Here I was at Shenanigan’s, not yours on 11th Street but the fake Irish pub on 18th Street in my NW neighborhood. I came to meet a Mr. Q_______so I could help him with his Huntsville problem.
All I knew about Mr. Q before I walked from my little sublet to this craphole bar was that he was second in command at a city of 150,000 souls just outside of one of the largest metro areas in the U. S. And he wanted to come to Huntsville, Texas, to manage the city.
“Why?” I asked him after my friend Stew introduced us.
Stew clucked his tongue at me and turned to Mr. Q. “Sorry. Bob here’s from Texas,” Stew said. “His manners are a little rough.”
But Mr. Q was clearly in the throes of rethinking a commitment he had made to others, probably a wife and family and a dog and a cat. He wanted to answer my question.
“My wife wants to move back to Texas. She hates the cold. She likes the people better there,” he said. “Cold weather, cold hearts. Warm weather, warm hearts, she says. But you know, I don’t know. I was watching your city council on TV the other night, and one of your councilmen, he was talking to me. He was telling me to pass on Huntsville, and my gut says he’s right.”
Mr. Q wanted me to fill in the blanks, to reassure him that the councilman was wrong, full of sour grapes perhaps, and there was a reasonable explanation for what he’d seen and heard on the telecast of not one but two Huntsville City Council meetings.
“I don’t watch any more,” I said. “What did you hear?”
Mr. Q smiled as we ordered our drinks, a Harvey Wallbanger and two Rickeys, the official drink of Washington, D.C. by order of city ordinance.
Huntsville’s city council passed a budget last week with a shortfall of $1 million or so — depending on whose numbers you use —a tax increase of more than 10 percent and a 30 percent increase in water fees.
“What the fuck?” I said a little too loudly, which caused the cocktail waitress bringing my Harvey Wallbanger to flinch, which splashed OJ and Galliano onto Mr. Q. After the waitress and I dabbed at Mr. Q’s golf shirt with cocktail napkins, she scurried away to get me another drink.
“They’ve avoided raising taxes for ten years,” I said. “And they still managed to float a million-dollar slush fund year to year.”
“With some Enron accounting,” Mr. Q said. “I know. I’ve seen your city’s budget. And my wife was an Enron accountant.”
But with its shenanigans, Enron was trying to hide its debt for several unprofitable lines of business. Why and how would a city use Enron tactics? How could they get away with it?
“Dude, it’s not what you’re hiding,” Mr. Q said. “It’s that you’re hiding. Getting away with it is the easy part. Almost anyone should be able to read a budget for a city of 30,000 people, and if a city council of college-educated professionals and self-made businessmen can’t, you’ve got a big damn problem.”
Yet Mr. Q watched on TV on September 11 as the city council’s final budget discussion collapsed under the weight of a massive shell game. And this time there was no hiding it from the taxpayers.
After a half-hour off-camera recess — during which the politicians threw the city’s accountants under the proverbial bus — the mayor adjourned the meeting. By the next night, almost everyone had his story straight. But they also had no answers to the city’s problems, a million-dollar deficit and a tax increase that didn’t cover it.
“My first thought was that without a permanent city manager to shoulder the blame, city council was too chicken to cut what needs to be cut,” Mr. Q said. “And then I realized — the interim guy was going commando in another man’s fatigues. And those fatigues just might be mine.”
The interim city manager, Chuck Pinto, had created most of the extra expense by saddling the city with best practices it couldn’t afford, such as laying a set-in-stone limit to the reserve fund to protect the city’s bond rating and adding a $350,000 step increase for city employees.
“Call me crazy, but ‘best practices’ sound like a good thing,” Stew said.
“And they’ll look great on Chuck’s résumé,” Mr. Q said. “But he’s making a mess for me. Right now, Huntsville can’t afford to be more professional. It’s been holding things together by hook or crook while its coffers were pillaged for cash for bullshit pet projects.
“Our roads to nowhere,” I said. “Our sidewalks to cow pastures.”
“If they hire me, how am I going to undo what he did?” Mr. Q said. “I’m hamstrung. I’m screwed. The place will be gutted and broke unless I can find where the cash is hidden. And I never once heard city council say what it really wanted for the City of Huntsville.”
Councilmen Ronald Allen and James Fitch, who had questioned the budgeting process for weeks, voted against the interim guy’s budget. And the other seven voted yes, unmoved by the prospect that Huntsville voters could not or would not support their feckless or cowardly approach to municipal financial management.
On TV, Councilman Fitch, Mr. Q’s personal messenger, said he was embarrassed for the city and its elected leadership, concerned what candidates for the new city manager position might think.
“What I think? At least one of three things must be true about Huntsville, Texas,” Mr. Q said. “It takes a shotgun approach to economic development because it doesn’t have a strategy for healthy growth. It uses city funds to help finance special interest projects that it tries to disguise as ‘economic development.’ Or three, its politics are so complex and vicious that the town is paralyzed, unable to ever achieve consensus.”
“Or all of the above,” Stew said.
The waitress returned and this time I ordered a Rickey, too. “Use Sam Houston bourbon instead,” I said, “and we’ll call it a Ronnie.”
Here’s Huntsville in a nutshell, I explained to Mr. Q:
The Powers That Be live in travertine towers on a high hill. They’ve lived there always, even before the prison-plantation-college complex there yielded such a passive workforce. Their subjects carry one of two cards: wolf and sheep. And every so often between the two, they produce a dog that can hunt. That would be your Misters Allen and Fitch.
“To Fallen and Hitch,” said Stew, who raised his Ronnie for a toast.
“What happened to the last guy, the last city manager?” Mr. Q said.
“Big, arrogant fuck.,” I said. “He wouldn’t listen to council, so they paid him a ton of cash to go away.”
Mr. Q, snort-laughed as he shoved the tab at me, pleased that I had fixed his problem. He would withdraw his name by the end of the day. Huntsville was going to have a tough time hiring a city manager, a good one anyway.
“So, Huntsville, Texas. You don’t live there any more?”
“Not enough dogs. Good ole loyal, hard-working pack animals,” I said. “The sheep will turn your stomach, the wolves will eat you, and the wolves were the ones I admired, or thought I did.”
“Look on the bright side,” said Mr. Q, still smiling. “You got some homegrown Must See TV, Tuesday nights 6 central time. Maybe the city can raise cash by selling air time for council meetings.”