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A strange case of budget illness

One flips the pages on the calendar always thinking that Christmas is ages away, only to turn the page one day and find that the holiday season is once again gnashing its sharpened teeth and showing no remorse for either your empty wallet or procrastinating soul.

A similar feeling washed over me Monday, complete with body aches and chills, when Selma City Councilwoman Angela Benjamin made the proclamation that the time is fast approaching when the council will need to start budget talks.

“Great God,” I thought to myself as sweat pooled between the lines on my forehead and a rash began to appear along my neck and shoulders. “How can this mad, unholy process already be upon us? How did we not see this yellow-eyed, snarling beast approaching? Is there any refuge from this awful scene, where one might be safe to shield his eyes until the blitzkrieg passes?”

I returned to reality with another snap of conversation from the council and realized that there is no escaping from this financial monster, which is gaining ground with earth-shaking steps taken at locomotive speed and will surely devour us all if we don’t board up the windows and doors and install machine gun turrets atop our homes and businesses.

As this thing cannot be avoided, a plan of attack must be drafted quickly – the key factor to consider in its creation is the fact that there will likely be a new general at the helm as the new budget takes effect, which means that all of those needs that have been neglected and budgeted for in vain will, in the hands of a new leader, be given attention for the first time in nearly four years.

With that in mind, our leaders should hone a laser-like focus on those issues of highest importance to the city – there should be funds allocated to fully staff both the city’s Public Works and Recreation departments, which will in itself have a profound impact on both the city’s growing trash problem, overgrown lots and poorly-kempt athletic facilities.

Beyond that, the budget must address the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of which we still are yet to fully comprehend, which could be the biggest challenge for leaders as it is hard to see how a city with financial struggles can prop up businesses and nonprofits reeling from the outbreak – with any luck, state relief funds will find their way to cities across the state as they work to recover from the crisis.

There must absolutely be an across-the-board pay increase for both the Selma Fire Department (SFD) and the Selma Police Department (SPD) if the city has any hope of recruiting qualified firefighters and policemen to fill out the woefully-undermanned departments – by beefing up the number of firefighters and police officers, the city will take huge steps toward tackling ongoing public safety issues in the city.

If the recent report from the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts shows us anything, it’s that the city must also take steps to rehabilitate the municipal court, which is also horribly understaffed and, as a result, in a state of awful disarray.

To be sure, there are more pressing problems than can be addressed in a financial document, but there is no doubt that a handful of well-considered actions taken in the city’s budget can have grand effect in clawing the city out from beneath the rubble currently crushing it.

Tax increases on the people, whether at the gas pump or the cash register, won’t do it and the council should reject any assertion otherwise – the people living paycheck-to-paycheck or worse, who make up the great majority of the city, can’t afford to fix the problem and shouldn’t be asked to – after all, they’ve been paying taxes for services they haven’t been receiving for a couple of years now, so asking them to carry even more weight borders on sadistic.

Forget that it would be shameful to ask for more money from the people when the money already being pitched in has been misused, frittered away and exhausted with no result.

While I will surely be tormented by budget-induced fever dreams until the deal is done later this year, I’ll hold fast to that darkened cavern of optimism, hidden behind the rock face of cynicism and doubt, where a campfire yet burns heralding better days for this city and its people.