A graph of Jefferson County’s population over the past 50 years looks eerily like the EKG of a dead man.
It’s a straight line that goes neither up nor down. It lays dormant like a dead body.
Unfortunately that flat line now appears to represent the good ‘ole’ days.
According the Census Bureau’s Vintage 2020 Population Estimates program, Jefferson County’s population is estimated to have dropped by about 3,300 residents in the last decade.
But that 3,300 loss is much worse than it appears.
According to al.com, “Jefferson saw the state’s largest net loss in domestic migration at nearly 25,000 people.” Twenty-five thousand more people moved out of Jefferson County than moved here from throughout the U.S.
Much of the loss was salvaged through international migration (6,000) and births over deaths (15,778)—but 25,000 is a lot of people to lose in net domestic migration.
An alarming number of people are not interested in remaining in or moving to Jefferson County—a depressing statistic since much of our U.S. growth comes from Sunbelt counties like Jefferson.
You might think that many of those Jefferson County folks are moving to Shelby County, but Shelby only had an increase net migration over the past decade of 6,310 which includes international migration. It doesn’t come close to making up for Jefferson County’s loss.
There are probably numerous reasons for our domestic migration population loss, but a contributing factor is our government structure.
One of the first things we learned in government class in elementary school was the importance of separation of powers by having three branches of government.
Astonishingly Jefferson County does not have an executive branch. We have a legislative branch (our County Commission made up of five members) and a judicial branch–but no executive.
Our states have governors. Our federal government has a President. And all businesses, both large and small, have a chief executive officer. Why is it okay for a large county like Jefferson to have no county-wide elected leader?
Ten years ago our State Legislature passed legislation to require Jefferson County to hire a professional County Manager. That was a big improvement, but our County Manager works directly for the County Commission—they hire him and they can fire him–so there is no independent executive branch.
In 2017 the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham published a study identifying four approaches cities and metros could take to build regional unity. Four cities each representing one of these approaches were chosen for the study.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was one of those cities selected for modernizing its county government.
According to the study “Greater Pittsburgh is arguably the national champion of fragmentation with 130 general purpose governments and 43 school districts in its central county of Allegheny. It’s configured a lot like Birmingham, a core city built on an industrial base ringed by suburbs, which captured most of the population growth in the second half of the 20th century.”
“While Pittsburgh remains more fragmented than Birmingham, the area has taken steps to unite at the county level by reforming county government.”
“In 1998, voters approved a home rule charter that replaced Allegheny County’s three-member county commission with a county council, elected by district, and a chief executive elected countywide. The county government was restructured to create a separation of executive and legislative powers with checks and balances between them.”
The three most important political leaders in Pennsylvania are now the governor, the mayor of Philadelphia, and the mayor of Allegheny County. Prior to the change, Allegheny County didn’t have a seat at the table.
According to the Community Foundation report, “Pittsburgh has now…become a regional technology mecca. Drawn by the talent and technology generated by Carnegie Mellon software and robotics programs, Pittsburgh landed Uber Technologies Inc.’s New Advanced Technology Center, which is pioneering the development of driverless Uber vehicles. Apple has expanded its Pittsburgh operation into a 20,000 square-foot building in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Facebook has an established a research center for its Oculus virtual reality division. And Google now Pittsburgh has established itself as a technology hub with such companies as Google, Apple Inc., Intel, Uber, Facebook and RAND establishing campuses in the city.”
Pittsburgh is thriving even with 130 general purpose governments.
Jefferson County with 35 municipalities could have the same opportunity.
Birmingham historically has been called the ‘Pittsburgh of the South.’ Both Pittsburgh and Birmingham were steel towns.
Maybe once again it’s time for Birmingham to follow Pittsburgh’s lead by creating a strong executive branch.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org