This Small City Mayor Models What Fiscal Stewardship Looks Like
Merrie Spaeth /
Conservatives should be praising Darrio Melton. The Mayor of Selma, Alabama, has just struck a very public blow for fiscal responsibility, accountability, and courage.
Here’s the background. On March 7, 1965, armed, uniformed police stopped civil rights activists crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The photos and film footage of the beatings and dogs attacking humans caused outrage across the country and around the world.
This was one of the important sparks, if not the most important rallying point, for the Selma to Montgomery march that led to the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Each year, tens of thousands of people visit Selma to re-enact the bridge crossing. But this year, the coordinating organization, the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, went ballistic when the city of Selma estimated that the cost of the event was over $35,000.
The city presented a partial payment of $23,882.02 to the Jubilee. That’s when the debate began.
State Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, angrily said that the Jubilee wouldn’t pay, and was quoted in the local paper accusing the city of “trying to kill off an event for political reasons.”
The mayor—a Democrat, and a former member of the Alabama House—responded, and his comments should be celebrated by everyone advocating responsible governance.
What did Melton do or say that was so remarkable and should be noted by all the denizens of Washington, D.C.?
Having been in office for only a year, he came clean with the voters and reported that the city’s finances were in bad shape. He said the Jubilee should pay its own way and that the money to support the event wasn’t in the city budget, that their first responsibility was to provide basic city services like filling potholes.
Melton wasn’t playing favorites. First, both Melton and Sanders are African-American. Next, a separate group that re-enacts the 1865 Battle of Selma received a bill for $22,000 for its upcoming event. Upon receiving the bill, it canceled the event and announced a fundraising campaign for the 2018 battle. What they did not do was complain publicly.
Consider how refreshing this is—a Democrat making a public statement that the function of government is to live within a budget and that events and organizations, no matter how admirable, need to pay their own way and not try to foist the cost on someone else.
Who else needs to hear this philosophy? Most elected members in Congress.
The Office of Management and Budget estimated that the U.S. had an effective deficit in 2016 of $587 billion on a budget—a term we use very loosely—of approximately $3.8 trillion. For years, we have experienced the kabuki dance of alleged conservatives calling for fiscal responsibility by cutting the programs and spending advocated by other people.
Meanwhile, back in Selma, the 2017 Jubilee organizers were able to make some compromises to save money. A private group picked up the cost of the parade permit. Several ancillary events were canceled or moved to other venues where private property owners would be responsible.
The Jubilee organization does sell tickets, but it’s not clear how much money is raised or how it’s allocated.
As usual, the media is on the side of noble intentions no matter what the financial implications. The Gadsden Times editorialized that the Jubilee and city should find a compromise.
The problem is that the city already compromised by knocking $12,000 off the cost. The paper’s Plan B was a vague recommendation that unknown people would step forward and pick up the tab. This is redolent of the argument that rich people are the answer.
I like the mayor’s position, which is that the Jubilee should include a funding component in its plans.
I predict that Melton has a bright political future, and he deserves support from everyone preaching the importance of sound finances. Melton, please keep talking about why you took the position that you did, and send your comments to your federal colleagues.