Had a good chat yesterday over breakfast with Kirkman Finlay III. The conversation was of a much higher quality than the photo above, for which I apologize. We were in a dark corner of the room, and my Blackberry just needs loads of light to get anything decent. Memo to self: Get a better shot of Kirkman next time you see him.
One thing the picture accomplishes, though: You see that stack of papers in the foreground? Those are Mr. Finlay’s city budget spreadsheets, without which no meeting with him is complete. They loom large in his legend.
Kirman Finlay is the fiscal watchdog on Columbia City Council. He has been coming to see Warren Bolton and me for years with these spreadsheets he compiles on his own, showing us the trends and making dire projections, so much so that (as Kirkman reminded me several times) Warren once referred to him as “Chicken Little.” The thing is, Chicken Little turned out to be right; Columbia’s financial sky was falling.
The last couple of years, in which the city of Columbia couldn’t tell you how much money it had (which always turned out to be less than it thought it had), when accounting was so out of control that the city was paying the same bills two or three times, have been Kirkman Finlay’s moment. And now he’s seeing whether that moment can be parlayed into a term as mayor.
Mr. Finlay is a master of ominous-sounding pronouncements. Here’s one from our breakfast yesterday: “There’s a sound in the background of metal on stone. It’s the ax.”
He says it’s “time to restructure state government,” and when he says it he’s not talking about strong-mayor or anything like that. He’s using “restructure” the way corporate budget-cutters use terms like “right-sizing.” He means reshaping our assumptions about what city government can do — downward. He repeatedly says Columbia is a $100 million-a-year city (in revenues) that wants to be taxed like a $75 million city, and wants to spend like a $125 million city. Noting the various surpluses that the city has blown over the past 8 years, he asserts that essentially the city overspends at a steady rate of $15 million a year. And it’s time, he says, to wake up and realize this can’t continue, which means “less employees, less generous benefits and entire lines of business (meaning services) disappearing.”
Once we’ve exhausted the potential in his spreadsheet, which takes a while, he draws a chart that has crime climbing the y axis and cost increasing along the x axis, and points out that while you want to be in the “low-cost, low-crime” quadrant, it’s acceptable to be in the “high-crime, low cost” quadrant (because you can do something about it) or the “low-crime, high-cost” quadrant (because it means you’re doing something, and it’s working), but Columbia is in the “high-crime, high-cost” quadrant — which means crime is rampant and we’re out of potential to beef up what we’re doing about it.
“When we go to debate, nobody wants to talk about” the financial crunch the city is in — and he finds this frustrating. “To sit there and say we’re going to do more,” as he suggests other candidates do, “is silly — or financially reckless.”
He said back when he was accused of being Chicken Little, he was only complaining about relatively minor fiscal excesses — the equivalent of the “Holiday Ten” pounds people put on, and then start losing in January. “But what we have now is a broken business model,” a far deeper, more structural problem.
If Councilman Finlay has a limitation, it’s that he embodies the fiscal watchdog role so well at the exclusion of anything else. It’s a good thing to have somebody like that on the council. And it’s good to have somebody running for mayor who demands of the others, “How are you gonna pay for it?” But he is so about no and can’t do it and can’t afford it that he never gets around to talking about what we can do or should do. He fails to inspire or motivate. (Unlike his father, who inspired us to make the Vista happen.) A guy who’s always about the current fiscal crunch, who spends his spare time crunching numbers to prove it will always be like this, isn’t a guy you want leading your team. That’s the guy the leader hires to keep him grounded. But you want the leader to be enthusiastic about something. Kirkman Finlay is enthusiastic about dampening enthusiasm. And I think that’s going to do him in in this election.