• Environment

    ALDOT Pitches Options for Little Cahaba River Bridge. Opponents Warn of Immediate and Permanent Harm to Drinking Water.

    Traffic authorities seeking to extend a road across the Little Cahaba River in southern Jefferson County promised Tuesday to make it a controlled access road and prevent adjacent development in the watershed that protects metropolitan Birmingham’s drinking water supply.

    But clean-water advocates poured into a public meeting Tuesday night to insist the risk of contaminating the river even from road and bridge construction outweighs the convenience of connecting Cahaba Beach Road to Sicard Hollow Road. Multiple environmental organizations are urging residents to lobby the state to drop the project.

    The project would create a more direct route from U.S. 280 to future Liberty Park development and Grants Mill Road for an estimated 10,000 vehicles a day by 2025. But is not intended to reduce traffic on commuter-congested 280, according to DeJarvis Leonard, Birmingham region engineer, Alabama Department of Transportation. Read more.

    ,
  • 2018 Elections

    The Biggest Donors Eclipse the Rest in Gubernatorial Campaigns

    Hundreds of thousands of dollars from Alabama’s richest person and a group of Tuscaloosa-based political action committees are fueling the race for governor as the campaign enters its final three months.

    Incumbent Republican Gov. Kay Ivey and Democratic challenger Walt Maddox, mayor of Tuscaloosa, have gotten most of their campaign money from PACs, businesses and other groups since the campaign began last year. Ivey reported $4.97 million in cash contributions and Maddox listed $1.38 million in reports filed late last week with the Secretary of State’s Office.

    Ivey’s contributions consist of 39 percent from individuals, 31 percent from PACs and 30 percent from groups and businesses. Maddox reported 44 percent from individuals, 38 percent from PACs and 18 percent from groups and businesses.

    The heaviest hitters so far are a group of six PACs chaired by Michael Echols of Tuscaloosa. Together, those six PACs have given $403,400, almost one-third of his collections, to Maddox.

    Read more about the people behind the biggest contributions to the candidates.

    ,
  • Government

    Peace Program is on President’s Budget-Cut List. Here’s Why Alabama Teacher Values Its Help.

    A Birmingham-area teacher is among four selected from across the country to participate in a national program aimed at “empowering their students to see peace as something practical and possible.”
    Social studies teacher Ryan Adams of Chelsea High School, who focuses on Advanced Placement American History, is one of the next cohort of instructors to become Peace Teachers, a program of the United States Institute of Peace.

    USIP is one of several federally funded organizations proposed for substantial cuts in President Donald Trump’s wish list for 2019, “An American Budget.” In the case of the USIP, the president wants to cut its budget almost in half. BirminghamWatch is examining possible impacts on Alabama if the president’s proposals – which Congress has the power to accept or reject – are enacted.

    Under the Peace Teacher program, Adams joins teachers from Franklin, Tennessee; Hartford, South Dakota, and Silverdale, Washington, who “will spend the next school year bringing pressing international issues of conflict … to life,” according to a USIP press release, citing the Trump-Putin summit, annual summer protests in Iraq, and potential talks between the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban as examples that could be addressed.
    Adams is excited about the prospect. “Every teacher at some point in time … got into this profession to make a difference,” he said. “If I can be allotted an opportunity to be able to … make an impact beyond just the walls of my classroom, honestly, for those who got into this profession for the right reasons, who wouldn’t want to take a shot at that?”

    This is the second in the Trump’s Budget Wish List series, detailing programs on President Trump’s chopping block and the effect cutting them could have on Alabama.

    Trump’s Budget Wish List: What It Could Mean for Alabama

    If President Trump were to get the federal budget he proposed in February, people in Alabama would stand to lose programs designed to improve distressed neighborhoods, provide affordable housing in rural communities, assist small manufacturers, support the training of nurses, provide legal assistance to low-income residents and veterans, pay for economic and workforce development in Appalachia and support farm workers.

    ,
  • Economy

    Amazon’s a Big Deal, but West Jefferson’s Economic Rebirth is Bigger and Broader

    The television cameras were in action and the local politicians were all smiling at the recent announcement of a huge new distribution center in Bessemer for Amazon, the online retail behemoth. It’s a project that will bring an estimated 1,500 jobs, and it makes for a great picture of a down-on-its-heels part of Alabama that is remaking itself for the digital age.

    But in fact, the Bessemer Cut-Off area — the traditional name for the separate division of Jefferson County that has its own courthouse and other separate government functions — has been in transformation from steelmaking, mining and heavy manufacturing for the past decade or so. Unless you’re involved in recruiting businesses to locate in an area – or you glimpse a part of Bessemer when you travel to the legendary Bright Star Restaurant – that transformation may have slipped under your radar.

    Jimmie Stephens has seen the area’s heyday, the downturns and its recent rebirth. The president of the Jefferson County Commission, as a lifelong Bessemer resident, remembers when the nickname “Marvel City” came to be, because of explosive growth in the first half of the 20th Century, when the economy rivaled that of Birmingham itself. In his current position, he’s trying to restore the Cut-Off to better days.

    “As a youngster growing up here in Bessemer, it was a vibrant mining and steel town,” Stephens said. “Bessemer was a hub of commerce and employment. But the mines shut down in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and the Pullman Standard (rail car manufacturing) plant closed in the ‘80s. Things just dried up, with 30 percent unemployment. But during that time, the economy began to diversify.” Read more.

    Read more about economic development in the western area:
    Touchdown! Bessemer Celebrates Scoring Deal to Secure Amazon Center
    After Years of Tumult, Alabama Splash Adventure Is on the Rebound
    Bessemer OKs Tax Rebate, Fee Reductions and Transit Services to Bring in Amazon Center
    The Way Things Used to Be: Officials Recall Bessemer’s Heyday While Approving Incentives to Lure in Amazon
    Shhh! Amazon ‘Consolation Prize’ Appears Headed to Bessemer

    ,
  • Government

    Relatives of Unaccompanied Minors Fear Deportation

    Thousands of unaccompanied minors remain detained a week out from the deadline for the Trump administration to reunite children with their parents.

    The Office of Refugee Resettlement says 453 children have been resettled in Alabama this year through April. It isn’t known how many since then. Children released from detention are placed into foster care shelters or with relatives who are approved as sponsors.

    The problem is, many relatives are afraid to come forward to take in these children. That’s because they’re required to disclose their immigration status to private resettlement agencies and the Department of Homeland Security.

    Isabel Rubio, director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, says relatives are still worried. “People are concerned that if their information is sent to the Department of Homeland Security that they are at higher risk for deportation because now immigration knows exactly who they are and where they live.”
    Read more.

    Read more coverage on immigration:

    Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Find Foster Homes in Alabama
    Some Immigrant Children Being Reunited With Families
    Separating Immigrant Families Violates Country’s ‘Belief of Faith and Family,” Jones Says
    Amid Immigration Controversy, More Hispanic Students Arrive in Alabama Classrooms

    ,
  • Economy

    Shipt Commits to Birmingham Expansion

    Shipt made its plans to expand in Birmingham and create up to 881 new jobs official Thursday after the Jefferson County Commission agreed to chip in up to $720,000 over three years in incentives.

    “Birmingham has rolled out the red carpet,” Shipt founder Bill Smith said following a press conference in the company’s headquarters in the John Hand Building downtown. “The city and the county have said, ‘We want to partner with you to grow here.’ They’re working closely with us, and to get that kind of support is very attractive.”

    The commission approved its incentives to encourage the company to create professional positions in Birmingham. Read more.

    ,
  • General

    Another Legislator Indicted in Corruption Case Involving Diabetes Health Clinic

    Alabama Rep. Randy Davis has been indicted on allegations he was involved in a plan to pressure Blue Cross Blue Shield to cover diabetes treatments at a string of health clinics with which he was involved.

    Davis, a Republican from Daphne, was charged by federal prosecutors in Montgomery with several counts of bribery, according to the indictment.

    The allegations are part of the corruption case brought against state Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia Hills; lobbyist Martin J. “Marty” Connors of Alabaster; and G. Ford Gilbert of Carmichael, California, who owned the Trina Health company. Read more.

    More stories about the new indictment:
    Rep. Randy Davis Indicted on Bribery Charges (Montgomery Advertiser)
    Outgoing State Rep. Randy Davis Indicted in Bribery Case (AL.com)
    Lawmaker Indicted On Bribery Charges (AP)

    BirminghamWatch in April ran stories published by fellow nonprofit news site inewsource, which had spent months investigating Gilbert and Trina Health operations to produce its Hustling Hope series.

    Hustling Hope: Doctors Debunk Diabetes Treatment as Fraud Charges Hit Clinic Executive

    Just imagine: A nonsurgical treatment that helps millions of people with complications from diabetes restore vision, repair damaged kidneys, and reverse heart disease and cognitive decline. A treatment that heals wounds in their legs and feet, repairs damage from stroke, and eliminates a common type of diabetic nerve pain called neuropathy.

    That’s what lawyer G. Ford Gilbert and his network of Trina Health clinics have been promising with his IV insulin infusions offered through his Sacramento-based company. The Trina CEO calls the procedure “miraculous,” and he has not been deterred by the nation’s top experts in diabetes, who aggressively debunk his procedure, calling it outright fraud and a scam. Read more.

    Hustling Hope: San Diego Doctor Runs Controversial Diabetes Clinic

    Just about every Tuesday morning around 7:30, John McCreary of Poway can be found waiting for Dr. James Novak’s office to open. Almost always, McCreary said, he’s the first one there.

    Novak’s practice is listed as the only one in the San Diego area offering Trina Health’s “Artificial Pancreas Treatment,” a four-hour IV insulin infusion procedure for people with diabetes. Some people like McCreary, 69, who has wrestled with diabetic nerve pain for years, said they think the procedure is working for them. Read more.

    You can find more segments in the Hustling Hope
    series on inewsource.org.

    ,
  • City of Birmingham

    New Police Chief Smith Talks About Building Bridges With Communities to Reduce Crime in Q&A

    Earlier this month, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin announced that, after a six-month, nationwide search, he had selected a new chief for Birmingham’s police department. Patrick D. Smith, a commander with the Los Angeles Police Department, was selected to succeed A.C. Roper, who announced the day after Woodfin took office that he would be stepping down as chief.

    Smith officially started as chief on June 25. He still has a “to-do list” for getting settled in to the job, including meeting with Sheriff Mike Hale and other nearby law enforcement leaders. But he’s already begun to implement some of his priorities for the job, such as hiring more officers and placing emphasis on the first 72 hours of investigations. Smith recently spoke with BirminghamWatch about what initially drew him to Birmingham and his plans for addressing some of the city’s biggest obstacles. Read more.

    ,
  • Economy

    The Tyranny of Sales Tax: Alabama Cities Rely on It. Walmart is the Sought-After Retailer. But E-Commerce Threatens.

    In Alabama, the big catch for the state’s economic development prospectors is a manufacturing plant and its hundreds, maybe thousands, of high-paying jobs. But individual cities go to great lengths to get big-box retailers to set up shop in their city limits, deploying consultants and dangling incentives. They’re following the money. Because of the state’s tax laws, the largest single source of municipal tax revenues is sales tax.

    Big-box retailers come in several types and brand names. The biggest of them all, though, is Walmart. The largest private employer in the world, Walmart grew from its roots in Arkansas to be a major force in virtually every part of the United States. In Alabama alone, 38,000 people are employed by Walmart.

    Tens of millions of customers across America walk through the doors of the company’s stores every day. In Alabama, cities that have a Walmart get taxes on sales to those customers, which helps pay for services such as police and fire protection. Walmart’s website states the company collected $684.6 million in sales taxes and fees in Alabama for the fiscal year ending in 2017 and paid another $92.1 million in its own additional taxes and fees.

    Dependence on sales taxes is unusual compared to most other states and harkens back to Alabama’s early days as a state that was almost entirely rural and dependent on the production of cotton and timber. Property taxes are lower than in other states, in some cases much lower, especially on agricultural and forest lands. Read more.

    A Tale of Two Jefferson County Cities: Sales Tax Comes and Sometimes Goes

    By Robert Carter
    Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland is one of the city officials who work to attract retailers of all shapes and sizes – and their sales taxes.

    He said he spends time trying to bring in retailers “every single day.” According to figures provided by City Clerk Melissa Honeycutt, Gardendale derives 70 percent of its tax receipts from sales taxes.

    It’s a different story in Fairfield, about 20 miles away. Fairfield was once a thriving city and home to a massive U.S. Steel factory complex and numerous shopping centers. After the factory closed, the stores followed. When the Walmart there closed, it took about a third of what was left of the city’s tax revenues, according to the mayor. Read more.

    BW Expands Economic Development Coverage

    Robert Carter covers economic development in Birmingham and Alabama, a new assignment in 2018. He is a veteran journalist, both with newspapers and in radio. A Kentucky native, Carter began working at his hometown Glasgow Daily Times straight out of high school. He also worked with Christian Family Radio in Bowling Green and with Western Kentucky University’s public radio service. In Alabama, Carter has worked at The Birmingham News and The North Jefferson News in Gardendale.

    ,
  • Alabama Prisons

    Guarded: Alabama Correctional Officers Work Long Hours in Dangerous Conditions for Low Pay – and There Aren’t Nearly Enough of Them

    On a warm fall afternoon, 30 men and six women, all wearing charcoal gray T-shirts and navy blue trousers, stood at attention outside a dormitory building on the Wallace Community College campus in Selma. Chanting in a military-style cadence, they trotted to another nearby building where, outside the entrance, one of their members slam-jammed into the ground a pole from which hung a flag bearing the emblem of the Alabama Department of Corrections.

    This group of 36 made up the most recent class of students at the Alabama Corrections Academy, preparing for a job that most Alabamians would not want, in a workplace most would shun. That job is working as a correctional officer in an often overcrowded Alabama prison. The Department of Corrections has too many inmates and not enough officers, and in recent years more officers have left the prison system than new ones have joined.

    In early December, the population in the state prison system, ranging from those locked down in death row cells to those soon to be set free from work release centers, was 21,213, about 8,000 more than the system originally was built to hold. The number of correctional officers staffing system facilities was 1,569, which is only 44 percent of the number the corrections department says it is supposed to have.

    Depending on where they were assigned, the new class of recruits could be working 12-hour days or even longer because of staff shortages. Every day, inmates would be watching them, looking to befriend them or ask them for a favor. Some days, inmates might curse at them, throw feces and urine, use dinner trays as weapons or fight to keep illegal contraband such as cell phones.

    For working in this closed society, in which they can feel just as confined as the inmates, the officers’ entry-level pay is less than $29,000, slightly higher if they have a college degree. Read more.

    Listen to WBHM report, Working in Alabama’s Prisons, featuring Tom Gordon

    ,
  • Government

    National Rifle Association Dominates Gun Votes in 115th Congress. How Alabama Representatives and Senators Voted.

    Florida students rallied hundreds of thousands of protestors near the U.S. Capitol in late March to advocate tougher gun-safety laws after a gunman killed 17 people at a Parkland high school. They called on Congress to enact measures ranging from bans on bump stocks and semi-automatic assault weapons to raising to 21 the minimum age for gun purchases. But for all their youthful passion, the students fared no better than the adults who have been carrying the banner for decades.

    Seven gun-related votes have been taken during the first 15 months of the 115th Congress – six in the House and one in the Senate. In none of them did the gun-control side prevail. Among Alabama’s senators and representatives, Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, is the only one who voted in favor of increasing gun-control measures. Sen. Doug Jones, R-Alabama, was not in office for any of the votes. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, and Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Hoover, each did not cast votes on one measure.

    Read more about the protests, the bills, the votes and the influencers. And see how each of Alabama’s senators and representatives voted.

    ,
  • Birmingham City Council

    Birmingham Councilor Jay Roberson Resigns, Cites Wife’s New Job

    Birmingham City Councilor Jay Roberson announced his resignation from the council on Thursday, a decision that left many of his colleagues “shocked” and that will further shake up a council already facing significant membership changes.

    During a press conference held at Lawson State Community College, Roberson confirmed that he would be stepping down as District 7’s councilor effective Sept.10.

    Roberson said his wife has taken a new “dream job” with Alabaster City Schools, which will require his family to move.
    “My wife’s wholehearted support allowed me to have this opportunity (as councilor),” he said in a press release. “Now is a time for me to support her professional aspirations and do what’s right for my family.” Read more.

    ,
  • Birmingham City Council

    West End Rezoning ‘Back to Drawing Board’ After Residents’ Wishes Unheeded

    Birmingham City Council delayed plans for rezoning the city’s West End community at Tuesday’s meeting, citing concerns that the city had not effectively communicated with residents.

    Two West End residents — Oakwood Place Neighborhood Association Secretary Nell Allen and resident Samuel Mills — said the rezoning plan the council was being asked to vote on significantly differed from what city planners promised residents at recent neighborhood association meetings. Both Allen and Mills said that properties zoned as single-use residential were being rezoned despite protests from residents.

    “We had a meeting, and it was told to us that the changes would be made before we came to the city council this morning,” Mills said. “We really don’t want this.” Read more.

    ,
  • Economy

    Connecting With Seniors One Phone Call at a Time

    Birmingham has a service for seniors that’s like few others in the country. It started in 2002 when the Crisis Center noticed older residents would call its emergency hotline because they were lonely. The organization developed the Senior Talk Line. Through the service, volunteers connect with people one phone call at a time. Read more.

    Read earlier stories in the series:

    Birmingham’s Senior Population Rises While Affordable Housing Remains Limited
    Seniors Find Opportunities and Challenges Trying to Return to Work
    Uncovering Elder Financial Abuse? It’s Tricky.

    ,
  • Government

    Collusion and Russian Interference With U.S. Elections Aren’t the Same, Jones Says

    In front of an audience about which he said, “Probably most of you didn’t vote for me,” Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, warned that one of the biggest threats to America comes not from alleged collusion by Russian interests with the Trump campaign, but from interference in American elections by Russia.

    Speaking Wednesday before the weekly meeting of the Rotary Club of Birmingham, Jones told members and guests that they should not be sidetracked by what he claims are Trump’s attempts to conflate the two issues, as the president rails against the continuing investigation into possible ties between his campaign and Russia.

    “(It) seems that we can never shake Russia,” Jones said. “From the time of the Cold War until today, there always seems to be a problem with Russia. And Russian interference with our elections is a serious, serious, serious issue.” Read more.

    ,
  • Economy

    Jones Visits Mercedes-Benz, Deflects Comment on Possible Shift of Production to Asia

    VANCE — Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, has co-sponsored a bill along with a Republican colleague from Tennessee that would delay President Donald Trump’s proposed imposition of tariffs on vehicles and parts imported into the United States. But in a press conference held Friday morning at Mercedes-Benz’s factory complex near Tuscaloosa, Jones deflected comment on a report that the company may move some production from the Alabama plants to Asia because of tariffs already levied by China.

    The report by Reuters quoted the head of Daimler, Mercedes-Benz’s parent company in Germany, saying the tariffs have forced the company to consider a shift overseas. Read more.

    ,
  • Government

    “This Is a Righteous Verdict,” Prosecutor Says After Attorney, Coal Company Executive Found Guilty of Bribing State Legislator

    In one of the state’s biggest criminal corruption cases, a federal jury has found an executive for a major coal producer and a Birmingham attorney guilty of bribing a member of the Alabama State House.

    The jury returned guilty verdicts on six counts against Drummond Company Vice President for Government Affairs David Roberson, and six more against Joel Gilbert, an attorney for Balch & Bingham. The verdicts were handed down late Friday afternoon, after a day and a half of deliberation that capped a trial that ran for four weeks.

    Federal prosecutors said that Roberson and Gilbert bribed former Alabama Rep. Oliver Robinson, giving to a charitable foundation he controlled in return for him using his influence to oppose the Environmental Protection Agency’s expansion of a Superfund toxic waste site in Tarrant and Inglenook. Read more.

    ,
  • Economy

    Data Center Announced for North Titusville Land

    Calling Birmingham a “hidden jewel in the South,” DC BLOX announced today that it will build its flagship data center on the former Trinity Steel property in Birmingham’s North Titusville Neighborhood.

    Officials of the Atlanta-based provider of data center, network and cloud services said it will use 27 acres to develop 200,000 square feet of secure government-grade data center space.

    The project will be up to a $785 million investment spanning the next 10 years. Read more.

    ,
  • Environment

    Coosa River Gets Help: Federal Court Overturns Alabama Power’s License to Operate 7 Dams, Orders New Look at Waterway’s Environment

    Alabama Power Company is mulling how to proceed after a federal appellate court on Monday threw out its license to operate seven dams on the Coosa River.

    The ruling called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s decision to issue the 30-year license “arbitrary and capricious.” The court said the decision was based on reviews and opinion that “were unreasoned and unsupported by substantial evidence.”

    The decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia requires the case be returned to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to perform a more extensive environmental impact assessment.

    The decision was a rare reversal of a FERC dam licensing ruling. In an emailed statement, Alabama Power expressed disappointment, arguing that FERC’s findings “fully support the licensing decision.” Read more.

    ,
  • Economy

    UPDATED: Birmingham Lags Behind Other Southern Cities in Economic Growth, Study Says

    Metro Birmingham is falling behind economically, compared to other large Southern cities and the nation in general, and needs a major effort to refocus industrial recruiting and workforce training.

    That’s the essence of findings by a report from a Boston consulting and analysis company, which was commissioned by Bold Goals Coalition of Central Alabama. The study indicates that the metro area is considerably behind booming Southern cities such as Nashville, Charlotte and Atlanta and has yet to fully recover from the Great Recession of the previous decade.

    Birmingham-area industries are too heavily reliant on workers without a college education or higher, and those workers are vulnerable to losing their jobs to automation, according to the 40-page report. Meanwhile, there’s a shortfall in industries specializing in high technology, especially life sciences, and local workers who are trained for such employment often leave the area to find work.

    The numbers were a bit of a surprise for Bill Jones, the co-chair of the Bold Goals education steering committee, who presided over the public release of the report Tuesday morning.

    “It was eye-opening to see how much we trail other cities that are not far away from us,” Jones said. Read more.

    ,
  • Government

    U.S. Attorneys: Leading the Justice Department on the Ground in Alabama

    From the dismantling of multistate crime rings to prosecution of corrupt officials, from pursuit of drug conspirators, human traffickers and terrorists to enforcement of civil rights laws, a U.S. Attorney’s Office is the local arm of the U.S. Justice Department.

    Over the decades in Alabama, U.S. attorneys have taken on traditional crime fighting and high-profile cases, including prosecution of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombers. They’ve tackled cases that challenged Alabama government, including abuses in state prisons, restrictions on voting rights and the constitutionality of a state immigration law. U.S. Attorney’s Offices also have provided connective tissue between federal, state and local law enforcement departments on challenging issues such as the opioid crisis.

    With the broad span of federal law, U.S. attorneys have an array of priorities they can pursue.

    U.S. attorneys in Alabama have been among the appointees made early in the transition from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump and with the appointment of Alabamian Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.

    BirminghamWatch talked with the state’s three U.S. attorneys appointed by Trump to find out their operational priorities.

    “The United States attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer in any given district and therefore should be the leading law enforcement agency in setting priorities and the tone for the district,” said U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. “They should be leading the way with not only other federal agencies, but also supporting as best they can the state and local ones, whether it is through their task forces, joint efforts or training. State and local law agencies can often look to the federal level to help lead the way, and I think the U.S. Attorney’s Offices should be at the forefront of that.”

    Read the interviews with Alabama’s U.S. attorneys:

    In Mobile, New U.S. Attorney Emphasizes Listening Locally, Keeping What Works, Respect

    In Birmingham, U.S. Attorney Town Says, “It’s Guns, It’s Dope, It’s Illegal Immigration, It Is Opioids”

    U.S. Attorney Louis Franklin: Beyond Public Corruption Cases, He and Sessions Focus on Violent Crime, Opioid Abuse and Terrorism

    ,