Have you ever heard of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC)? Unless you follow the minor leagues of college sports, the name is probably meaningless to you. The conference consists of 10 “historically black” universities stretching from Texas to Alabama.
Although the conference has its roots in Texas, it’s currently headquartered here in Birmingham. Why? Because the city of Birmingham hands the conference half a million dollars each year and supplies free office space, too. And what’s in it for the taxpayers who are handing that money over? That’s a harder question to answer.
For the last dozen years or so, the conference has had a championship football game here in Birmingham. It’s been played at a dump of an old stadium which was once a proud facility which was called “the Football Capital of the South.” But that was many decades ago. Today, it’s a pile of out-of-date junk. The stadium’s upper deck had to be torn down because it was unsafe, but it didn’t matter anyway, because the sort of events it holds these days don’t typically attract more people than a rather large high school crowd. (See the example below of the “crowd” at the stadium for a UAB football game.)
But the SWAC has held its championships here and the city of Birmingham has paid half a million to the conference, on the shaky theory that it was somehow a good deal because the event drew motel and restaurant business to town — once a year for the football championship and once a year for a basketball championship.
But the SWAC has moved both of its championship games to Houston. Despite that, Birmingham Mayor William Bell’s new budget calls for the city to increase its bounty to the conference — up to $550,000 this year. Why? Who knows? Maybe he just likes spending taxpayer money. Neither the mayor nor his chief of staff has returned calls to a local newspaper in the last week to address the issue. And a few council members are suggesting that the city rethink this expenditure.
When you hear cities whine about not having the money to meet their budgets, remember this random example. In almost every city, you’ll find similar things. You’ll find politicians handing out our money to arts groups, “community” groups, sports groups and everybody else who’s been able to talk their way to the trough at which the pigs are made fat on taxpayer money.
Just a few months ago, the Birmingham City Council renewed a “temporary” sales tax that boosted the retail tax rate in the city to 10 percent starting in 2007. A previous mayor championed a plan to temporarily raise the tax — to bring in $33 million a year — to improve police, fire, sidewalks and all sorts of things that sound good. But temporary taxes are rarely temporary, so this one is sticking around. (And, by the way, the mayor who initiated the tax is now in prison for corruption.)
There are plenty of things that every city can and should get rid of, although there are a few cities that really operate as frugally as possible. My experience is that the bigger the city budget, the higher the percentage of wasted and stolen money. The only reasonably well-managed cities I’ve seen have been tiny places — and even many of those have budgets designed to make a mayor personally happy by spending money on what he wants in order to make his friends happy.
There’s no sound reason for Birmingham taxpayers to be handing half a million dollars — plus an unknown amount for office space — each year for a sports conference. If it’s in the conference’s best interests to be here, it will be here. If it needs to be somewhere else, it’ll be somewhere else. There’s no reason for taxpayers to foot the bill for payments that give them absolutely nothing in return.
Don’t fall for the notion that governments need more of your money. They’re already taking far too much and frittering it away.