How to turn around a shrinking Jefferson County

Jefferson County

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.

  • Executive
  • Legislative
  • Judicial

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.

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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. dsher@amsher.com

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12 thoughts on “How to turn around a shrinking Jefferson County”

  1. Thanks David for this very informative and thoughtful blog. Is there anyway to know the age/demographics of those 25,000 lost people? Are they deaths? Are they young people who are abandoning JeffCo ? Are they retirees moving to Florida?

    I find this information that you have shared to be disturbing.

    1. Don’t know demographics. Here is info on births & deaths: “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.”

  2. Sad indeed. I was born, raised and educated in Jefferson County. I left only because of a spouse, but my heart and memories lie deep in the history of Birmingham. My childhood memories of the treat to go into town on Saturdays to seek out the tucked away hot dog stand or Woolworths counter for lunch in the busy city and then on to see what Pizitz had new, and later in life to be the Assistant to Promotions Mgr there afford me memories that can never be replaced or the excitement I felt as a child to go to see the Christmas windows with thier magical moving characters. In a world that moves so fast, I am honored to hold these memories as close to my heart at 72 as they were at 6 or 7. Bring back the”Magic” …

  3. David, this information is very interesting and very much worth knowing. It is important to consider it as a catalyst for reinvention and forward movement toward a better city.

    The comparison with Pittsburg funded by the Community Foundation leaves ope some questions for me. It is clear what the change of government was. It is also clear that big new businesses arrived afterward. What I am curious about is the remaining question of cause (government change) and effect (new business arrival), Were there other factors beside the change of government. Knowing that would make the date more useful I think.

    Suzzane, what you remember, all of it I well remember too. Those memories are so totally delightful, and those experiences have left downtown. Alabama theater and its grand organist Stanly Malott plaiying in that ;large beauty spot,

    And so many other regularly enjoyed theaters. The renewal of the Lyric is one fine step, more could be used, Traffic needs to flow better, but it should help that there are so many more people in residence int downtown itself.

    ‘Build it they will come? Memphis over built its airport, and that made it become grad central hub for FedEx. Dream and implement those dreams Birmingham!

  4. I can guarantee probably the biggest reason is Jefferson County Child Protective Services and other resources along those lines.

    1. There are two aspects of this population decrease or stagnation whatever it might be. Both should be studied to realize the cause and effect of each. then strategies can be created and implemented to turn things around. Fear would be one thing to check, what is feared and whatever causes that. another would be lack of appeal and what causes that. Such thinking must happen or nothing is going to change, except that things will likely get worse. Fear would cause the flight. So would appeal of a competing place. Fear and discomfort could be more forceful, especially to risk averse people. Then of course there is cost, taxation included. If I recall the implementation of the occupational tax in Birmingham dove people out of the city and businesses as well. To me that has always a negative way to obtain revenue.

      The solution to the population issue can be found using such a process as this. Then who will lead that process? An expert who is also expert at comunication is necessary. There are some surely, perhaps right in the area. There are definitely some elsewhere. Consultants are needed, combined with local leadership. Wide public engagement is a must to inform and to survey.
      Think. think think! David, your entering this territory regarding population opens the door to Birmingham’s better future. Excellent thinking on your part to start this blog in the first place.

  5. David,
    I must disagree with your comments that Jefferson County needs a strong Executive Branch. Have we forgot the Larry Lankford and Gary White days of corruption, political patronage and inefficient county services?
    The best thing that has happed to Jefferson County in the past is the establishment of a County Manager’s position, putting the administration of the county’s operations in the hands of a professional manager. Although Tony Petelos was a politician in his previous life, but after 10 years of serving as county manager, he has become a strong advocate for this form of government. He has hired many talented professionals and look at the progress of Jefferson County during his 10 year tenure.
    To go back to a Commission form of government, even with a strong County Commission Chair, instead of a professionally trained , non-political, appointed County Manager would be a major step in the wrong direction.
    Thank goodness for the example Shelby County set by having a professional county manager for over 30 years and the efficient services they offer their residents, despite rapid growth. Jefferson County was very wise in following their lead.

    1. Sam, thank you for your insightful response. I totally agree that the establishment of a County Manager was a major improvement for Jefferson County–and Tony Petelos should receive credit for doing an outstanding job. And I want to make it clear that my comments are not a criticism of our County Commissioners. However, Jefferson County will soon have a new County Manager and over time, there will be new county commissioners. I certainly remember that many of our County Commissioners were jailed or indicted–and that is what you would expect when there are only two branches of government–our founding fathers would have predicted it. Though having a County Manager is a good thing, the County Manager still works for the County Commission and they can hire and fire him/her. Mountain Brook has a mayor and I assume you are not proposing that Mtn Brook not have an executive branch? BTW, I strongly feel that if we one day have a County Mayor that he or she should have a professional county manager just like Mtn. Brook, Shelby County, Vestavia Hills, etc. Again, thanks for taking the time to add to our conversation. You are a model of the effectiveness and of a good city manager.

    2. This is a good point to continue studying. Well experienced County managers are very helpful in keeping things on track towards realistic advancement. The idea of a County Mayor is still worth consideration. Realize however that both are always corruptable depending on the ethical aspect of the character of the people holding those positions.

      There is no doubt that the widespread knowledge, both national and international, of the Jefferson County scandal surrounding the failure of the overdone sewer system plan, including its extension into Wall Street, very extremely damaged the Birmingham area’s worldwide reputation. That is the kind of thing that results in the negative imbalance of population change.

      It was no help to the have negative report that the sewer system of Jefferson County was actually very badly failing, threatening the health of citizens. Every one knew it.

      This bad history does need to be remembered in order to avoid it happening again in the future. While not forgetting it, of great value will be the results of looking more toward finding the right positive actions to take to get over it and move to a brighter future. Success in that would itself be very helpful to the city’s new reputation.

    3. Sam, one more thought. Who is the public Face of Jefferson County? It’s not the County Manager who is not elected but appointed and it’s likely not the President of the County Commission. The President of Commission is elected by his district which represents only 20% of Jefferson county’s population. Folks in most of the county did not have an opportunity to vote for him and most probably don’t know him. When David Carrington was President of the Jefferson County Commission and was trying to deal with the finances of the county after Jefferson County’s bankruptcy he was constantly criticized by other county commissioners as trying to represent the county. BYW, congratulations on being honored for your leadership by the International City/County Management Association–being selected as the 2021 recipient of the Award for Career Development.

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