By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – It has been just over a year since Steven Reed was elected mayor of Montgomery, a historic moment that brought national attention a city known as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement electing its first black mayor.
But the celebration was short lived because in just a few months, Reed was dealing with multiple major challenges: a fight with the Legislature over a planned occupational tax, a worsening threat from the coronavirus pandemic and calls for policing reforms in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Now, Reed is taking on perhaps his biggest challenge yet: trying to convince the people of Montgomery County to raise their property taxes to pay for improvements to the long-troubled Montgomery Public Schools. Technically, the mayor has no authority over the school system. It’s governed by the county school board and superintendent. But Reed has become the biggest cheerleader for the plan, which he says is essential to turn local schools around, help recruit more businesses to the city and even keep Maxwell Air Force Base from relocating.
Here are the basics of the tax plan:
- Local schools are largely funded by property taxes, which are calculated in millage. A one mill tax would assess $1 for each of the $1,000 of assessed property value. So, if you’re home is worth $100,000 and the local education property tax is 10 mills a month, as Montgomery County’s is, your tax is $10 a month. If your home is worth $200,000, then your education property tax is $20 a month, and so on. Note: this is only the education portion of the tax. There are other local property taxes assessed by millage.
- The referendum on the Nov. 3rd ballot would raise Montgomery County’s education millage rate from 10 to 22. So, instead of taxing $10 for every $1,000 of home value, $22 would be taxed. That means education property taxes on the $100,000 home would increase from $10 to $22 a month. For the $200,000 home, the education property tax goes from $20 a month to $44 a month.
- According to Reed and other advocates, the plan would generate more than $33 million for local schools to pay for badly-needed maintenance and construction, more teachers, counselors and security guards and improve course offerings like AP and career tech.
Opposing the tax plan is John Pudner’s Take Back Our Republic group, which argues that the school system can’t be trusted with more tax money and that the process to pass the tax through the Legislature was rushed and had little public input. Anyone who has been around Alabama Politics for long knows Pudner’s name. He is well known for his conservative grassroots campaigning and was instrumental in defeating both Gov. Bob Riley’s Amendment 1 tax plan in 2003 and Gov. Kay Ivey’s school board reorganization amendment in March of this year.
A simple “Vote No on Higher Taxes” message is easy enough to sell, and Pudner usually does it pretty well. Brian Lyman and Krista Johnson of the Advertiser have more on that effort.
Still, Reed is confident the amendment will pass. He thinks the same coalition of voters who elected him a year ago will come through for him again on this tax package.
Here’s our full conversation, In the Weeds.
Todd C. Stacy: This past week marked one year since your election as mayor. That was obviously a historic moment, but it has been a lot of work since then. Can you reflect on that milestone?
Mayor Steven Reed: You know, it has been a blur. The last year really has been a lot of work, a lot of change, but I think it has also brought a lot of promise as well. I’ve excited about the response of the staff here at the City of Montgomery departments from top to bottom, really across the board. The community has been very supportive, business leadership has been very receptive as well, and there’s really been an overall mood about what our possibilities can be. There’s a lot of optimism and that has really kept us going through a lot of the challenges, whether that was legislatively when we first got in dealing with [the Legislature’s opposition to the occupational tax] unexpectedly, and then obviously the challenges surrounding the coronavirus and COVID-19. So it’s been one of those things where we probably didn’t get the full opportunity to transition like we wanted, but that’s what this job is about – how to you navigate those times that you can’t predict or don’t see coming. And I think we’ve done about as well as we could have in dealing with those things over the last year. But it has been a whirlwind, that’s for sure.
TCS: You mentioned the pandemic, and yeah, nobody saw that coming. Early on in the pandemic, Montgomery was listed as a “hot spot” nationally. No mayor wants that headline. Of course now we are in a much better place. Walk me through how the city responded to that.
MSR: Yeah. I think that for us, we planned for the worst and hoped for the best. We started out I think ahead of the game. The first time I heard about the coronavirus I was at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January. A friend of mine, an old college classmate who is an expert in foreign policy, and China to be more specific, asked if I was paying attention to it. At that time I wasn’t. It wasn’t on my radar. We weren’t even 60 days in [office] hardly at that point and I was still trying to figure out where all the departments were and who was in what building and that sort of thing. So, for us, we started to take note after he reached back out and shared some of the news stories coming out of the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle area, and he said, “you know what, this is going to spread and you need to be ahead of it. And pretty much after that second conversation I had with him, we got our EMA folks, our chief of staff and everybody else together and said just in case this turns out to be something kind of bad, let’s start planning for it. We started having daily meetings about it, we went through the preparations, we set up our emergency command center. I think we were one of the first counties to do that, and we did it just out of an abundance of caution. I think that really helped and guided us all the way through from the very beginning of instituting a curfew to try to slow the spread, the governor’s shelter-in-place order, and then we did our local mask mandate here. So we decided very early that we were going to listen to the scientists and medical experts, follow the data, and it didn’t really matter to us what the political blowback was going to be from any side, we were just going to do what we thought was in our best interests during this heretofore seen unprecedented public health catastrophe. We wanted to make sure we were on the right side of our decision making in being overly cautious if anything, but not being underprepared. That’s the mindset we had from day one and I think it has gotten us, even when we were listed as a hotspot to have come in a couple of months after that and cut those cases in half after the mask mandate was instituted locally.
TCS:Do you think it was in some ways a blessing to have a “wake up call” so early in the pandemic to make people take it more seriously?
MSR: Oh I certainly think so because you get to a point where it takes bells ringing and lights flashing to get people’s attention. In our case, it wasn’t until national news kind of put the spotlight on us and the medical experts locally came out and said the same thing that the experts were saying nationally. So I think it made a difference when they saw some familiar medical faces, their doctors, people they recognized, and that really helped us tremendously turn the conversation from what was a political football to what we need to do to get through this together. While you don’t want that attention for the reasons that we got it, I think ultimately it was a benefit to us and was a net positive.
TCS:I mean, did yall even keep track of all the national media interviews you did? I mean that was a lot…
MSR: I know we turned down more than we took. That was my rule: we’ll take all the local ones and we’ll take the national ones when we can.
TCS: Let’s talk about the upcoming property tax referendum. I know this is high on your priority list because it means more money for the local schools, which are struggling. Give me your pitch on the initiative.
MSR: Well, the pitch is very simple to me: it is essential that we invest in our public education in a way that is commensurate with what we expect, and we haven’t always done that. We’ve expected something for nothing, and that was okay for some time, but it really wasn’t. It was okay in terms of it kept us afloat but we never were able to get ahead like other communities in this state. And, you know, there’s a long history behind that. Dr. Ed Bridges who was the longtime director of the state archives gave probably the best explanation for this when I went through Leadership Alabama, how not only the way the state’s constitution is written but how we’ve been funded here and why that has been such an obstacle to our growth and to our prosperity. And so when I think about education in Montgomery, I think about Montgomery being the hub, being the heartbeat of Central Alabama. I know that for us to compete, to recruit and retain not only young families and young professionals, but for us to be able to go out and have a puncher’s chance at economic development projects, we have to have a better education system, because what we’ve been doing wasn’t good enough then and it sure as hell isn’t good enough now…
TCS: It has been about two years since voters basically cleaned house at the Board of Education and voted in an almost whole new slate. And yet change hasn’t come overnight. Do you think the fact that there is new leadership governing the schools helps your case?
MSR: Yea I think that enough has happened to give voters confidence that their money is going to be invested wisely. I understand questions around accountability and I welcome those questions. When we think about the average home in Montgomery being worth about $127,000, we’re talking about the average home owner will pay $12.75 a month. That’s lunch, right? Over at Dave’s cafe or wherever you go, that’s a good lunch. So when we think about that $12.75 per month and what that means over time in terms of our education system, in terms of our quality of life, in terms of correlation to crime as well as the types of jobs we can recruit on the other end of that pendulum, to me it’s a no brainer for us to invest. And let me say this, as one who could be for a Don Seigleman sponsored lottery and also be for a Bob Riley sponsored Amendment One, I think the failure of both of those ideas, because of the skepticism if not the cynicism of our base is why this state is in the position that it is in. And when you look at states like South Carolina that were smaller than Alabama in 2000, that have lower economic growth and lower GDP, and now we are seeing, like North Carolina, I remember when we use to talk about North Carolina as being a state that we expire to be like, well North Carolina has left us in the dust never to be caught. But South Carolina in the last 20 years has surpassed, taken the blueprint that we have and go after automotive manufacturing plants and built on that but they also invested in their government and improved infrastructure, improved healthcare and education along those lines, and then boom, what do you see? Job growth, population growth, city shifting and jobs being created and universities booming, all of these things because of policy. So when people think about policy they don’t often consider what the consequences are of those choices and we get caught in “well the worst is going to happen and the sky is falling and because it’s not perfect I’m going to be against it.” Well, if we went off of that for everything then I’d hate to think not only where we would be as a city and as a state but where this nation would be. Nothing is perfect. The private sector is not perfect. But yet, we put in our time, we give to our 401Ks, and everything else. Nothing is perfect, but we still do it. I think for us for whatever reason, regardless of who’s been in charge, we just haven’t been able to get to that level of confidence to get past it. But I think here in Montgomery, with the change in the school board over some of the tough decisions that the superintendent had to make and what that has revealed. It has revealed some mistakes. It has revealed certainly some missing funds through audits. They’ve been transparent, they’ve been very clear about what’s been happening and those people have paid the consequences, now I think we’re in a place where we can say ‘let’s not hold the kids hostage because of what the adults are doing.’ I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can invest in our school system and also make sure our leadership holds those administrators and teachers accountable while still trying to go out and recruit. Great teachers hold on to the good ones we have and make sure we provide the type of 21 century education that the 2030’s will require.
TCS:As mayor, you don’t actually have authority in Montgomery County Schools, and yet you are the biggest cheerleader for this initiative. Should the mayor, and really the city, have a greater involvement in the public schools? Do you see a city school system or even a hybrid in the future?
MSR: Not for me. I think that what we have to do is trust the voters and leadership that they elected to the school board or the same voters that elected me to the mayor’s office under the pretense of having a separation of power between our school board and municipal government. You know for us, we are already underfunded in municipal government and I shudder to think what it would cost us to take on a school system. I think that’s in part why previous mayors have not done that as well. I think that from my perspective you don’t have any authority but you are perceived, or you have all the responsibility. That’s how it goes. I think it’s one of those things where I want to see what our educators and teachers can do with adequate, I won’t even say proper, but adequate resources and what our school kids can do with adequate technology and facilities and all the things that really make a school system great whether your in Suwanee, Georgia or your in South Montgomery. What does that look like? So for me, what we want to do is be partners with our school system. We want to be advocates and champions for what they’re doing and work with them in some areas that we think may be important to the business community, maybe important to our military, and maybe important to, again the prosperity of this city.
TCS: You were at Maxwell Air Force Base earlier talking about the importance of the schools to the Air Force. I know last year the Air Force signed agreements with Pike Road and Autauga County to allow on base residents to attend those schools. Does that put more or less pressure on Montgomery?
MSR: It’s important because the air force base has a lot to do with the identity of Montgomery. It’s an undersold asset, if you will, to people inside Montgomery but to those outside of Montgomery they are well aware of what Air University means. That’s bringing in top leaders from our air force to this city and to the river region. So there are so many ways we benefit from the air force base being here. Why it’s so important. When you think about a $2.6 billion impact, there is not an idea, there is not a project out there that can replicate that, that’s on the books or that’s in anyone’s head right now. And so it’s vital that we hang on to Maxwell and Guner. It’s vital because it doesn’t just impact the city, it impacts Autauga County, it impacts Elmore County and Lowndes County. All of our surrounding counties, Butler, Crenshaw, are impacted by Maxwell’s presence. So for us to be the leaders in central Alabama, we have to act like it. So for us to be even this close to discussing losing it in the base realignment coming up that’s problematic to me because that tells me we were doing things prior from now that got us to this point. So now we are at a corner, and we are in a corner that we have to find our way out of and I believe we can and I believe we will because I think we’ll pass the referendum because people understand what’s at stake. There’s always going to be cynics and skeptics and I get that but I think that for what we want to do here, we want to stabilize our relationship with the U.S. Air Force, and then we want to expand it, because I think there is a lot of assets for us to use from the state government, from our universities, to the people in this community, to our location that will really make us a prime place to expand our presences and not just hold on. So this to me is just a first step. Let’s get out on solid ground and then let’s think about how we expand this partnership, when we think about the history with the Tuskegee airmen, being right down the road located in Dannelley Field with the F35. But also with the opportunity through the technological partnerships that we have with private industry, universities and state government, what we can build around this. And I think that we’re in a great place, our weather is great 80% of the year, not more than that. So we have some advantages that other communities don’t have, low cost of living. We just have to make sure that we’re doing the things with the infrastructure of this community that keeps us ahead of the pack, and what we have to understand is, the pack of other communities and other cities are always looking to poach, they’re always looking at what they can do and they aren’t encumbered by some of the same baggage that we have. So we have to be willing to shed some of that and say this is what we have to do to move forward. It doesn’t matter what happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago, but if we want to stay ahead 10 years from now, this is what we have to do and I think that plays right into this referendum on education and then how we continue to build on the type of community we want for military families that are coming and how they view us as well.
TCS: What does success look like? Let’s say this passes and the schools have $33 million more dollars in the near future. What does turning around Montgomery schools look like and how will we know when the changes are working?
MSR: I think we will know change is happening when our numbers in public schools aren’t declining, enrollment. We see more people enroll their kids in our public schools and we’re able to point to that as a key success factor in landing economic development projects, as well as a key success factor in why our quality of life and quality of places are improving here for people who are born, raised and will die in this city. So for me success is easy to determine because it’s through growth, it’s through credibility, how are we rated, how are we graded, what can we offer. And for lack of a better term, what is the word association. The non scientific approach to this, what is the first word that comes to anyone’s mind, whether they live here or they don’t, when they hear about MPS. Now I am very realistic in the sense that I know money is not the panacea for all of our problems but it is a tremendous asset to have, it is very helpful to have. It allows you to navigate things differently when you have more resources, just like any organization or any firm. And I think that for me, the success will be when we can look at kids, when we can look at teachers and can look at parents at MPS and we can say we’ve given them a fair shot. We’ve given them a fair shot to create opportunities for themselves and for their kids and grandkids regardless of their zip code and look at the opportunities that are abound in this city.
TCS: Do like being Mayor? Having fun being mayor?
MSR: I am, man. I like it a lot. I like the opportunity to set the game plan if you will and talk to a number of people of what plays we ought to run. And to really advance our approach to doing things in Montgomery that puts us in line with other cities and I think for too long we haven’t been there, we’ve just been using an outdated playbook, to continue with the sports analogy and I think that what I like most is we are changing and I think there are a number of people looking forward to that change. THere are a number of people who are excited about what the possibilities can be. With the people that we have in this community, the people that work in the city of Montgomery, all of our corporate non-profit parties here. The best part about this is, knowing that what we’re doing is going to make their jobs not only easier but more rewarding for them in their mission. Whatever their goals or objectives may be and that we will be putting this city in a better place year to year, day to day, than what we found in the previous set up.