how much public support will be given to local governmental and even nonprofit functions.
When problems arise or changes need to be made in the allocation of tax resources, the issue has to be addressed in Montgomery, rather than in Jefferson County. For instance, in recent years, the Jefferson County legislative delegation has been intimately involved with Jefferson County’s financial affairs. Jefferson County’s bankruptcy was rooted in corruption-tainted decisions made by prior Jefferson County Commissions and was triggered by the crisis in financial markets. The Legislative Delegation contributed to the situation and complicated its resolution through its control of county tax revenue, particularly the distribution of occupational and sales tax revenue.
From 1999 when Jefferson County’s occupational tax was challenged in court until 2010, the County Commission and the Jefferson County legislative delegation engaged in series of confrontations over the tax, which the delegation alone had power to change. During the fray, lawmakers sought to increase their control over the distribution of the tax proceeds and repealed the tax when no agreement was reached. Ultimately the legislative delegation could not agree on a replacement, and the County Commission could not prevent the expiration of its major source of general-purpose revenue. In the post-occupational tax and post-bankruptcy era that has followed, the county continues to struggle financially, with the delegation’s allocation of Jefferson County’s 1-cent sales tax for schools still under legal challenge.
The Municipal Level
Municipalities are less susceptible to control by local act. Court rulings have led the Legislature to create eight classes of municipalities, based on population, and to legislate in general bills for each class. However, these classes have frequently been manipulated by the Legislature to allow them to set terms for the individual locale. For instance, the Legislature made Birmingham the only Class 1 city, preserving its ability to legislate directly for the state’s largest municipality.
Municipalities also have broad authority to levy sales and excise taxes, but as the table shows, the Legislature can restrict their power to tax as well, using local acts not aimed at them directly. In writing local acts to create gasoline and cigarette taxes for Jefferson County in 1947, the Legislature provided that no municipality in the County could levy such taxes on its own. Rather, they receive shares of the county taxes that the Legislature controls.
Other states have also allowed the Legislature to play a dominant role in community governance. South Carolina once gave its legislative delegations power to adopt the budgets for their counties. But they realized the lack of accountability this created, and in 1970 adopted constitutional amendments that eliminate the ability of the Legislature to pass any bills that pertain to a single county or municipality. As the reformers put it, local government should be run from the courthouse, not the statehouse.
FRAGMENTATION IN THE STRUCTURE OF JEFFERSON COUNTY GOVERNMENT
Beyond its problem with vertical fragmentation, Jefferson County government has also been hampered by a form of internal fragmentation. Unlike local, state, and federal governments, county government lacks an elected chief executive. Lacking a leader who is elected countywide to run the county, Jefferson County government leaves both executive power and the legislative oversight to five commissioners, elected by district.
Not only does the County lack the unifying leadership of an executive elected county-wide, but it also lacks the traditional system of checks and balances found in national, state, and city governments.
The Significance of Separating Executive from Legislative Powers
The separation of executive from legislative powers is one of the bedrock principles of American government. James Madison first articulated this principle in The Federalist Papers. His historical studies had led him to conclude that failure to effectively separate the powers of government and provide checks and balances for official behavior virtually guarantees the eventual abuse of power.
Putting this in modern terms, we would say that properly structuring a unit of government is a crucial matter of risk management. Governments that operate without effective separation of legislative from executive powers are prone to misusing the dollars provided them by taxpayers.
The default or general-law structure of county government in Alabama dates back to 1866 when the Alabama Legislature designated the elected probate judge to be the ex officio chairman of the county legislative body, also elected and known at the time as the “commissioners’ court.” This created a separation of powers between a part-time policy-making or legislative body and a full-time executive, charged with managing the administrative affairs of the county government.
Over time though, the Alabama Legislature allowed the various counties to alter forms. In Jefferson County, the role of a county chief executive disappeared.
Jefferson County: A Prime Example of Poor Structure
In the 1930s, Jefferson County did away with a model that provided for an executive and adopted the Commission form of government, in which three commissioners, all elected county-wide divided up the administrative responsibilities of the county. One member became the Commissioner of Public Works, with responsibility for administration of the sanitary sewer system as well as roads and bridges; another became the Commissioner of Public Welfare, with responsibility for hospitals, clinics, jails, and other institutions as well as social services; and the President took responsibility for Finance and General Administration, with the associated agencies and functions.
While the form was popular at the time, organizing in this way creates multiple executives and eliminates the separation of powers and checks and balances that are well understood to minimize the risk of mismanagement in the governmental environment.
In 1985, as a result of a federal lawsuit, the Commission was changed in form to one in which five county commissioners would be elected by district rather than at-large, thereby creating the opportunity for minority representation on the Commission. Those commissioners would serve as the legislative body for the county, but, in addition, and despite the change to districts, the new commission retained the practice of dividing the executive power or responsibility for administering the various departments of county government.
Thus, one commissioner, elected by a specific district, was given oversight over the central administrative functions of county government, including such activities as budgeting, personnel management, and purchasing. The other individual commissioners were assigned the responsibility of administering specific departments: Roads and Transportation, Community Development, Environmental Services, Health and Human Services, and Technology and Land Development.
Each commissioner held an executive function over his or her department, while the commissioners as a whole acted as the legislative body. Conflicts were inherent in this set-up, with the Commission as a body deferring to the individual commissioner in the running of his or her department.
Thus, the management of the massive sewer rehabilitation was left to one Commissioner, without an effective check on his decision making by a separate oversight body. The same situation occurred in the County’s finance and budget management operations, as well as in other departments.
Under this system, missing proper checks and balances, the county experienced corrupt practices in administering and financing sewer improvements that resulted in felony convictions for some county officials and contractors. It borrowed billions of dollars through risky techniques that later backfired, leaving the county unable to make debt payments. It paid excessive fees related to debt issuance. In 2011, the County filed for bankruptcy and remained in that status for two years.
The county government that has emerged from bankruptcy is significantly smaller. In fiscal year 2016 the County plans to employ around 1,600 people and spend about $178 million through its general fund budget. Eight years earlier, the County’s general fund budget was about $340 million and its employment level 2,900.
Recovering From Mismanagement
County government’s structure has improved. Recognizing the flaws that helped cause bankruptcy and corruption, the Jefferson County legislative delegation reformed the structure of county government by creating the position of county manager.
A county manager, appointed by the county commission, now functions as the administrative head in charge of all departments. The commissioners now have a more traditional check and balance role of functioning as a body that funds and provides oversight of the various departments that are run by the country manager. Hiring or firing the county manager requires a fourth-fifths vote of the commission.
The manager and the Commission both report significant progress in the transformation. County budgeting has improved significantly. The various departments of the county now operate under the management of trained professionals, rather than elected officials. However, the County still has no elected official who represents all the county and derives his or her authority from a county-wide electoral mandate.
In a national context, Jefferson County was late in moving toward a separation of powers in county government. According to the National Association of County Commissioners, only 5 of the 126 large counties in the U.S. (over 500,000 in population) have neither a county manager or elected chief executive; 65 have a county manager but not an elected executive; and 56 have an elected county executive (27 of those counties also have a county manager). The elected executive is an innovation frequently pursued in government reform efforts.
Lingering Financial Hangover
Despite progress, the County is still struggling to find the revenue it needs to provide services. Because of its inability to enact taxes, the County has to first convince the state Legislature that it needs the revenue it lacks and then lobby for a solution. The current County Commission did persuade the legislative delegation to pursue a fix. A bill was passed to refinance the County’s debt for school construction which would have allowed the county to spend about $30 million additional annually out of its general fund. An additional $30 million was allocated by the bill to other purposes, schools, the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, the Birmingham Zoo, and $3.6 million a year towards local legislators’ personal projects in their districts. However, the refinancing scheme was challenged in court and ruled unconstitutional. An appeal of that ruling is pending.
A final impediment hobbling the County is that its hiring is still under the oversight of a court-appointed receiver thanks to a long-running lawsuit over County employment practices. It will take a resolution of that lawsuit, the stabilization of County finances, and continued structural improvement to county government before the Jefferson County can emerge as a full-fledged leader of cooperative regional initiatives.
A FRAGMENTED SYSTEM OF TRANSIT IN JEFFERSON COUNTY
Thanks to its fragmented nature, Birmingham has not been able to create a truly regional system for mass transit. At a time when growing cities and metros across the country are investing in expanding and improving transit, Birmingham remains stuck in a state of dysfunction.
Ideally, a transit system should be able to determine where to run routes between areas where there is the potential greatest demand. For the Birmingham- Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA), the construction of a route map is more an exercise in working a puzzle, piecing together segments through the various municipalities willing and able to pay for the service.
The BJCTA receives the bulk of its funding from the City of Birmingham. Jefferson County contributes a smaller share as a mandated distribution from its property tax. A portion of the Jefferson County beer tax is also earmarked for the BJCTA. A missing piece of the funding puzzle is support from the state. Alabama is one of three states that does not provide state funding for transit.
The rest of the municipalities receiving service contribute on the basis of the number of transit service hours offered in the city. Thus, BJCTA is dependent on contributions from 10 different cities (Bessemer, Birmingham, Hoover, Homewood, Mountain Brook, Midfield, Fairfield, Center Point, Tarrant, and Vestavia Hills). Irondale, Fultondale, Gardendale, and Trussville do not participate.
Each participating city has the option of paying for the services BJCTA proposes or negotiating for less service in order to avoid higher costs. Municipalities can pull out any time. Since transit routes often run through multiple jurisdictions, BJCTA encounters difficulty in providing a level of service that satisfies the multiple jurisdictions on the route.
An example of how this system breaks down is taking place this year in Fairfield. That city, located on the transit route between Birmingham and Bessemer, is on the verge of bankruptcy and owes the BJCTA almost $500,000 for service already provided.
BJCTA has said it might have to cut off service to Fairfield if payment isn’t received, a situation that will leave riders stranded while buses pass through the city without stopping.
BJCTA funding instability creates a vicious cycle. As the system’s finances are constrained and its service level dictated by cities’ willingness to pay, the frequency and reliability of service are difficult to maintain. The service does not operate on Sundays, and its hours are further limited by cities unwilling to subsidize night service.
Declining frequency and reliability drives down ridership. When ridership falls, cities are less likely to increase support.
Limitations of the system have also left it operating on an inefficient “hub and spoke” model, under which all routes converge downtown. A trip from Bessemer to Hoover, which would normally take 30 minutes from point to point, may take two hours because a rider has to journey from Bessemer to downtown and transfer to a bus headed to Hoover.
A 2011 study by the Brookings Institution ranked Birmingham’s transit system 94th out of 100 metros in terms of its coverage area, service frequency, and its ability to link residents with jobs. The Brookings Report makes the point often overlooked: transit is not just a convenience; it is a vital tool for linking people to jobs.
As the region’s employment opportunities increasingly spread across the map and across municipal boundaries, reliable and frequent service is vital for employers that need workers and people who need work. In other cities, mass transit is viewed as an economic engine and driver of development. A high functioning transit system can be a tool in decreasing traffic congestion. It can also provide a cornerstone in supporting an urban environment that makes living downtown a more appealing option.
In its current configuration, BJCTA has difficulty playing the role that transit plays in other cities.
The transit system’s ability to expand and improve is undermined by issues of territoriality, control, and trust. Birmingham, in providing the bulk of the funding and controlling the majority of appointments to the board, is the dominant voice in control of the system. Birmingham is resistant to surrendering control of a system centered in the urban core and disproportionately funded by the city. Meanwhile, suburban governments, with limited representation on the BJCTA board and, in some cases, an ambivalence about the value of the service, have tended to avoid playing an active role in attempting to shape transit policy.
For all its problems with fragmentation, Greater Birmingham has also devised ways to cope with it. Some of these mechanisms for cooperation are long-standing, while other initiatives seem to be gaining momentum. The examples that follow show that cooperation, though sometimes difficult, does occur. They provide the basis for hope that success can be built upon.
BIRMINGHAM’S BALANCING ACT
Despite losing one-third of its population since 1960, Birmingham has managed to retain an outsized proportion of the employment and business base of Jefferson County and the region as a whole, thus somewhat mitigating the effects of fragmentation.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in total 184,549 people work in the City of Birmingham. Slightly over half of the workforce, 51 percent or 94,085 people, commute into the city, according to the Census data. The City also remains a regional leader in retail, dining, and entertainment offerings, drawing in sales tax from a base much larger than its resident population.
Birmingham’s three largest sources of revenue are its sales tax, its occupational tax, and its business license tax. All draw in taxes from throughout the region.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, plus information from the City of Birmingham’s Budget, and its annual financial statements, PARCA estimated the percentage of city revenues supplied by three different categories of taxpayers: residents, non-residents, and businesses.
According to the analysis, city residents paid about one-third, 33 percent of city taxes. Non-residents paid 28 percent, and businesses contributed 39 percent of tax revenues to the City of Birmingham.
Thanks its ability to tap the wider region for tax resources, Birmingham has been able to continue to serve as the principal supporter of systems of regional importance like transit and of regional attractions like Railroad Park, Region’s Field, and the Birmingham Museum of Art. Among Jefferson County cities, Birmingham spends the most on economic development and recruitment and on attracting events to the City. Such spending is important to the City precisely because of its heavy reliance on business taxes to fund government. Preserving and expanding that business and retail base, drawing tourists, and creating an urban center that attracts new residents are vital to the City’s bottom line.
However, it can also lead to tension in a city where a large proportion of residents live in neighborhoods that were hard hit by the suburban exodus, neighborhoods plagued by blight, poverty, and crime.
Table 12 lists items in the City budget that might be considered expenditures playing a regional role in supporting culture and tourism. These items account for about 5 percent of city operating expenses.
Another four percent of operating expenses go to support operations that could be described as regional in nature. The City is by far the biggest contributor (and biggest recipient of services) from the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit System ($11 million annually). Birmingham also currently contributes $4.9 million a year to the Jefferson County Civic Center Authority. That contribution pays the debt that allowed the BJCC to finance the construction of Uptown, the entertainment district adjacent to the convention complex.
The 2017 budget also contains another $6.6 million for incentives to businesses for redevelopment projects.
Meanwhile, almost 60 percent of City spending (excluding debt service) goes for public safety: police, fire, inspection services, and public works. Another 18 percent is spent on general government, the expenses of the mayor and city council, administrative and financial operations, planning and community development functions.
It is difficult to make a judgment about whether or not Birmingham is carrying too much of a burden when it comes to programs and activities that benefit the wider region. Birmingham is well-positioned to receive a return on its investment because of continued preeminence as the commercial center of the metro.
However, there is an increasingly tense debate as public and private investment has surged in the city center and satellite commercial districts. Some residents of the neighborhoods feel as if they have been left behind and increasingly resent the fact that the vitality of the city center has not stimulated higher levels of investment in beleaguered neighborhoods.
Birmingham’s ability to serve as regional catalyst and supporter of initiatives that broadly benefit the region would be undermined if tensions over this balancing act increase.
FIGHTING FRAGMENTATION IN PUBLIC SAFETY
Fragmentation poses a problem for law enforcement and public safety agencies in Jefferson County. For example, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and 22 municipal police departments are faced with the challenge of patrolling a county and its communities in the face of division through jumbled municipal boundaries. Though information is willingly shared on a case-by-case basis, departments tend to function in their own municipal silos, policing their own borders. Meanwhile, criminal activity pays no heed to city limits.
Despite the barriers to cooperation, law enforcement, and public safety are areas in which the various communities in Jefferson County have made strides in cooperation and where additional cooperative ventures are currently under development.
COOPERATING ON A COUNTY WIDE RADIO SYSTEM
Historically, law enforcement agencies and other public safety entities were on their own when it came to procuring and operating radio systems. The radio systems in individual municipalities allowed two-way communication between police officers and the city dispatcher. But departments couldn’t talk to one another.
In the early 1990s, the Jefferson County Commission spearheaded the establishment of a county-wide radio network, which allows participating agencies to communicate both within departments and across agencies.
The County and the City of Birmingham jointly fund the operation and maintenance of the towers and communication systems while each agency is responsible for paying for their own radio equipment.
Participation in the system now includes 95 agencies ranging from the police and fire departments to public works departments of various cities, housing authorities, and school systems.
Challenges for maintaining the system remain. Additional costs for upgrades are expected, and Jefferson County will be looked to for the funding. However, with the County still struggling financially, paying for the upgrades will be difficult.
COOPERATING ON E 9-1-1
Another win for cooperation was the establishment in 2015 of a shared E 9-1-1 center, operated by the Jefferson County Emergency Communications District. The center, located in Center Point, answers emergency calls for the Jefferson County’s Sheriff’s Department, and 18 other smaller incorporated cities and towns, plus 17 additional fire districts and volunteer fire departments. For all but five of those cities, the center also provides dispatch services.
Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office alone is anticipated to save close to a million dollars a year on salaries and equipment costs and upgrades under the arrangement.
With funding provided by charges on phone lines in its service area, the consolidated center spares the expense of each city equipping and manning a E 9-1-1 center. Another 15 cities in Jefferson County operate E 9-1-1 centers. Vestavia now contracts for E 9-1-1 service with Shelby County, a move that Vestavia City officials say saves the city $1 million annually. The Jefferson County Emergency Communications District is forging a closer working relationship with the City of Birmingham with the two systems becoming more interconnected through technology eliminating delays in the transfer of data between the districts. The two centers will serve as backups to one another.
The Jefferson County District can also provide the technological backbone for other E 9-1-1 systems in the county that wish to participate. Under such an arrangement, cities can retain independent call answering and dispatch functions but would receive cost savings by not having to buy computer equipment and pay for upgrades in each individual city.
COOPERATION IN CRIME FIGHTING
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is currently spearheading a project to establish a Metro Crime Center, a high-tech data and intelligence sharing system. The Crime Center, to be housed in space the Sheriff’s Office formerly used for its own 9-1-1 and dispatch operation, will be manned by Sheriff’s office employees and representatives of 17 municipal law enforcement agencies from around the county.
The center will include a system for monitoring public security cameras, including four mobile video surveillance units that can be deployed to target areas. The mobile units have sophisticated technology that can provide streaming video and can automatically record and analyze license plate numbers.
The Sheriff’s Office is also giving cities the opportunity to use or buy into multiple data search and analysis systems. Among them are a systems for mapping crime and identifying areas where crime is likely to occur so that law enforcement personnel can be deployed effectively. Other offerings include the ability to track the location of crime suspects’ cell phones and to track vehicle repair and sales activity.
In addition to the technological advances, the joint center will allow the representatives of the various departments to share information and work to counter criminal activity that crosses municipal boundaries.
COOPERATION AMONG LIBRARIES
One of the longest-running cooperative arrangements in Jefferson County is the Jefferson County Library Cooperative, a non-profit that operates a system for sharing resources and joint-purchasing amongst 40 municipal libraries in the county.
Established in 1978, the Cooperative allows Jefferson County residents to check out and return books at any library on the system. Through a centralized catalog, patrons of any library can request books and materials housed at any of the other libraries and have them delivered to the local branch. With 376,717 library card holders, the system has 2 million items available for check out. In 2014, 4.5 million items were checked out, and 264,911 audio books were downloaded.
The Cooperative gets 58 percent of its funding from dues paid by member libraries. The State of Alabama supplies another 21 percent, and Jefferson County contributed 9 percent ($101,000) in grant funding in 2014. The rest comes from various sources, including donations.
Jefferson County’s role in funding the Cooperative used to be much greater. Before the county’s financial collapse, the county was providing $1 million annually. The elimination in funding has forced the cooperative to shift some expenses to the member libraries and cut some services, such as book delivery to nursing homes. In some instances, the Birmingham Public Library System has taken on some of the services once provided by the Cooperative.
COOPERATION IN GOVERNMENTAL PURCHASING
Another long-running cooperative venture among Jefferson County government is the Purchasing Association of Central Alabama (PACA). The idea for PACA grew out of a research study on governmental cooperation by PARCA commissioned by the Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce in the early 1990s. Established in 1994 and hosted by Jefferson County, PACA is a cooperative of governmental entities who have entered into a mutual covenant agreement to conserve tax revenue through joint purchasing.
The agreement allows PACA members to achieve volume discounts on material, services or equipment for economic advantages of its members. Membership is open to all public entities that are subject to the State of Alabama Competitive Bid Law within the State of Alabama. Currently, members of PACA include 22 cities, two county commissions (Jefferson and Tuscaloosa), 19 fire departments, 20 school boards, and two community colleges, plus eight other governmental agencies.
Competitive bids for commonly purchased products and services are solicited and contracts awarded through the bidding process. PACA’s aims are to:
- Promote economic cooperation between government and public entities.
- Provide convenience access to a variety of products and services.
- Pursue joint bidding collaboration for goods and services not currently available.
- Achieve competitive pricing and reduce administrative costs associated with preparing a bid, including research, resources, and time.
- Improve vendor relations as a result of volume business.
- Ensure through the work of procurement professionals the process of soliciting bids and awarding contracts follows the legal guidelines of the State of Alabama’s Bid law.
- Increase purchasing power for smaller agencies that are unable to command the best contracts for themselves.
- Provide local, accessible representation to answer questions and provide assistance.
COOPERATIVE EFFORTS TO EXPAND GREENSPACE
Efforts by multiple groups and agencies, public and private, have in recent years led to the robust expansion of greenspace and walking and biking trails in Jefferson County.
The wider community’s desire for more parks and outdoor recreation offerings emerged as one of the most popular priorities identified through the reional visioning process, known as Region 2020. The Region 2020 public involvement process forged lasting coalitions between individuals and organizations interested in this work and spurred communities in Jefferson County to work individually and collaboratively on projects.
Around the same time, a community land trust was established as part of the 1996 settlement of the lawsuit over pollution problems caused Jefferson County’s sewer system. Funded with an initial $30 million, the land trust, now known as the Freshwater Land Trust set about acquiring buffer zones land along Jefferson County streams as a way to protect water resources. As a side benefit, much of that land became available as public greenspace.
Working in partnership with other entities, such as the state’s Forever Wild Land Trust and local governments, the Freshwater Land Trust helped establish Turkey Creek Nature Preserve in Pinson and continues to develop greenway projects along the Cahaba River, Village, Valley, and Five Mile Creeks. The Land Trust led the development of a visionary master plan for the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, a network of interlocking trails, tying together urban walking trails and streamside greenways.
The Freshwater Land Trust’s efforts also opened the door to the acquisition and eventual development of Red Mountain Park, a 1,500-acre park on the Red Mountain Ridge west of Interstate 65. The Red Mountain Park project has involved Jefferson County government, the City of Birmingham, federal officials, the Jefferson County Legislative delegation, and private businesses and philanthropic organizations.
Jefferson County and Birmingham also collaborated with private donors to develop Railroad Park, a 22-acre greenspace in the heart of downtown. The nationally-acclaimed park provided the spark for additional public and private investment in the surrounding era, including the construction of Region’s Field, a downtown ballpark of the city’s minor league baseball team, the Birmingham Barons.
Community coalitions formed around these projects helped the city secure a $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to repair streets and sidewalks in the tornado-ravaged Pratt City neighborhood in Birmingham as well as supporting the construction of urban greenway projects in other parts of the city. Another partnership formed between the City of Birmingham and the Rotary Club of Birmingham to develop a linear park along an abandoned rail corridor on First Avenue South, helping to link Railroad Park with Sloss Furnace and Southside’s Lakeview area.
BOLD GOALS: COOPERATION THROUGH PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP
In 2013, a group of the major charitable organizations serving the metro area began a process for bringing together governmental agencies, foundations, social service agencies, businesses, and individuals in hopes of aligning efforts to address disparities in health, education, and economic opportunity throughout the region.
Coordinated by the United Way of Central Alabama, The Bold Goals Coalition of Central Alabama (BGCCA) initiative has tapped prominent business leaders, education, and elected officials to guide its work, as well as assembling a grassroots coalition of individuals and organizations working on the frontlines of service delivery. Along with the United Way, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the Jefferson County Department of Health, and the Birmingham Business Alliance serve as backbone organizations providing support for the Coalition.
Working through that network, the Coalition has established a set of goals for the improvement of the community in three focus areas: education, health, and financial stability. The Coalition has assembled an action network composed of smaller working groups that concentrate in specific areas of interest. Through the process, promising strategies for addressing problems are identified, and resources and investment are steered toward implementing those strategies.
Progress toward regional goals is tracked through a regularly updated data dashboard. The aim of the Coalition is to promote communication, coordination, and cooperation between regional partners, both public and private. The hope is this “collective action” produces a greater amplification of benefit than more diffuse and fragmented endeavors.
Learning From the Past To Plan for the Future
BIRMINGHAM’S FRAGMENTED BEGINNINGS
The challenges facing Birmingham and Jefferson County are not new. From its beginnings, Birmingham has struggled to shape itself into a city.
Founded with grand ambitions, it almost immediately collided with problems that would haunt it throughout its history: inadequate attention to public infrastructure, a community ethos rooted in competition rather than cooperation, and divisions along economic and racial lines.
Founded in 1871, Birmingham was in effect a business venture launched by entrepreneurs who were developing the railroads being built to tap the mineral resources of the area.
The founders of the Elyton Land Company (which would later become Birmingham Realty Company) bought 4,150 acres where new rail lines converged. They laid out a city with the railroads and a planned manufacturing district at the heart of the city, enticing entrepreneurs to build blast furnaces with offers of free land and financial incentives.
Colonel James R. Powell, president of the Elyton Land Company, promoted the new city worldwide through letters and circulars. His public relations campaign worked; the London Times, for example, carried a story which declared that “Birmingham, Ala. is destined to be America’s greatest metallic-workers’ city.”6
But the grand ambitions were not matched by adequate support for public infrastructure. Problems quickly arose because unlike most cities, Birmingham was located at the headwaters of the region’s watershed, not by a major river.
This made it difficult to provide a clean drinking water supply and a system for disposal of sewage. These difficulties quickly became a crisis.
In the early days of the city, drinking water was drawn from springs and small waterways. Those sources became contaminated during rain events as privies flooded and overflowed into the water sources.
In 1873, a cholera epidemic nearly snuffed out the nascent city, killing approximately 500 people and cause another 1,500 to leave, reducing Birmingham’s population from 4,000 to 1,200.
In response to the crisis, the City constructed a brick sewer system that would drain the city. For water, reservoirs on Village Creek and later on Five Mile Creek quickly proved inadequate, so in the late 1880s, the Birmingham Water Works Company built a pumping station on the Cahaba River to pipe water over Red Mountain to supply the city.
Meanwhile, fragmentation was already occurring. Satellite communities sprung up around mills, quarries, and coal and ore mines. Oftentimes, the same companies launching a mill or a mine built company housing or formed separate real estate companies to develop a surrounding community.7 These communities were eventually connected by railroads and streetcars, moving material and labor around the district. In addition to those cities listed above, multiple other independent municipalities were formed that would later be annexed into Birmingham, including Highlands, Woodlawn, Avondale, Pratt City, and North Birmingham.
Already, some of these communities viewed Birmingham not as a partner but a rival. Bessemer and Ensley were both founded with the belief that they could outgrow burgeoning Birmingham.
As the population grew, the problem of inadequate sewage disposal returned to the center of public debate, with community leaders recognizing the need to connect the various municipalities of a unified county sewer system. In 1901, the Legislature created a Sanitary Commission for Jefferson County and authorized financing of the system with a half-mill property tax in the county. The county was to build the trunk system. Cities maintained their own sewer lines but were required to tie on to the county’s trunk lines when the service was available.
UNITING TO FORM A GREATER BIRMINGHAM
While the County built a trunk system, it quickly became apparent that the collection of small cities did not have the financial wherewithal to build adequate systems of their own to tie to the County’s.
Beyond that, the original legislation didn’t require residences to connect to the sewer system. It was estimated that 50,000 people living in and around Birmingham were still not being served by the sewage system.8
The urgent need to provide adequate sanitation was a symptom of a larger flaw in the region’s development. Fundamentally, growth and development had been driven by industrial entrepreneurship, leading to a fragmented and uneven development. There was a recognized need to transform the region from a collection of company towns into a full-fledged city.
In 1907, at the urging of health officials and with the backing of the Birmingham Commercial Club (The forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce), the Greater Birmingham bill was drafted. The bill provided for the unification of the eleven cities and other outlying communities with the central city of Birmingham.
An outbreak of typhoid fever, (79 cases were recorded in Birmingham in July of 1907) gave particular urgency to the matter. In a letter to Alabama senators, 81 physicians urged passage of the bill:
“We are now afflicted with a local epidemic of typhoid fever, and unless all this territory is put under our city government and the sanitation is urgently enforced, we may suffer terrible consequences in the future from the ravages of said epidemic. We regard the passage of this bill as absolutely necessary for the public safety.”
After a hard-fought legislative battle, the bill passed in 1907. The passage of the bill was only the beginning of a multi-year struggle. After local elections, more legislation, lawsuits, and court decisions, eleven municipalities and portions of the unincorporated county were brought together to form Greater Birmingham. Among the merged communities were East Lake, Avondale, Woodlawn, West End, Elyton, Ensley, Fairview, Graymont, Thomas, North Birmingham, Pratt City, and East Birmingham.
Just in time for the 1910 Census, Birmingham’s population increased from 38,415 in 1900 to 132,685 in 1910.
Writing in the Jemison Magazine, Robert Jemison, one of the city’s most optimistic promoters crowed about the 245 percent increase in the Greater Birmingham’s Census count, predicting that Birmingham would soon surpass New Orleans, Memphis, and Atlanta, the only larger Southern cities: “Already Birmingham is looking forward to 1920, and the world is freely predicting that Birmingham will be the largest city in the South.”9
Along with the heady optimism, community leaders also recognized that Birmingham, so focused on achieving industrial preeminence, had not yet built the kind of amenities expected of a city and needed a plan for doing so: John L. Kaul upon assuming the presidency of the Chamber of Commerce in May 1908 called for the community to come together to do this work:
“Birmingham has an opportunity for civic development and beauty that few other cities enjoy. It is new. It is in the formative state. An expert, the best there is to be had, should be employed to visit Birmingham and Jefferson County and, after thorough investigation, outline a scheme of public improvement. As it is, we are developing largely by whim and caprice. Someone suggests a great highway, another suggests a tunnel through Red Mountain, another suggests a new park somewhere—all of them worthy in themselves, but made absolutely without thought of other improvements. What is needed is a comprehensive and complete plan of civic and county improvement, covering a period of many years, involving probably the outlay of millions of dollars. If this plan were adopted, nothing would be wasted in the way of improvement. Everything accomplished would tend to a final harmonious creation that would be the admiration of all men, and which would make Birmingham beyond all other cities the most desired for the making of homes.”10
The leap in population recorded in the 1910 Census added further fuel to the ambitions of the city. Birmingham saw a building boom in the first decades of the 20th Century. Many of today’s landmark buildings, including the skyscrapers at “The Heaviest Corner on Earth” were erected in that era.
Rickwood Field opened as a home for the Birmingham Barons. The Lyric Theatre raised its curtain. The Tutwiler Hotel was touted as “the South’s most palatial hotel.”
But behind the scenes, there were lingering problems of social inequity, inadequate city services, and an underfunded city government.
In 1912, The Survey, a leading journal of the social work profession and social reform, published a comprehensive study of Birmingham and its surroundings. While the report gave its due to Birmingham’s notable achievements, it also detailed its shortcomings: its poor sanitation, inadequate health care, the continuing use of convict and child labor, its lack of parks and recreation, the absence of a public library, its racially separate and unequal schools, its general lack of public gathering places and amenities.
“In 1920 Birmingham completes its first half-century,” The Survey’s authors wrote: “What will it have done by that time to match its civic condition to its industrial achievements? Civic advance, also, will need its handful of civic heroes, but it will come finally only through an awakening of the whole people. Birmingham is today on the threshold of another experiment. Her early leaders saw material wealth before furnace and mills were there to testify to it. Will her citizens of today—all of them together—discover for themselves the wealth that is latent in human welfare?”11
Meanwhile, unification was not a panacea. Paying for the development of municipal sewers brought with it additional financial problems in a city where government was always cash-strapped.
Thanks to the strict limits on property taxes in the still-agrarian oriented state, Birmingham depended for revenue instead on taxing local businesses through a license system. Its property tax proceeds were further diminished since the largest industrial operation in the district, U.S. Steel’s Ensley Works, was excluded from the city’s expansion thanks to vigorous lobbying by the company to avoid the higher tax and potential regulation joining the city would entail.
Still, progress was made. Under the administrations of Mayor George Ward, the city developed parks which are still major assets in contemporary Birmingham including Avondale, East Lake, and Green Springs. However, though extensive city plans were commissioned in 1914 and later in 1925, the city failed to carry out most of the suggestions for expanding parks, building libraries, and the improvement of municipal buildings.
Despite the enthusiasm that accompanied the 1910 consolidation, the Birmingham area returned to its tradition of fractured development. The City of Fairfield, a model city designed by Robert Jemison to house the workforce of U.S. Steel’s expanding operations, was incorporated in 1918. The Fairfield area had been left out of the 1910 consolidation because of resistance from U.S. Steel, which was building new plants there. Tarrant, a town developed by principals of the National Cast Iron Pipe Company, was incorporated the same year.
Within Birmingham itself, the city practiced its own version of fragmentation, maintaining certain areas for blacks and others for whites.12
Blacks made up a sizable portion of the workforce in early Birmingham. In the 1880s, blacks constituted more than 45 percent of all registered voters in the city.
However, in subsequent decades, that political power gradually diminished, culminating with the adoption of Alabama’s 1901 Constitution, which severely curtailed voting rights for blacks and poor whites. By 1928, only 352 blacks were registered to vote in the Birmingham.
After the 1910 consolidation, blacks constituted 39.4 percent of the city’s population. That percentage was higher than that of any other city in the nation at the time, except Memphis. Jim Crowe laws had created defacto segregation of neighborhoods, and in 1926, Birmingham adopted a zoning code that delineated areas of the city where blacks could live from areas in which whites could live, reinforcing the already unequal housing and neighborhood conditions that had developed.
The 1910 consolidation did not put an end to Birmingham’s desire to expand and grow, but it encountered barriers. A bill that would have annexed additional industrial properties into Birmingham was blocked, and shortly thereafter, in 1923, the Legislature amended the Alabama Code to make it harder to annex unincorporated areas, particularly those owned by large landholders. The restrictions on annexation contrasted sharply with those found in other Sunbelt states and cut off a route to capturing suburban growth that allowed peer cities like Charlotte to thrive in the post-World War II suburban boom.
Meanwhile, the 1920s saw the emergence of a new type of independent community. Unlike the residential communities founded to serve industrial employers, these new residential developments, made possible by the proliferation of the automobile and the extension of streetcar lines, offered an escape from the industrial city.
In 1926, Homewood was incorporated, bringing together the previously established residential communities of Edgewood, Hollywood, and Rosedale. The development of Mountain Brook began in 1926, though the difficulties brought on by the Great Depression delayed that city’s incorporation until 1942.
In the early 1940s, Birmingham approached Tarrant, Fairfield, and Homewood about merging with Birmingham but was turned away. As Mountain Brook debated whether to incorporate itself in 1941, The Birmingham News described residents as “bristlingly hostile to incorporation with Birmingham.”
Unlike in 1910, when outlying cities saw advantages to joining Birmingham in order to receive better municipal services, the suburban communities in the 1940s did not.13 The independent communities believed they could enjoy an equal level of service while avoiding the higher taxes of the larger city.
In other Southern cities, favorable annexation laws, which allowed cities to take in unincorporated areas without a public referendum, allowed cities like Nashville and Charlotte to capture the emerging suburbs. The municipal annexation power also created pressure to consolidate the principal city with the county, as occurred in Nashville in 1962.
In Birmingham, the number of suburban municipalities multiplied in the period between the 1940s and the 1960s.
With less favorable annexation laws, Birmingham had to depend on persuading municipalities to merge with it. In 1949, the Alabama Legislature authorized a referendum on annexation for certain unincorporated areas and consolidation with Birmingham for Homewood, Mountain Brook, Fairfield, Irondale, and Tarrant.
In the election, the unincorporated areas, including U.S. Steel’s Ensley Works and other industrial sites, were brought into the city, thanks to the fact that Birmingham voters supported it, overwhelming the no votes in the unincorporated areas. However, in the case of the suburbs, success required a majority vote by residents of each suburb. The referendum failed in all five suburbs, though 41 percent of Homewood voters and 46 percent of Mountain Brook voters voted yes. The no vote was much stronger in Fairfield, Tarrant, and Irondale.
The efforts to achieve consolidation were occurring against a backdrop of social and demographic pressure.
The return of soldiers from World War II and the resulting Baby Boom stimulated the desire for new housing. Federal support for home mortgages and highway construction further encouraged investment in new housing.
As population flowed to the suburbs, Birmingham officials were increasingly concerned about the long-term prospects for the city. An accompanying concern was maintaining the precarious racial balance of the city. Whites made up about 60 percent of the population a roughly stable percentage between 1910 and 1960, but one that would begin to shift after 1960.
Expectations of this shift were a subtext of consolidation campaigns throughout the South. Atlanta tried and failed in 1947 to annex the affluent white suburb of Buckhead, but a second attempt, Atlanta’s 1950 Plan for Improvement, brought more than 100,000 new residents into the city, preserving its tax base and, in the short term, increasing its white majority.
Meanwhile, within Birmingham tensions were mounting. The City’s racial zoning restrictions had kept blacks confined to overcrowded, underserved neighborhoods, which they were eager to escape.
In 1946, blacks in Birmingham launched a campaign and court battle to challenge racial zoning. While the city resisted in the courts, a campaign of bombings began, aimed at blacks who bought homes in areas zoned for whites.
In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court found Birmingham’s racial zoning scheme to be unconstitutional. That ruling was followed by the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which signaled the end to legal segregation of schools and brought the issue of integration to the fore.
With more affluent professionals migrating to the suburbs, the city’s voting population became increasingly dominated by working class whites, who perceived demands for racial equality as a threat to white working-class advantages built into the wage structure and employment practices of Birmingham industry. With blacks still largely disenfranchised, those voters were the dominant force in city politics and tended to support the aggressive resistance to desegregation championed by city leaders like Police Commissioner Bull Connor.14
Birmingham did manage to bring new land into the city in 1950 in the areas of Huffman, Roebuck and Center Point. In 1959, another merger drive aimed at Homewood and Mountain Brook was mounted. This time, it was initiated by suburban professionals who worked downtown. The initiative had the support of business leaders and prominent citizens and the city’s newspapers.
Younger professionals argued that the proposed merger would set the stage for more progressive leadership for the city. At the same time, arguments
both for and against merger were inflected with race. Opponents in the predominantly white suburbs pointed to the looming possibility of integrated schools, while proponents of the merger argued that merger would preserve white political dominance. Again, when the issue went to voters, the referendum failed: 62 percent of Mountain Brook voters and 56 percent of Homewood voters cast no votes.
At roughly the same moment, the Mountain Brook City Council voted to move forward with the development of an independent school system.
The titanic year of Birmingham’s Civil Rights confrontation, 1963, coincided with yet another push for merger. On Mother’s Day 1961, the severe beating of the Freedom Riders at Birmingham’s Greyhound Bus Terminal brought international notoriety to the city.
The next year Birmingham city commissioners, led by Connor, closed public parks in the city rather than comply with a court order to desegregate them.
Business leaders resolved to remove Connor from office. They devised an unlikely method for doing it. Since Connor’s term as commissioner ran until 1965, a group of business and civic leaders launched a campaign to change Birmingham’s form of government from a three-man commission to a mayor-council form.
In addition to creating an opportunity to replace Connor, the change of government was advertised as a way to make merger more attractive, by modernizing Birmingham’s government.
In November of 1962, Birmingham voters approved a transition to the Mayor-Council form of government. The following year Connor was defeated in the race for mayor but held onto power long enough to deploy dogs and firehoses during the climactic Civil Rights confrontations of 1963, doing lasting damage to Birmingham’s national reputation.
Finally, with Connor replaced by a new Mayor, Albert Boutwell, advocates made yet another push for merger with a referendum held in Fairfield, Irondale, Midfield, Mountain Brook, and Homewood.
This time, though it lost in the other cities, Homewood actually voted for merger by a six-vote margin.
However, a legal challenge arguing that Homewood had not provided the legally required notice, succeeded in nullifying the vote. A 1966 merger vote in Center Point was also defeated.
ONE GREAT CITY
A final concerted effort to join the fractured city began in 1969 and persisting through 1971, in what came to be known as the “One Great City” movement.15
Three different but interconnected groups pushed the concept. One group, the Young Men’s Business Club (YMBC), a progressive group of young leaders, launched a public speaking campaign and published a proposal for legislation to create a consolidated city.
Another set of business leaders, led by a younger generation but also including more of the business and Chamber of Commerce establishment pushed ahead with crafting more detailed legislation that built on the framework of the YMBC approach. The Jefferson County Legislative delegation also formed a study commission to come up with an approach considering various proposals.
As the movement garnered attention, opposition groups also emerged with its leadership coming primarily from the suburban members of the Jefferson County Mayors Association.
As a general outline, the consolidation proposal was to form a unified city consisting of the entire urbanized area of Jefferson County, merging the existing cities into a single city. The proponents estimated the consolidated city would have a population of 550,000, which would make Birmingham the largest city in the South. Proponents argued the approach would do away with duplicate services and create a broad base of resources to support the future growth of the city.
The proposal included provisions that would allow existing municipalities to retain some autonomy and identity. The preexisting cities would become towns with elected councils. Those councils would retain certain powers over zoning, community recreation, and parks, and if desired some services like garbage pickup.
Existing school districts would also be allowed to remain independent under local boards of education, supported by taxes within the jurisdiction of each system. The consolidated city would have an elected mayor and a 19-member city council. The Council President would be elected at large, and the council representatives would be elected from nine districts with each district electing two representatives.
The districts would be drawn to reflect conglomerations of existing communities. The consolidated city would provide fire and police protection throughout the consolidated city, technical support to the town for zoning and planning, and garbage and trash disposal. In addition, the consolidated city would take on overall powers taxation, assume responsibility for existing and new debt, and serve as the provider of other services and amenities that were regional in nature.
Despite the attempts to accommodate the suburbs, opponents raised doubts that the federal courts would allow the proposed independent school systems to remain so under consolidation.
A three-bill package was drafted. One bill would postpone Birmingham City elections scheduled for 1971. A second 102-page bill spelled out the structure of the proposed consolidated city and its subdivisions and provided for the elections to bring the city into existence. A third would amend the Alabama Constitution to allow for the creation and financing of the independent school districts.
On a separate track, the Jefferson County Legislative delegation was studying and gathering public input on both the One Great City proposal and other approaches. In those debates, a counter proposal emerged to modify and empower the Jefferson County government to serve as the umbrella organization for consolidation.
With both opponents and proponents mounting vigorous campaigns and dueling proposals being considered by the Legislative delegation, pressure mounted as time grow short in the 1971 Legislative session. Deadlocked between supporters of the alternative proposals and faced with strong opposition from the mayors and councils of suburban communities, the Legislature failed to advance any proposal.
In the wake of the defeat of the “One Great City” legislation, Birmingham had to come up with a Plan B. Between 1960 and 1970, the city lost 40,000 residents, which led to a rapid erosion of its tax base. In 1970, the city enacted its occupational tax, a tax on income generated in Birmingham, in order to capture some of the revenue it was losing as those who worked in the city increasingly chose to live outside the city.
A second strategy emerged through creative use of annexation. Despite generally unfavorable annexation laws, one little-used method existed that allowed a city to call an annexation election without petition from landowners or residents.
If a majority of the voters in the affected area approved, the city could absorb the area, though it couldn’t collect city taxes in the newly annexed territory for a period of time. The city identified pockets of population favorable to annexation and crafted expansions that took in those residents and also took in large undeveloped tracts owned by corporations and landowners.
The annexation campaign faced challenges by those corporate interests and provoked suburbs like Fultondale, Tarrant, Irondale, and Trussville to annex areas in an attempt to halt Birmingham’s expansion. But the city succeeded in taking in the land that would be home to the Birmingham Race Course and expanding into the Cahaba River Valley, the Oxmoor Valley, and to the west to the along a narrow corridor to the Warrior River. In the process, Birmingham captured land along the US 280 corridor that would see valuable commercial and jobs growth, including the Summit, Brook Highland, and the Colonnade, as well as the continuing development in the Oxmoor Valley.
However, despite expanding from 79.5 square miles in 1970 to 148.5 square miles by 1990, Birmingham continued to see population loss and little in terms of new residential development.
The annexation campaign and the transition of Birmingham from a majority white to a majority black city by 1980 led to a defensive relationship between Birmingham and its suburbs. While talk of consolidation and merger disappeared from the civic radar screen, efforts to foster cooperation re-emerged in the late 1990s.
In 1998, a steering committee of business, civic, and political leaders came together to craft a proposal known as the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy (MAPS). Modeled after similar efforts in other cities, the campaign proposed a countywide one-cent sales tax, which would support $525 million in projects including a domed multi-purpose facility designed to host both sporting events and conventions. Other support would go to creating a regional transit system, $75 million for education and the expansion of the McWane Science Center, $20 million for police and fire protection needs throughout the county; $25 million for cultural and historic facilities; $40 million for a regional zoo; $10.3 million for the development of a regional greenway system; $21 million for multi-sport complex as well as other projects at Vulcan Park and the Lyric Theater.
With concerted support from the business establishment, the proposal made it through the Legislature and a vote was scheduled.
However, opposition mobilized, raising questions about the size and scale of the proposal. Questions were raised about the accountability of the Progress Authority, the body that would have been established to distribute the funding. Though the proceeds of the tax would have been distributed throughout the county, much of the investment would have been downtown. Old lines of distrust and race emerged. The referendum failed with 57 percent of the county voting against it. The predominantly black city voted overwhelming for the proposal. In the suburbs, the vote was overwhelming against it.
Occurring at virtually the same time was Region 2020, a process that gathered citizen input from throughout the region to craft a vision of what the community should look like by the year 2020. Region 2020 drew together that citizen input and produced a report highlighting a wide-range of community ambitions and goals, with top priorities including expanding parks and green space, improving education and mass transit.
The effort resurrected conversation about regional cooperation and helped stimulate a variety of initiatives that have been realized, particularly in the area of expanding parks and trails. However, Region 2020 was never intended as a formal implementing body and has since ceased to exist.
After a quiet period between 1970 and 2000, three more municipalities formed in the early years of the 21st Century.
THE SEWAGE BACKUP
In the late 1990s, another regional issue came to the fore, one that had haunted Birmingham since its beginnings and would lay the groundwork for Jefferson County’s bankruptcy in 2011.
It was the disposal of sewage. And at its roots, it was a problem created by fragmentation.
As explained earlier, Jefferson County’s sewer system was established to build the backbone of the sewage disposal system, leaving to municipalities the responsibility of delivering sewage from households and businesses within those bounds.
The two-level concept of sewer development had an “Achilles heel,” in that it splintered the responsibility for lateral sewer lines among a growing number of municipalities. The County had no method of holding accountable all those who tapped into its trunk lines; and the cities had little incentive to view wastewater disposal as a major issue since their job was simply to transport sewage to another unit of government charged with its disposal. Maintenance of the System suffered as a result.
By the 1990s, poorly maintained municipal lines would swell with storm water during rain events. The resulting surge of water and sewage would overwhelm the capacity of the County’s treatment plants, and untreated sewage would be released into rivers.
The process of unifying the sewer system under the direction of Jefferson County began in 1996, with the signing of a consent agreement between the County and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The terms of this agreement required the County to assume responsibility for the lateral lines that had been maintained by the cities and to develop the capacity within the unified system to process the volume of waste generated within Jefferson County while meeting federal and state environmental standards.
This resulted in the need for a $2 billion upgrade to the sewer system, increasing the treatment plants capacity and rebuilding the leaking feeder lines.
The construction project was plagued by corruption, eventually resulting in jail terms for public officials and private contractors. The financing for the deal, also tainted with corruption and also resulting in criminal prosecutions, came unraveled during the financial crisis of the mid-2000s.
Ultimately, this failure by elected officials at the County to responsibly handle countywide needs, cast doubt on the County’s ability to be the leader of community-wide initiatives.
Consistent themes emerge when discussing Greater Birmingham’s historical development.
Birmingham was founded on a grand ambition. Boosters and entrepreneurs believed they were building the industrial capital of the New South. But early and often thereafter, those ambitions were undermined by a tendency to protect narrow interests rather than supporting a wider civic good.
Industries sought protection from city taxes and regulation. Burgeoning communities sought to go it alone without recognizing they were inescapably tied together.
Though it may be an unpleasant metaphor, the chronic problem with sewage disposal provides a persistent example. A lack of community-wide planning and investment and a system of divided and disconnected governance led to repeated crises. A cholera epidemic nearly wiped out the young city. At the turn of the century, a typhoid outbreak threatened the emerging industrial powerhouse. Most recently, the failure to adequately maintain municipal sewers ultimately led to Jefferson County’s bankruptcy.
In moments of crisis, we have responded by drawing together. In 1910, Birmingham united with its satellite communities to form Greater Birmingham. The Jefferson County Sewer System is now consolidated and, at great expense, has worked to address our collective sanitation problems.
But more often, when presented with proposals to knit the community together, voters have rejected those efforts. Repeated attempts to consolidate Birmingham and its suburbs were rejected in the 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s. By the middle of the 20th century, suburban governments could provide a level of city services on par with those offered by the central city. Unburdened by some of the more costly investments a full-fledged city has to make, the suburbs advertised lower taxes, further diminishing the appeal of joining with the center city.
Also working against the sense that Birmingham was a unified city was the racial makeup of the city. From its consolidation in 1910 up until 1960, the City of Birmingham was 60 percent white and 40 percent black, one of the highest ratios of black to white anywhere in the country. Throughout that period, the city had a legal framework that maintained two cities, one black and one white.
However, by the 1950s, as integration was mandated by the federal courts, Birmingham’s ability to maintain segregation eroded. Suburbanization received added energy, offering whites with means to escape the complexities living in a racially segregated community. The process of school integration in particular bolstered the movement to exit the city. In contrast to the prevailing model across the Southeast, where school districts are organized at the county level, Alabama law allowed cities of 5,000 or more to form independent school districts.
With suburban flight, Greater Birmingham has reorganized itself, sorted racially and economically, clustering distress and advantage. Dug in to defensive positions, with a native suspicion of government power, we have tended to view community development as a zero-sum game. Birmingham saw some of the most intense racial conflict of the Civil Rights Era play out on its streets, and the resulting hangover of anger and distrust has lingered. Long oppressed, blacks are suspicious of white intentions, while whites look skeptically at potential partnerships. Mechanisms for regional cooperation are lacking.
The history of failure—first with mergers and then with regional cooperation initiatives like MAPS—has left Greater Birmingham with a sense that such enterprises are futile. The acrimonious politics, corruption convictions, and Jefferson County’s bankruptcy have all worked to undermine confidence in government and elected leaders.
However, as disastrous as the sewer crisis and bankruptcy was, it has also laid the groundwork for the future. Coming out of the sewer crisis and bankruptcy, the County began a long-overdue process of reform, improving its ability to lead cooperative efforts.
Though they receive fairly little attention, cooperative ventures have succeeded and shown promise, from the long-standing Jefferson County Library Cooperative, to the Jefferson County Purchasing Cooperative, to intergovernmental cooperation on radio systems and emergency response. New promising efforts are underway such as the establishment of a cooperative Metro Crime Center by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
At the same time, Birmingham has begun to feel the positive effects of a national trend of rediscovering the value of urban centers. With the cooperation of the county, and philanthropic and private sector investment, the central city is enjoying revitalization.
As the fortunes of the City of Birmingham improve and the management of the Jefferson County rebuilds trust, the possibilities for cooperation improve.
Greater Birmingham has, of late, surprised itself with success. It has begun to dispel the notion that we are fated to be a divided community, that individual municipalities are on their own when it comes to making improvements or addressing problems.
Further installments of this project will identify ways in which other cities have fostered cooperation and broad-based community investment and improvement.
6 Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. The History of the Jefferson County Sanitary Sewer System: A Report Prepared for the Jefferson County Commission, 2001.
7 White, Marjorie Longenecker. The Birmingham District: An Industrial History and Guide. Birmingham Historical Society. 1981.
8 Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. The History of the Jefferson County Sanitary Sewer System: A Report Prepared for the Jefferson County Commission, 2001.
9 The Jemison Magazine and the Selling of Birmingham, 1910-1914. Birmingham, Alabama: Birmingham Historical Society, 2011. Print.
10 The Survey: Social, Charitable, Civic: A Journal of Constructive Philanthropy. Vol. 27. New York: Charity Organization Society of the City of New York, 1912. Page 1449 and following.
13 “The Most Segregated City in America”: City Planning and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920-1980. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 2005. Print.
14 Eskew, Glenn T. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1997.
15 Whiting, Marvin Yeomans. One Great City: The Campaign for Consolidated Government, Birmingham, Alabama, 1970-1971. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Public Library, 1997. Print.
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