Fairhopians are getting a bit restless.
They’re showing up at City Council meetings in droves and asking why everyone can’t just get along. They want to know what’s wrong with an occasional compromise. Their comments on social media are growing testy.
“I really don’t see why you all can’t grow up and get along,” one woman said during the public comment period at Thursday’s council meeting. “I’m sorry, but i was a teacher for 34 years.”
Mayor Karin Wilson and even some of the council members said they would like to stop the infighting and contentious verbal exchanges that have marked recent efforts to conduct city business. But in practice, old and new issues continue to generate controversy.
Wilson finally released a draft budget last week for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. The city has been running more or less on the previous year’s budget. Wilson said she rewrote the proposed budget she inherited from former Mayor Tim Kant to make it more transparent and to highlight some fiscal issues, such as how much money from Fairhope utilities is used to subsidize general spending.
Overall spending is up by some $838,000 compared to the original proposed general fund budget, for a total of about $24.4 million. But the budget came with a number of proposals from Wilson to cut spending or save money. They include:
• Safety training to reduce workers compensation claims.
• Control of overtime, possibly using contract labor for short-term jobs such as putting up and taking down barricades for Mardi Gras parades.
• Better management of fleet and fuel use. “We have 43 vehicles right now that are not in use. We’re going to liquidate those,” Wilson said.
• Reducing the cost of the city’s tree lights that stay up from about Thanksgiving until after the arts and crafts festival in March. “We spent approximately $268,000 on tree lights. I love it, but we do have to look at that cost,” she said.
• Putting the public library under the control of the city, a suggestion that has already drawn opposition from members of the independent library board. Library employees would receive better benefits as members of a city department, Wilson said. The city could contribute an additional $50,000 and still save $118,000, she said.
• Eliminating annual cost-of-living increases in favor of a merit-based pay system. Goal setting and regular evaluations would be part of the new system.
• Changing health insurance benefits. Health insurance costs are rising rapidly, and Fairhope employees get it free of charge.
City residents have already shown they are particular about their tree lights. Employees won’t be happy if they are asked for co-pays and deductibles, even though few businesses in the private sector can still afford to over the full cost of health insurance. As for a library takeover, Councilman Jimmy Conyers, who is the council representative on the library board, said that group had already asked him to convey its displeasure with the idea.
Council members said they would not be rushed into passing a budget, late or not, until they have taken a thorough look at it.
That hiring freeze
Wilson also presented the council with a stack of what she said were 43 job openings that needed to be filled as quickly as the budget could be passed. Earlier Thursday, she had issued a news release asking the council to lift the hiring freeze it quickly put into place the previous week after Wilson abruptly fired two well-known and well-liked employees without giving a reason.
“This has nothing to do with me,” Wilson said of the need to lift the hiring freeze. “It has to do with running our city.” She suggested that events such as this weekend’s arts and crafts festival could leave employees overworked if the positions are not filled.
Wilson has frequently been at odds with Council President Jack Burrell. One point of contention during the latest controversy has been whether the council’s action was legal; Burrell, citing five attorneys he consults with regularly, insists the freeze is legal, while Wilson says the action was unlawful.
Wilson indicated she was considering trying to get a court injunction against the hiring freeze. Burrell responded that the freeze was only for 60 days maximum and the council had not fired or hired anyone. One city planner position was exempted from the freeze Thursday, with Burrell saying it was his mistake that the planner position was overlooked when a handful of other positions were exempted.
The Airport Authority
The good news is that the $7.5 million bond issue to refinance the debt on land the city bought for the authority several years ago is moving forward, having received Airport Authority and City Council approval last week.
The bad news is that the council and the mayor are stalemated on who the board members should be.
The terms of three of the seven board members — Pam Caudill, Vincent Boothe and Tom Scheck — are up this month. Scheck has moved to South Florida and submitted his resignation.
Wilson had vowed to replace the three, but the council has to approve her appointments. The Airport Authority earlier in the afternoon backed Caudill and Boothe for reappointment.
There was no problem with appointing William Bruce to the vacant seat. And everyone acknowledged that Wilson’s other recommendations, Blake Waller and Kristine Kiernan, were highly qualified candidates with extensive aviation and military experience.
But when the council voted it was 3-2 against Waller and Kiernan. Burrell, Kevin Boone and Robert Brown voted against them while Jay Robinson and Conyers voted for them. That action leaves Caudill and Boothe holding their positions as board members until they resign or are replaced by people on whom the mayor and council agree.
Wilson wanted to know how much better qualified her appointees would have to be, and indicated she would keep bringing up new people for a vote.
The wrangling seemed to bring more citizens to the podium to confront their elected officials. One speaker was Ron Allen, who said he is friends with both Wilson and Burrell and had not intended to speak.
Allen said Fairhope citizens are split on whether they back Wilson or the council, and he pleaded for them all to be reasonable.
“You’re not always right, any of you,” he said.