Together We Can – Charting a Course to Cooperation for Greater Birmingham

PARCA’s latest report, commissioned by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, focuses on the fragmentation of the Birmingham region, the challenges it causes, and potential solutions exemplified by other metro areas around the country.

With the clouds of Jefferson County’s bankruptcy lifting and downtown Birmingham showing impressive signs of revival, optimism about the region’s future is high.

Considering the positive signs, it’s important to ask whether the community is prepared and positioned to capitalize on its current momentum.

In recent decades, Birmingham and its metro area have underperformed in job and population growth in comparison to comparable cities. That begs the question: Why?

Nationally, a substantial body of research indicates that metro areas with more broad-based, cooperative governmental arrangements grow faster and generate greater prosperity than metro areas that are governmentally fragmented, divided into a multitude of independent municipalities.

The region’s central city of Birmingham is surrounded by more independent suburbs than any other southern city. This pattern of fragmentation has consequences. It leads to duplication, creates intra-regional competition, concentrates economic advantage and disadvantage, and diffuses resources and leadership. It makes it difficult to arrive at consensus, pursue priorities of regional importance, or deliver services that transcend municipal boundaries. In sum, it puts the metro area at a disadvantage.

Figure 1 compares job growth since 2000 in two groups of metropolitan areas. The seven cities on the left are fragmented like Birmingham: a diminished central city ringed by a multitude of suburbs.

 

Figure 1

The seven metros on the right have governmental structures that unite the region. In the more unified metros, job growth since 2000 ranges from 20 percent to 50 percent. In the fragmented metros, job growth ranges from 5 percent to -12 percent.

Average annual employment in Birmingham-Hoover MSA has increased by only 0.24 percent since 2000.

The same contrast emerges when comparing median income and poverty and unemployment rates: In cities where government is fragmented, growth is slower, and social and economic problems are more concentrated.

The negative effects of fragmentation weigh not only on the center city but also on the metropolitan area as a whole. The fortunes of the central city and its suburbs are interlocked.

Fragmentation is a long-term process, a deeply ingrained pattern of development that Birmingham shares with northern cities that have a similar industrial heritage. It is not easily undone. In no instance in the post-World War II era has there been a mass political consolidation that dissolved existing cities or school districts. However, cities across the country have developed alternative approaches that promote unity and increase cooperation within their metro areas.

In 2016, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham commissioned the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) to conduct a study of the current structure of government in Greater Birmingham, with Jefferson County as its primary focus. The study was to examine Greater Birmingham’s historic development and its current state in comparison with other cities, to describe different options other cities have pursued to overcome fragmentation, and finally, to explore how those different options might work in the Birmingham context.

This resulting report was developed with advice and review from a Strategic Advisory Group convened by the Community Foundation. Members of the Strategic Advisory Group were selected to provide a range of perspectives representing the larger Jefferson County community.

Locally, a wide range of public officials from the central city, the suburbs, and the county were also consulted, as were leaders in business and civic groups.

KEY FINDINGS

Fragmentation has led to a decline in Birmingham’s prominence and its ability to lead the region.

In 1950, Birmingham was the 34th largest city in the U.S. According to the latest population estimates, the city has fallen out of the top 100. Though the latest estimates indicate the city may have halted its population decline, other Alabama cities where growth is strong may eventually displace Birmingham as Alabama’s largest city.

The population of the City of Birmingham now represents only 32 percent of Jefferson County’s population compared to 60 percent in 1950. The city still holds a position of regional leadership thanks to its ability to draw taxes from businesses and commuters who come into the city to work or shop. Over 90,000 people commute into the city each day, filling more than half of the jobs in the city. According to PARCA’s analysis, city residents contribute 33 percent of city taxes, non-residents contribute 28 percent, and businesses 39 percent.

However, Birmingham’s role as chief supporter of regional assets and projects is under increasing strain, as it struggles to meet not only that role but also the needs of economically distressed neighborhoods and residents.

Fragmentation is a drag on metropolitan growth.

The Birmingham-Hoover MSA is currently the 49th largest in the U.S., but its growth in employment and population is slow compared to peer MSAs. Growth is particularly lagging in its central county, Jefferson. Recent projections estimate Jefferson County will add only 8,967 new residents by 2040, a 1.4 percent increase over the current population.

Greater Birmingham has not developed a viable alternative for regional leadership.

While Jefferson County has positioned itself to better play a regional leadership role thanks to recent improvements in its finances and management, it still lacks an executive branch. Nearly half of the large counties in the U.S. are now headed by an elected CEO, creating a strong and capable executive branch charged with the management of the county government. Jefferson County is still governed by a five-member commission elected by district. Additionally, the 26-member Jefferson County Legislative Delegation exercises substantial control over local affairs.

Greater Birmingham needs a spirit of governmental innovation.

Across the country, local governments are innovating with form and function, finding new ways to collaborate, economize, and deliver better customer service. Greater Birmingham need not be bound to traditional ways of doing things.

INSIGHTS FROM OTHER CITIES

PARCA’s research identified four different approaches cities and metro areas take toward building and maintaining regional unity. Four cities representing the four different approaches were selected for study.

The four approaches are:

1. Functional Consolidation

Decreasing duplication and increasing efficiency through cooperative agreements between local governments.

Example Metro: Charlotte, North Carolina

2. Modernizing County Government

Structuring county government to provide regional leadership.

Example Metro: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

3. Cooperation Through Regional Entities

Using regional bodies to deliver services or coordinate strategy on a region-wide basis. These can be public or private, or a fusion of the two.

Example Metro: Denver, Colorado

4. Political Consolidation

Most often, the merger of the central city with the central county, creating an umbrella metro government to deliver regional level services.

Example Metro: Louisville, Kentucky

Once labeled “the most segregated city in America,” Birmingham is justly proud of its historic role in breaking down the walls of segregation that once legally separated blacks and whites.

The time is now right to re-examine the barriers to unity that were created in the past and develop a new approach that better meets the needs of all the people in the Birmingham metropolitan area—urban, suburban, and rural. No one approach rules out the others. In crafting an approach that meets its unique needs, Birmingham might borrow ideas from each.

This is not a new issue for the region, and greater Birmingham is not alone in having tried multiple times to resolve it.

Louisville and Nashville each failed twice before achieving governmental consolidation, and Charlotte created its intergovernmental cooperation strategy as an alternative to unachievable structural change. Pittsburgh took a first step to attack fragmentation by reforming county government, just as Denver did by creating special-purpose regional authorities with their own tax sources.

The question of community unity has been a recurring strain in Birmingham’s history. Greater Birmingham was catapulted to the status of major American city through a consolidation in the first decade of the 20th Century. Multiple votes from the 1940s through the 1960s presented city-suburban merger as an option but failed to garner adequate support. A different approach, the Metropolitan Area Project Strategies, was proposed in the late 1990s.

With the negative effects of fragmentation having become very clear, it is time for fresh ideas and new conversation about how Greater Birmingham can chart a new, more prosperous course. The public seems ready to engage in this conversation.

View the full report here and access additional components of the project here.

 


PARCA Roundtable Legislative Symposium

The Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama and the PARCA Roundtable will be hosting the PARCA Roundtable Legislative Symposium on June 23, 2017 from 7:30 – 9:30 a.m. at The Harbert Center in downtown Birmingham.

The Symposium will be a review of the 2017 Legislative Session by CEOs of major advocacy organizations in Alabama, including:

  • A+ Education Partnership
  • Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice
  • Alabama Arise
  • Alabama Education Association
  • Alabama Policy Institute
  • Alabama Rivers Alliance
  • Business Council of Alabama

The panel will be moderated by Don Dailey, News and Public Affairs Director at Alabama Public Television and Host of Capitol Journal.

Tickets for the breakfast event are $25. Register here today!


PARCA compares municipal finances in Alabama, gets mayors’ perspective

How Alabama Cities Finances Compare

How Alabama City Finances Compare is the ninth edition of PARCA’s study of Alabama city finances. This report provides basic information on municipal revenues, expenditures, and general fund balances from the most recent year available. The comparisons are in per capita amounts (dollars divided by resident population) so that cities of differing populations can be compared with one another. This edition of the report includes data on 22 cities, generally those having a population over 20,000.

The information provided can be valuable for city officials to use in benchmarking with their peers and for citizens to see how their municipality ranks financially among comparable cities within the state.

Municipal Executives Opinion Survey

In conjunction with the report on city finances, PARCA is also releasing the Municipal Executives Opinion Survey, a survey of 127 mayors and city executives from across Alabama. Responses indicate that these city leaders are generally optimistic about economic conditions and the stability of revenue sources in the coming year, although many expect increased HR costs, as well.

Despite the optimism, executives face challenges, too. There appear to be substantial demands for infrastructure improvements without a letup in expectations regarding public safety, human services, or government operations. Priorities for the coming year emphasize economic development and jobs, education, and building or repairing roads, sidewalks, and parks.

 


PARCA’s 2017 Public Opinion Survey Results are Here

Today, PARCA released the results of its annual public opinion survey. The poll of over 350 Alabama residents was conducted by Randolph Horn, Samford University, Professor of Political Science and Samford’s Director of Strategic and Applied Analysis. The survey addressed topics including state budget priorities, the quality of representation in state government, and in partnership with the Alabama Association of School Boards, questions about public education in Alabama.

Results from this year’s survey are consistent with previous years’ results in some important ways. Residents value state investments in education and healthcare. They believe education is inadequately funded. There is substantial evidence that respondents have limited faith in public officials. Support for earmarking revenues and keeping the education budget separate from the general fund may indicate concern that officials would misspend those resources if they were given more flexibility. Majorities think the state government does not care what they think or that they have no say in what the government does.

Public officials are in a difficult position. There is often a tension between the preferences of constituents in a district and the collective interest of a state or nation. Officials, seeing their colleagues defeated in primaries from the more extreme wing of their parties, may underestimated the scope they have when working to solve important public policy challenges. Similarly, officials may underestimate their capacity to educate their constituents on what it may take to address the problems confronting the state. Results of PARCA polls indicate many opportunities for officials to demonstrate responsiveness to public concerns and leadership in crafting public policy solutions.

Read the results and full analysis of this year’s survey here.


Number and Percentage of Workforce Ready Graduates Increased in 2016

Just over 60 percent of Alabama’s 2016 high school graduates scored “workforce ready” in 2016, according to new results from ACT’s WorkKeys assessment. The Class of 2016’s success rate, 61.3 percent, improves on the 60.8 percent rate for the Class of 2015. And because a greater number of students took the test in 2016, the Class of 2016 produced more workforce ready graduates: 28,717 compared to 2015’s total of 25,453, netting an increase of 3,264 graduates earning Silver level or above workforce credentials.

This is the second year that all high school seniors were offered the WorkKeys assessment, a battery of tests designed to determine whether students can demonstrate the skills they’ll need to enter the workforce. ACT WorkKeys assessments have been used for more than two decades by job seekers, employees, employers, students, educators, administrators, and workforce and economic developers. The assessments are designed to measure both cognitive (“hard”) and noncognitive (“soft”) skills tests. Alabama students take the Applied Mathematics, Reading for Information, and Locating Information tests.  Based on the scores attained on the three assessments, students may be eligible to earn a Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum Certificate.

Statewide, 61.3 percent of high school graduates earned a Silver level WorkKeys certificate or higher; 47 percent reached the Silver level and 15 percent earned a Gold certificate. Less than 1 percent earned a Platinum Level Certificate. Of the students tested, 23 percent earned a bronze level certification and 16 percent didn’t score high enough to obtain a credential.

The WorkKeys test was developed by ACT, the same company that offers the ACT, the widely-known test of college readiness. When comparing school system performance on WorkKeys to results from the ACT, there are some differences in performance. For instance, the top scoring system on WorkKeys was Arab City, where 91 percent of graduates scored Silver or above. Arab ranked 10th in the state on the ACT in the percentage of students who met all benchmarks for college readiness (30 percent). Hartselle City ranked third in the state in the percentage of students scoring Silver or above (86 percent) on WorkKeys, but ranked 7th on ACT performance (33 percent of students meeting all college-ready benchmarks). Homewood City Schools was third in the state in the percentage of students earning all college-ready benchmarks on the ACT (46 percent) but was 14th on WorkKeys success (79 percent).

The content of the test was developed using a similar approach to the ACT. ACT surveyed employers to develop a catalog of the foundational skills needed to succeed in the workplace, across industries and occupations. ACT then developed a test to measure whether prospective employees or, in this case, high school students, had those necessary skills to perform in the nearly 20,000 occupations ACT evaluated. The results can be provided to employers to demonstrate that a job applicant has the skills needed for workplace success. Using the results, students should be able to determine their skill levels, identify skills needing improvement, and match the measured skill levels to specific job requirements.

Those scoring at the Platinum Level have demonstrated the skills needed for 99 percent of the occupations in the ACT jobs dataset. Those earning a Gold level certificate should be ready for 93 percent of jobs in the database. Scoring at the Silver level indicates a candidate has the skills necessary to succeed in 67 percent of jobs in the ACT database. Those earning a bronze certificate are judged to be ready for 16 percent of jobs.

Additional information for understanding WorkKey’s scores can be found on ACT’s website, including this guide to understanding your scores.

When the state’s strategic plan for education, Plan 2020, was adopted by the State Board of Education, the board set a goal of achieving a 90 percent graduation rate.

At the same time, it set a goal of having all those graduates ready for college and career. Earning a Silver WorkKeys certificate or higher is one way a student can be judged as college and career ready. Graduates can also demonstrate college and career readiness by:

  1. Scoring at or above the college readiness benchmark on one of the tested subjects on the ACT
  2. Earning a passing score (3 or above) on an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam
  3. Receiving an industry-recognized credential recognized in the appropriate business sector
  4. Earning college credit through dual enrollment at a two-year college or university
  5. Successfully enlisting in the U.S. military.

 

 

You can explore the results for Alabama’s public schools and systems in the interactive charts below.

Click here to print.


Exceeding Expectations: Keys to Alabama’s Student Success

The latest report by PARCA was released last week at the Business Council of Alabama’s 2016 Governmental Affairs Conference. The report, entitled “Exceeding Expectations: Keys to Alabama’s Student Success,” the third PARCA research report commissioned by the Business Education Alliance of Alabama (BEA).

Exceeding Expectations examines the progress state schools have made toward goals established under the state’s strategic plan for improving education, Plan 2020. While noting the gains in the state’s high school graduation rate, the report also points to the need to improve the college and career readiness of graduates. By spotlighting school systems that have been the most successful in performance and improvement, the report attempts to describe common approaches and practices that can be emulated by other school systems.

Using a variety of metrics, PARCA identified systems that consistently perform at the highest level (Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Madison City, and Homewood City); systems that were the most improved in reading (Muscle Shoals City) and math (Opp City Schools); and systems that significantly outperformed expectations considering the socioeconomic backgrounds of the students they serve (Oxford City and Pike County).

The report found that all of the high-performing systems not only adopted the Alabama’s new College and Career Ready Standards, they also invested significant time and effort into translating the standards for application to the classroom. These systems prioritize professional development for teachers, building time into the school day for teachers to plan, analyze data, and collaborate on improving their teaching. They have created systems for supporting teachers through coaching and mentoring for first-year teachers. These systems have challenged teachers to move from a lecture-driven, teacher-centered classroom toward an environment in which students take ownership of learning.

The report also describes Selma City System’s approach to providing Pre-K for its students and Blount County’s focus on improving the quality and quantity of career and technical education offerings.

“Alabama school systems have been challenged like never before by the aspirational goals of Plan 2020; however, we know we can accomplish the goals it outlines – we must,” said Joe Morton, Ph.D., BEA chairman and president, in presenting the report.

Last month, PARCA won a national award from the Governmental Research Association for its two previous reports for the BEA, Obstacles into Opportunities published in 2014, and Teachers Matter published in 2015.

PARCA’s research and analysis have helped provide an objective foundation and policy framework for increased investment in key initiatives such as the expansion of the state’s First Class public Pre-K program, for investments in teacher quality, and for more rigorous and thorough assessments of Alabama students’ academic performance.


PARCA Wins National Award for Education Research

PARCA’s research reports on education funding, Alabama’s education performance, and plans for its improvement received national recognition by the Governmental Research Association (GRA) at the GRA’s annual conference in Pittsburgh last week.

PARCA received the GRA award for “Outstanding Policy Achievement” on a state government issue for its ongoing work to evaluate the progress of the Alabama’s strategic plan for improving education, Plan 2020. The award was given based on several criteria, including the display of tangible improvements in public policy and/or cost savings resulting from the research and recommendations of a governmental research agency.

PARCA’s research and analysis has helped provide an objective foundation and policy framework for increased investment in key initiatives such as the expansion of the state’s First Class public Pre-K program, for investments in teacher quality, and for more rigorous and thorough assessments of Alabama students’ academic performance.

Senator Arthur Orr, Chairperson of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee remarked on PARCA’s work, “In the Legislature we are constantly bombarded with results-oriented data from special interest groups. I feel confident dealing with the neutral, trustworthy data provided by PARCA. Their work has significantly influenced Alabama’s education policy in a positive manner.”

The award included recognition for three pieces of PARCA’s education research. The first piece was a survey of public opinion published in January 2016 which revealed that Alabama citizens were willing to pay more for education funding. The award also recognized two studies published on Alabama’s education system. Both reports were commissioned and funded by the Business Education Alliance of Alabama.

“The Business and Education Alliance (BEA) has one main goal–To improve public education and build a first class work force for Alabama” said Joe Morton, Ph.D., Chairman and President of BEA. “We immediately turned to PARCA for their expertise and never regretted it.”

Obstacles into Opportunities was published in 2014 and details the steps PARCA identified as necessary for Alabama to meet its goal of a 90% high school graduation rate by 2020, having those graduates prepared for the modern economy. The second report, Teachers Matter, was published in 2015. It examines how to create and retain high quality teachers.

This is the 10th national award that PARCA has received from the GRA, which was founded in 1914 as the national organization of individuals involved in government research. GRA’s annual awards competition is conducted to “recognize exceptional research on state and local governmental issues performed by staff members of governmental research agencies.”

PARCA’s retired executive director Jim Williams was also honored at the GRA annual conference. He received the 2016 Frederick P. Gruenberg Award. The Gruenberg Award is the highest distinction that the GRA can bestow on individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the field of governmental research during their careers. Jim’s work over the course of his 27-years at PARCA had a substantial impact on Alabama’s governmental practices and policy.

 


2016 Tuscaloosa Education Summit

Tuscaloosa’s annual Education Summit, organized by the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, was held on Wednesday, June 8th at the Bryant Conference Center at the University of Alabama.

The summit, titled “Chamber in Session: State of Education,” focused on local education and the performance of the Tuscaloosa City and County Schools.

PARCA kicked off the morning with a presentation of funding and school performance data for both school systems. The data tables are available here and the full presentation can be viewed by clicking the image below.


PARCA Talks State Budget

With the passage of the state’s general fund budget last week, PARCA Senior Research Associate Tom Spencer took a moment to sit down with WBHM’s Andrew Yeager to provide an overview of the budget and how some of the key departments will be affected.

“Medicaid, prisons, and education had strategic plans in place,” said Spencer. He says that allows lawmakers to make budgeting decisions for those parts of state government within an existing framework. That kind of planning doesn’t happen with other general fund agencies. With cuts to many agencies starting at 6 percent and no strategic plans in place, it’s hard to know the effects it will have on those agencies.

“We spent a lot of time [in the special session] with proposals coming from left and right about what to close and what to eliminate,” said Spencer. “They weren’t really based, in a lot of cases, on good solid information or well-thought-out plans.”

PARCA has recommended for years that the state adopt a system called performance-based budgeting. Performance based budgeting differs from other budgeting methods by focusing on policy goals and results rather than money spent.

“Figure out where you are, set a goal of where you want to go, identify the strategies that will get you to where you want to go, show what kind of investments need to be made, and pursue that. Measure your results, discard things that aren’t working and adopt different strategies,” Spencer said.

“State and local taxes are the lowest per capita in the United States of America. We have to run more efficiently than anybody else if we want to provide the same level of services. If we’re not asking tough questions and paying close attention to the bottom line, we’re not going to get good results.”

 Click here to listen to the full interview.




PARCA Director Jim Williams Retires, Search for New Director Begins

Jim Williams, who has served as PARCA’s executive director since its founding, plans to step down from that position later this year after 27 years of dedicated service. PARCA’s Board of Directors has begun a search for a successor.

 
Williams’ career in public policy research has spanned 43 years. He was recruited by Governor Albert Brewer and Dr. Tom Corts in 1988 to lead PARCA.  Throughout his tenure, Williams has been the cornerstone of the organization’s unmatched reputation for providing objective information and advocating for efficient, effective, transparent and accountable Alabama government.

“We like to think of ourselves as a good government think tank. We provide research that people and political leaders can use to improve public policy and government operations,” Williams said.

While at PARCA, Williams has guided such initiatives as the Alabama SMART Budgeting program and Alabama Student Test Score Analyses. PARCA regularly publishes research on taxes and spending, on state, county and local governments and on public school finances and operations. The staff has won eight national awards given by the Governmental Research Association for research quality.

In 2008, Williams was named as one of the “40 Most Influential Non-Elected Alabamians” in Thicket Magazine, asserting that he “has become one of the most influential policy people in the state. He has the ear of many in Alabama.”

With the announcement of Williams' retirement, the search has begun for PARCA's new Executive Director.

McKinney Capital is supporting PARCA by providing a Talent Acquisition team to guide PARCA's search for a new executive director.  The job posting can be viewed here. The search committee is focused on finding someone with the leadership skills and track record of impact to advance PARCA’s mission of improving government for the people of Alabama.