Ready, Set, Action: Birmingham’s Become a Film-Making Destination That Brings Jobs, Millions of Dollars to Economy
The Magic City is not quite Hollywood, yet.
But Birmingham’s economy is getting a show business-sized boost with millions of film dollars flowing into the local economy. The city’s Red Mountain substituted for the Hollywood Hills, wearing the famous HOLLYWOOD sign in “Bigger,” one of dozens of films made in metro Birmingham in recent years.
Capitalizing on Alabama’s incentive program for film productions, the city is recruiting a growing number of projects, said Buddy Palmer, president and CEO of Create Birmingham and its offshoot Film Birmingham.
From 2016 to 2017, the number of film projects in metro Birmingham increased 200 percent, he said. Three feature films and 24 other projects, including commercials and videos, were produced in Birmingham in 2016. By 2017, when Film Birmingham officially began recruiting projects with support from the city and other sponsors, Film Birmingham assisted 55 projects. Of that total, 30 film productions were completed in Birmingham, including eight feature films.
“In 2016 and 2017, about $32 million in film production activity translated into, conservatively, a $10 (million) to $12 million impact on the local economy,” Palmer said.
In 2018, Film Birmingham assisted 67 projects, including 30 productions, of which nine were feature films, said Jessica Moody of Film Birmingham. Read more.
Birmingham builder Victor Sellers and fellow stage hand Kevin Sappington didn’t start out to be in the movie business. But with experience in more than 10 made-in-Birmingham movies, the two Jefferson County natives are among hundreds of area residents who find challenging work, good pay and benefits, and chances for new avocations working as crew on the scores of films being made here. Read more.
Film-making is booming in Birmingham and across the state since Alabama began its film incentive program. The movies are as varied as the locations where they were shot. One is a real-time suspense film with chase scenes filmed on Morris Avenue; another is the story of brothers who created Mr. Universe and a fitness empire, filmed in several locations across the city. Then there are family dramas and stories about dirt track racing, football, ultimate fighting and music. See the list of films made in Alabama.
Alabama’s unemployment rate hit record lows in the past year, falling below 4 percent, but the number of people enrolled in Medicaid hasn’t decreased.
Medicaid, the health care provider for the state’s poor and disabled, has higher enrollment now than when the unemployment rate hit nearly 12 percent in 2009. September enrollment was up slightly this year compared to September 2017.
While more people are working, not all of them are in jobs that pay enough to get their families off Medicaid, advocates say.
Medicaid’s enrollment is troubling to state lawmakers, who’ve been advised that the way to curtail Medicaid’s ever-expanding cost is to get more Alabamians employed.
“It’s a large concern, why the rolls aren’t shrinking as people get into the workforce,” state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said recently. “I remember being told that as unemployment falls, so would Medicaid enrollment.” Read more.
Straight-Party Voting Shows Increasing Political Polarization in Alabama, Controlled Outcome of Some Races
Alabama voters are casting straight-ticket ballots in growing numbers, highlighting a trend toward political polarization in the state.
That move was on full display in Tuesday’s election and appeared to be a critical factor in the outcome of some races.
About 65 percent of those who participated in the general election voted straight tickets, according to totals from the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office. Read more.
Alabama, not unlike the rest of the country, had a wave of women on the ballot in this year’s primary election and in Tuesday’s general election.
Eighty-three Republican and Democratic women and two independent women ran for state office, including offices elected statewide and circuit judgeships. Forty-four of those women won their races.
In all, Alabama added six women to the count of state offices and circuit judgeships held by women. Three of those seats are circuit judgeships; two are seats in the House of Representatives and one is on the Alabama Board of Education.
Republican women fared well Tuesday. Of the 23 women who ran for those offices, 20, or 87 percent, won.
Terry Lathan, chairman of the state Republican Party, said Gov. Kay Ivey’s win was an important factor that will help contribute to more women running for office.
“With Governor Ivey breaking the glass ceiling as the first elected GOP female Alabama governor,” Lathan said in statement, “we will continue to recruit and expand our base of women candidates.”
For Democratic women, who made up 71 percent of all the women who ran, the outcomes looked different. Sixty Democratic women ran, with 24, 42 percent, winning their races.
Nancy Worley, chairwoman of the Alabama Democratic Party, had a different take, chalking up many of the losses to inexperienced candidates with unrealistic expectations. Read more.
Everyone Knew It Was Coming, But Sessions’ Ouster From the Justice Department so Soon After the Mid-Terms Landed With a Boom
Barely 12 hours after the smoke had cleared from the 2018 mid-term elections, another political bomb exploded Wednesday afternoon when news came that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had resigned at the request of President Donald Trump.
That Sessions was on his way out was not a shock. The former U.S. senator from Mobile had been one of the first well-known supporters of Trump in the presidential campaign. But shortly after he took the cabinet position, he became a thorn in Trump’s side by recusing himself from supervising the investigation into collusion by Russia during the 2016 election.
Trump chafed at the move by Sessions both publicly and privately, accusing Sessions of being disloyal and not acting in Trump’s defense. The rift grew during the two years Sessions served in the post.
Sessions’ departure had been expected for months, though political advisers told Trump to wait until after the mid-terms. He did so, barely — Sessions was told by Chief of Staff Mike Kelly to hand in his resignation on Wednesday afternoon, and he did.
Reaction to Sessions’ stepping down was quick, most of it praising Sessions or speculating on his next moves and what they could mean for politics in the state. Read more.
BirminghamWatch Recommends: A Roundup of Stories on Sessions’ Firing
Jeff Sessions Executed the Agenda of a President Who Could Not Look Past a Betrayal (New York Times)
Jeff Sessions Pushed out After a Year of Attacks From Trump (Associated Press)
How Sessions’s Firing Could Affect the Russia Investigation (New York Times)
‘You’re Fired:’ A Timeline of Team Trump Departures (Washington Post)
Gov. Kay Ivey turned back Democratic challenger Walt Maddox on Tuesday and led the Republican ticket to a clean sweep of statewide races in Alabama.
“The people of Alabama have spoken loud and clear: We want to keep Alabama on the right track and keep Alabama working,” Ivey declared before cheering supporters Tuesday night at a Montgomery hotel.
“It is with immense gratitude that I stand before you tonight as the next governor of Alabama. … Tonight, today, together we have made history — the first Republican woman to be elected governor.” Read more.
Mayor Randall Woodfin called for greater civility between his office and Birmingham City Council on Tuesday, following weeks of escalating tension. The tension culminated with Woodfin and most of his staff being absent from the council’s Oct. 30 meeting.
While calling for civility, Woodfin also announced plans to reduce his staff’s presence at council meetings. He said this is an effort to improve efficiency and to spend more time on community outreach.
Last week’s absence of Woodfin and his staff drew considerable criticism from councilors, some of whom called it “a slap in the face to the constituents of the 99 neighborhoods.” Read more.
Rhiannon Reese of Crisis Center Birmingham says she doesn’t want to play the blame game about sexual assault kits not submitted for analysis to Alabama’s forensic lab.
The clinical director and rape response coordinator of Crisis Center Birmingham was reacting to an inventory that shows that the Birmingham Police Department handled about 87 percent of the sexual assault kits provided by Jefferson County women since 1985 but not passed on for forensic analysis. The inventory was conducted by the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative of the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office.
“I don’t want to say, ‘Well, this is so and so’s fault,’” Reese said. “I know that the people that are doing the investigations right now are not the people that were there, like in the ’80s and ’90s, or even the early 2000s. They weren’t the ones who let this happen.”
The Sexual Assault Kit Initiative points a questioning finger at the Birmingham Police Department.
An inventory of 3,944 sexual assault kits provided to Birmingham police found that 3,391 were not submitted for testing. That’s nearly 86 percent of the kits provided to Birmingham police found in that inventory.
The inventory of rape kits for all the law enforcement jurisdictions in Jefferson County found 3,876 of 4,999 were not submitted to be analyzed by the forensics agency. Read more.
Amazon held the official groundbreaking Tuesday for its first large-scale fulfillment center in Alabama, on a site just off Powder Plant Road in Bessemer.
Dozens of state and local officials, including Gov. Kay Ivey, came to put shovels into a long mound and fling red dirt into the air.
“This is a great day for Bessemer, a great day for Amazon and a great day for the state of Alabama,” Ivey said. “Momentum is on our side and that’s made possible when companies like Amazon choose to locate and do business in our great state.”
When complete, the $325 million facility – which will have the footprint of nearly 15 football fields – will employ 1,500 people with a starting minimum wage of $15 and company benefits that start on Day 1. Read more.
Many Alabama employees aren’t being screened to confirm their legal status to work in the United States, despite a 2011 state law requiring businesses to use the federal E-Verity system.
A recent report in the publication Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, said only 60 percent of new Alabama hires were screened with E-Verify in the year ending in June 2017. That’s up from 14 percent in 2011, before the state’s anti-illegal immigration law went into effect.
Now, state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, proposes requiring employers to prove their E-Verify usage before obtaining business licenses. He has a bill ready for the 2019 legislative session that mirrors a law in Georgia, where 94 percent of employees were screened through E-Verify, according to Pew.
Orr recently said there will always be bad actors who don’t follow the law, but he thinks some businesses are simply ignorant about it.
“They don’t know about the law or don’t think it applies to them,” Orr said. “Until someone is telling them or reminding them, they’ll continue to be ignorant.”
Despite the city’s rising homicide rate and a recent rash of highly publicized violent crimes, Birmingham-area law enforcement officials say they are optimistic about the city’s long-term crime-fighting prospects, due in part to an array of government agencies working together.
After a violent start to September, which saw seven homicides in its first eight days, Birmingham is on track to have its deadliest year in decades. As of Sept. 20, there have been 86 reported homicides this year, compared to the 79 counted at this point last year, which was the deadliest year for the city since 1994.
“It’s too high for sure,” said Jay Town, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, which is centered in Birmingham. “It makes you wonder if we weren’t putting all of this effort … I shudder to think where those numbers might be.”
Town, who has been on the job for roughly 13 months, said he has worked to develop a “vertical” model of law enforcement that includes federal, state, county and local departments. It’s a model, he said, that can serve as a crime-fighting method going forward.
“The only promise I can make is that we are establishing long-term processes, and it takes time,” he said. “As much as we would like in the Magic City to have crime disappear overnight, we are taking the painstaking efforts to make sure that there are systems and methods and processes in place that are going to last a lot longer than any of us.” Read more.
Six homicides happened in Birmingham during the first week of September, putting the city firmly on track for its most violent year in more than two decades and pressuring city leaders to improve their strategies for responding to such incidents and to focus on preventing them.
The first homicide of the month was the highly publicized death of 16-year-old Woodlawn High School student Will Edwards, who was killed in his North East Lake home just after midnight Sept. 1. The following evening, seven teenagers were shot during a gunfight at the downtown music venue WorkPlay, though none were killed.
Mayor Randall Woodfin described the weekend’s incidents of youth violence as a “devastating blow to our community.”
By the end of the first week, five more homicides had been reported by the Birmingham Police Department, four of which happened within a 24-hour period. Just minutes after the week ended, the city already had logged its first homicide of week two. It wasn’t the most homicides that have taken place in a single week this year — that would be an eight-homicide stretch between July 29 and August 4 — but it has placed Birmingham firmly on track to have its deadliest year in recent memory.
BirminghamWatch Graphic: Clay Carey
The Oliver Robinson bribery trial, in which guilty verdicts were issued for officials of Drummond Coal Co. and its law firm, Balch & Bingham, revealed a gritty episode about avoiding environmental cleanup in North Birmingham. But there’s a bigger dirty picture.
The vast majority of Jefferson County’s 31 major sources of pollution – those emitting enough pollution to require a permit under Title V of the Clean Air Act – are located in low-income areas, a BirminghamWatch analysis found.
The findings show 71 percent of the major pollution sources are in areas with incomes below the median income for the county.
Only one primary source of pollution is in a neighborhood with a median household income greater than 110 percent of the county median.
Residents of the same low-income areas also often are largely African American. Research has shown that economically depressed populations can be more heavily affected by the negative health effects of air pollution.
Poor air does not equally strike everyone in the Birmingham area, raising issues of environmental justice. Read more.
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.
Governor and Lawmakers Asking for Patience From Public in Hoover Shooting Investigation, Some Want More Information From ALEA
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey pledged Monday that information about the shooting death of an armed man by police would be made public, but she urged patience.
“This is a very serious situation going on in Alabama right now,” Ivey said in a statement to BirminghamWatch. “The State Bureau of Investigation is in charge of the homicide investigation and I trust their report will shed light on what really happened. We have to allow them time to gather all the information and I assure you, when their investigation is complete, the truth will come out.”
The is no specific timeline for state law enforcement to complete its inquiry into the death of Emantic “EJ” Bradford Jr., 21. Video of the shooting likely won’t be released until the investigation is done. Meanwhile, at least one state lawmaker has asked for its release, along with more information, to the public.
Bradford’s is the 13th police-involved fatal shooting in the state this year, according to The Washington Post. Since 2015, Alabama has had a total of 80 fatal shootings by law enforcement, the Post’s database shows.
Public protests followed in the two weeks after Bradford’s death and more are planned.
“The best thing we can do is wait for all the facts to come out, and that takes time,” state Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, said Monday. “Let the facts lead to the conclusion.”
Treadaway is the assistant police chief in Birmingham and chairman of the Alabama House’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.
“We just ask that people be calm and allow this process to work out,” Treadaway said. Read more.
Thirty-two people have applied to fill two vacant seats on the Birmingham City Council, and they will all get the chance to publicly make their cases to the council later this week.
During a special-called meeting on Thursday, Dec. 13, applicants will be given one minute each to give “elevator speeches” on their qualifications, Council President Valerie Abbott said during Tuesday’s regular council meeting.
“They are going to show us their skills at concisely telling us why they are the best candidates for the positions,” she said.
State Looking at Plans to Fix or Replace Crowded, Crumbling Prisons; Lawmakers Don’t Expect to Be Part of Infrastructure Plan
Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Corrections aren’t yet talking publicly about possible fixes for the state’s crowded and aging prisons, but they are extending a multimillion-dollar contract with an outside project manager to study construction needs.
Some leaders in the Statehouse say they expect Ivey to move forward with a plan for new prisons that doesn’t require legislative approval.
“We’re going to have several prison-related bills (in the 2019 legislative session), but none will be infrastructure,” Sen. Cam Ward said recently. He expects Ivey next year will begin the process to pay private companies for prison space.
“XYX company builds it, we lease it,” Ward, R-Alabaster, said. The new prisons would be staffed and run just like state-owned facilities. Read more.
This is the third in a series of three articles looking at the first year of Randall Woodfin’s tenure as mayor.
In its first year, Randall Woodfin’s administration has restructured the mayor’s office and moved to address the city’s violent crime rate. But the crux of Woodfin’s political career thus far has been the issue of neighborhood revitalization.
On the campaign trail, he repeated the mantra that Birmingham “is only as strong as our lowest quality-of-life neighborhoods,” accusing then-Mayor William Bell of focusing on downtown development while neglecting other areas.
Woodfin’s revitalization plan has largely focused on maintaining and improving basic city services in neighborhoods, such as paving streets and sidewalks, demolishing dilapidated structures, cutting overgrown lots and picking up trash — what he calls the “blocking and tackling” of government.
While the practicalities of bureaucracy have slowed some of Woodfin’s neighborhood revitalization projects, including his 100 Homes, 100 Days program, he maintains that his administration’s approach has been “aggressive,” and promises that it will get more so.
“Day one of year two, the priority and sense of urgency is still around neighborhood revitalization,” Woodfin told reporters a week before the anniversary of his inauguration as mayor. “We are going to get the fundamentals of government right.” Read more.
Read the first two articles in the series.
One Year and Counting: A Year After His Inauguration, Mayor Woodfin Promises a Comprehensive Crime Plan by the End of the Year
Jimmie Stephens admitted that he wanted to lose the bet.
The president of the Jefferson County Commission had a friendly wager that work to widen Morgan Road in Bessemer wouldn’t be underway by December 2018.
“I have seen the holdups,” Stephens said following Monday’s commission committee meeting. “I felt it was a bet that was easy for me to make but it is one I was hoping I would lose. Unfortunately, I didn’t.”
Plans to widen Morgan Road from its current two-lane alignment to four lanes and a turn lane have been two decades in the making. Stephens said 14,000 to 18,000 cars travel that road per day, either headed north of Interstate-459 or south of the interstate. Read more.
Utility Filings Show Coal Ash Ponds Are Too Close to Groundwater Reservoirs. Enviro Groups Again Call for Moving Toxic Material.
All of Alabama Power Company’s open coal ash ponds sit within five feet of an aquifer, or groundwater reservoir, in violation of federal standards, recent company filings confirm.
In the wake of the reports, environmental groups are keeping the pressure on the state’s public utilities to move toxin-laden coal ash away from waters next to power plants.
Under the 2015 Coal Combustion Residuals Rule, the locations of all coal ash basins in the nation must meet federal standards for distance from aquifers and wetlands. The basins also must conform to stability, seismic and fault restrictions.
Alabama Power Company has posted results from what is called “location restriction demonstrations” on its website for most of its facilities.
Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman Tuesday confirmed tests showed there is not a minimum five feet of separation from the company’s ash ponds to groundwater aquifers.
He added, “Alabama Power has evaluated conditions at and around our facilities and we have no indication of any effect on any source of drinking water.” Read more.
In Soap-Making and Landscaping, ‘Creative’ Entrepreneurs Get Help Building Business Skills from Co.Starters
A designer, a scuba diver, an art curator, a furniture maker. They all share something in common – seeking and receiving help with the business side of their creative work from the Co.Starters program of Create Birmingham.
The Co.Starters program – prompted by research and aimed at unlocking economic potential – has 200 graduates and a new class of 15 people following their dreams to turn their passions into sustainable and thriving small businesses.
With graduates pursuing the business side of everything from massage therapy to landscaping, Co.Starters is a 10-week business training program designed to equip aspiring entrepreneurs with insights, relationships and tools to turn their business ideas into action, said Buddy Palmer, CEO of Create Birmingham, the nonprofit that administers the program. The organization is dedicated to the development of Birmingham’s creative industries that contribute to economic growth as well as enhance quality of life.
The 15 students, who meet on Monday nights, represent the 17th Co.Starters class since the program began in 2014 after a comprehensive study of the area’s creative industries and occupations.
Gathered around a U-shaped table at Woodlawn’s Social Venture building, members of Co.Starters’ fall 2018 class take turns telling about their week’s highs and lows and the number of customer conversations they logged for the week.
“My high for this week is this,” says Co.Starters student Joy Smith. She shows a glossy page of Birmingham Magazine’s food issue, in which a tempting slice of cheesecake from Smith’s Sorelle catering business is pictured as one of the 40 best treats in Birmingham. Her classmates applaud, then tell about their week’s progress, contacts made and business plans drafted. Read more.
Long before she enrolled in Birmingham’s Co.Starters program, Kim Lee had the dream and business plan for what eventually became The Forge, a downtown professional coworking space on the mezzanine level of the historic Pizitz Building. Read more.
The former head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s southeastern operations faces six state felony charges, and the former chairman of the Alabama Environmental Management Commission faces three felony charges related to a federal investigation into efforts to stop a cleanup of toxic industrial waste in North Birmingham.
Trey Glenn, who resigned from his EPA post earlier this week, was indicted by a Birmingham grand jury on six felony counts of using his position for personal gain and 14 misdemeanor ethics charges.
Scott Phillips, the former AMEC chair who also was a partner with Glenn in a consulting firm during his tenure with the commission was indicted on three felony counts of using his position for personal gain and 13 misdemeanors.
The indictments were handed down Nov. 9, but the number of charges and their nature was not confirmed until the documents were made available Wednesday in the Alacourt online reporting system.
All the charges relate to soliciting money from Drummond Company, which operates the ABC Coke facility in Tarrant, and contracting with the Balch and Bingham law firm in Birmingham as part of the scheme. Read more.
The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve funding for the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority and a handful of other organizations, including the Birmingham Business Alliance, Create Birmingham and REV Birmingham.
The funding initiatives were fulfillments of promises made by Mayor Randall Woodfin’s FY 2019 budget, which switched the BJCTA’s funding from a lump sum payment to quarterly installments, and which removed funding from various economic development organizations and instructed them instead to apply through the newly created Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity.
Though Woodfin and members of the council expressed “grave concerns” about the way the BJCTA was being run, they ultimately all agreed on the funding so that citizens reliant on the public transit system would not lose service. Even so, the amount that was approved will be meted out in quarterly installments of $2.5 million — a way, Woodfin said, to keep the BJCTA in check. Read more.
The Birmingham City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution opposing construction of a road and bridge project across the Little Cahaba River on Cahaba Beach Road.
The resolution was approved without discussion as part of the council’s consent agenda. It was discussed and approved by the council during a committee meeting earlier this month.
The road would connect Cahaba Beach Road off U.S. 280 to Sicard Hollow Road in Shelby County and to the Liberty Park development in Vestavia Hills. It would cross the Little Cahaba River, which flows from Lake Purdy, the area’s primary source of drinking water, to the Cahaba River near where water is withdrawn for treatment.
Councilors have expressed concerns about risks to water quality, including the potential for accidents, hazardous spills into the drinking water source and pollution from the road, along with degradation of the natural forest. The Birmingham Water Works Board is expected to consider a similar resolution.
Read the BirminghamWatch story on the earlier council meeting:
Birmingham Council Members Push Back Against Road in Watershed That Protects Drinking Water
Friday marked the deadline to apply for the two vacant seats on the Birmingham City Council — and the list of applicants is lengthy.
There are 14 candidates for the District 1 seat formerly held by Lashunda Scales; 18 have applied to fill the District 6 seat formerly held by Sheila Tyson. Both Scales and Tyson resigned from the council Nov. 14 to be sworn in as members of the Jefferson County Commission.
There are plenty of familiar names among the applicants, including some, such as Sherman Collins Jr. and LaTanya Millhouse, who ran unsuccessfully against Scales and Tyson for their council seats in the past. There also are several former members of the Birmingham Board of Education hoping to repeat the success of District 7 Councilor Wardine Alexander, the former school board president who was appointed to the council earlier this month.
The list also includes a former Jefferson County commissioner, the brother of former Mayor William Bell, a former chair of the Birmingham Public Library’s board of trustees, and a former member of Mayor Randall Woodfin’s transition team. Read more and see the full list.
Trey Glenn resigned Sunday as EPA Region 4 administrator for Alabama and seven other southeastern states following his indictment on multiple felony ethics charges last week in Jefferson County.
EPA Acting Administrator Wheeler accepted Glenn’s resignation, according to Region 4 chief of staff Ryan Jackson.
Glenn and former business partner Scott Phillips were arrested and posted bond following their indictments. They denied guilt in the charges. Glenn in his resignation letter called the charges unfounded.
Glenn and Phillips were caught up in the recent bribery scandal over pollution in north Birmingham that brought down former state Rep. Oliver Robinson and officials of Drummond Co. and law firm Balch and Bingham. Robinson pleaded guilty to charges and testified against Drummond executive David Robertson and Balch attorney Joel Gilbert. Read more.
When newly elected Neil Rafferty takes his place in the Alabama House of Representatives next year, he will be the only white Democrat in the 105-seat chamber
With one other white Democrat in the Senate, the Alabama Legislature’s two parties are almost entirely divided by race. An all-white GOP has a supermajority.
“You can’t deny the optics at times,” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said about the party and racial split. He’s been a lawmaker since 2006 and has seen the racial polarization increase as the white Democrats dwindled in numbers.
Less than 10 years ago, in the 2006-2010 term, there were 62 Democrats in the House. More than half of them were white, said House public information officer Clay Redden. Now, there are 28 Democrats total. Republicans picked up five more seats in last week’s election.
In all, more than 75 percent of the members of the Legislature were white less than a decade ago, and more than 60 percent were Democrats, according to an analysis done at the time by The Birmingham News.
Being the minority race in the minority party isn’t something Rafferty, D-Birmingham, said he’s thought too much about.
“I’m going to go down there with humility and an eagerness and willingness to work with my colleagues, all of my colleagues, for the betterment of the state and House District 54,” he said last week.
But race has been an issue in the Statehouse in recent years.
England is concerned that, without diversity among parties, all issues begin to be viewed in a racial context.
“Racial issues are important, they are, but not everything is racial,” he said. “You don’t want everything to be painted with a broad brush because of the messenger and lose the message.” Read more.
Jefferson County’s first black sheriff and district attorney were swept into office Tuesday on a wave of Democratic straight-ticket voting.
Votes from the county’s Republican strongholds were not enough to combat the unusually high number of Democrats casting straight-party ballots, votes from inner-city Birmingham, votes by dissatisfied Democrats in the county’s larger cities and possibly votes by Republican women protesting President Donald Trump.
“I think the numbers say that straight-ticket voting greatly benefited the Democrats more than Republicans,” said Jefferson County Board of Registrars Chairman Barry Stephenson.
After weeks of contentious discussion, it’s official: Wardine Alexander is the newest member of the Birmingham City Council, filling the District 7 seat formerly held by Jay Roberson. Her appointment, as well as the election of District 4 Councilor William Parker as president pro tempore, marks the end of a deadlock between two factions of the council.
But it also came amid an escalating feud between the council and Mayor Randall Woodfin who, along with most of his staff, was conspicuously absent from Tuesday’s meeting — prompting some councilors to say that they were “shocked” and “outraged” by what they called a display of “petty politics.”
In his book “The Infamous Birmingham Axe Murders,” journalist Jeremy Gray has a hell of a story to tell. From 1919 to 1924, as many as 18 people were killed and 16 injured in a series of brutal attacks. A number of the victims were Italian grocers killed when their stores were robbed.
The killings were not the work of a single killer or group of killers, and not all the victims were attacked with axes (one victim was beaten to death with a shovel, another with a metal pipe) but the spree of murders panicked Birmingham and stirred the nasty specters of race, class and religious bigotry.
The police and the newspapers focused on African-American suspects and, because several of the victims were Italian, the Mafia. The Birmingham Age-Herald offered readers a completely made up serial killer, publishing a racist cartoon of an axe-wielding black man dubbed “Henry the Hacker.” With the approval of the police, the Ku Klux Klan paraded through African-American neighborhoods at night hoping to intimidate potential black criminals. Read more.
Tensions continued through the week between a Birmingham City Council member and Mayor Randall Woodfin over the council’s Tuesday decision not to contribute $1 million over five years to the Firehouse Ministries Homeless Shelter.
That proposal is no longer on the table; the council voted it down at its Oct. 23 meeting. But Woodfin and District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt continued to trade barbs in one of the most high-profile public disagreements between the mayor and council since Woodfin took office nearly a year ago. Read more.
Amid calls from employees to fire Executive Director Floyd Council, the Birmingham Public Library’s board of trustees voted instead to submit a “corrective action plan” to the embattled administrator. Board members refused to give any details about what that plan would entail, classifying it as a private personnel matter.
The board also voted to approve its first-year evaluation of the executive director — the details of which were also not disclosed — with a recommendation “to develop a specific performance improvement plan.”
In short, Council — who was not present at the meeting and who has refused to discuss the situation with the press — will keep his job for now. His one-year probationary period, during which the board can fire him without cause, will end before the board’s next regular meeting, on Nov. 13. Read more.
Erica Dunning is proud of her tidy house, built by Habitat for Humanity in a quiet Chalkville neighborhood, and her job working for Jefferson County. But she’s not too proud to admit that, once upon a time, she needed help to make ends meet.
That help particularly made it possible for Dunning to pay her electric bills, which could become out of reach at certain times a year. And that’s where the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program – known by the acronym LIHEAP – came in.
August, which is typically expected in Alabama to be the hottest month of any year, was LIHEAP Awareness month, the month set aside to demonstrate the value of the program. But you don’t have to convince Dunning, who used the program when she was down on her luck and not working, she said.
“It just helps you get over that slump,” she said. “Now I am employed by Jefferson County… but I have used the program to get over that slump. And it’s just good to know you’ve got help.”
Dunning, who has two children, also has a house that uses electricity for both heating and cooling, as opposed to using natural gas in the winter, as many do.
“Without power, how do you get your kids ready for school?” she said.
While shortfalls can happen any time of the year, Dunning said it was particularly hard around Christmas. “You don’t want to disappoint your kids at the time, so you just try and be balanced and make sure they have at least something for Christmas.”
LIHEAP helped make that possible, she said.
This year’s awareness month arrived with the program under threat from the Trump administration, which has proposed eliminating what many low-income residents have come to depend on to keep their air conditioning going in the summer and heat on during the winter.
Thousands of people in Jefferson County depend on LIHEAP, which is administered by the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity. Some 5,000 families are served each summer and another 5,000 each winter, said Dorothy Crosby, who works in the Energy Assistance arm of JCCEO.
But where those residents see a lifeline, the Trump administration sees a drain on federal resources subject to fraud.
“The Budget proposes to eliminate the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) in order to reduce the size and scope of the Federal Government, and better target resources within the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families,” the Trump administration wrote in its budget proposal for 2019. “LIHEAP is a Federal program that has been known to have sizeable fraud and abuse, leading to program integrity concerns.” Read more.
Alex Flachsbart’s business cards were hot properties at the Jefferson County Courthouse Tuesday after his presentation to the County Commission about opportunity zones in the area.
The founder and CEO of the nonprofit Opportunity Alabama briefed the commission on his group’s work with Opportunity Zones, which encourage investment in low-income areas.
“Our goal is to rally the ecosystem here in the state of Alabama around opportunism,” he said.
Flachsbart, a former tax attorney, said the zones were created with the passage of the tax bill in December. The idea is to give tax breaks to investors who put their money into a fund that then invests in businesses and real estate projects in low-income areas. The incentives grow the longer the money stays invested, he said.
“(It goes) all the way to the point where if you’re an investor who keeps their money in a fund that’s invested in the local community for 10 years or longer, you don’t pay any tax at all on the appreciation of your investment,” he said. “If I make a good bet on a place like Ensley, or a place like East Lake or a place like Fultondale, the good news (is) that, if my investment substantially improves, I get to walk away tax-free after 10 years.” Read more.
Even with more athletic fields at the Hoover Met Complex, greater Birmingham needs additional sports facilities to compete with cities such as Westfield, Indiana and Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
Never heard of those cities? If you have a child who competes on a “travel ball” team, you probably have. A study commissioned by the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau says that those two cities are Birmingham’s primary competitors for large sports tournaments.
The bureau released the study’s findings Sept. 27. It was conducted by Phoenix-based Huddle Up Sports and is based on a survey of available sports venues in metro Birmingham. The company also conducted interviews with various stakeholders in the sports tourism industry, a segment of the local economy that caters not just to college and professional sports organizers and fans but also to followers of youth and amateur sports tournaments that bring in hundreds of teams, competitors, families and officials.
Although metro Birmingham has made a big push in sports tourism, it still is falling behind other cities, some of which are much smaller in population but which have gone all-in on the burgeoning sports tourism sector. Read more.