Would the closure of the city’s maritime museum lead to raises for firefighters? Councilman Levon Manzie thinks it should and made his wishes known during a meeting of the City Council’s finance committee Tuesday afternoon.

During a discussion of the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget, Mobile city councilors made clear they wanted to try and find funds to provide firefighters the same longevity raises Mobile police officers received last year. The raises would equal 2.5 percent for every five years on the job up to 20 years of service.

While both firefighters and police received $5,000 across-the-board raises in 2016, Mobile Fire-Rescue personnel were not included in longevity raises because of budget constraints.

As it is proposed by Mayor Sandy Stimpson, the 2018 budget doesn’t include these raises for firefighters, but Public Safety Director James Barber said Tuesday he was hopeful the administration could revisit the raises once the department found savings within its budget.
While the raises would cost just $1.7 million in 2018, they would add up to a total of about $3 million during the following five years, which would be needed to cover the unfunded liability in the Police and Firefighters’ Pension Fund.

Manzie said most of the money for the raises, at least in 2018, could come from a budget line-item allotting more than $900,000 to the GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico that pays for salaries, health insurance and utilities, according to Finance Director Paul Wesch.

“We need to re-evaluate our commitment to GulfQuest,” Manzie said. “Longevity pay wins over GulfQuest every time.”

SERIES — THE SLOW RISE AND QUICK FALL OF GULFQUEST

At first Manzie suggested closing the museum until it could be repurposed. However, the museum can’t be closed completely because the city would then be on the hook for more than $20 million in federal grants. Wesch mentioned those grant requirements at the meeting, adding the museum must also keep a maritime theme for the same reasons.

If it isn’t closed, Manzie suggested cutting GulfQuest’s eight-member staff and keeping the museum open as little as possible in order to put funds toward raises for firefighters. Manzie went as far as to criticize the workload of the museum’s staff members because of its low attendance numbers, adding he’d like to have one of those jobs.

“Until we repurpose it, we have to use the resources elsewhere,” Manzie said. “Leave it operating as little as possible. We can’t be spending $1 million on GulfQuest with so many other pressing needs.”

When GulfQuest opened in 2015, it was under the control of a non-profit board of directors, but sagging attendance that badly missed even the most modest projections put the board in financial trouble.

The city, which is in the process of paying debt service on the building of more than $2 million, agreed to bail the board out and take over control of the museum in 2016. Wesch told councilors that when the city took over, it cut the number of employees down from 42 to just eight, who he characterized as “mission critical.”

“Maybe it’s a cushy job, but I think they’re stretched,” Wesch said. “I think we’re probably where we need to be.”

GulfQuest is currently open to the public four days a week, Wesch said, while noting that employees are also used to host events at the museum during some evenings.

Councilman Fred Richardson seemed to favor closing the museum, in an attempt to get the administration to act more quickly on it.

“If we close it, it’ll show we’re in favor of finding a way to repurpose it,” Richardson said.

When Council President Gina Gregory asked Wesch to find money for the firefighter raises, he told councilors the money would have to come from another operating department.

“Someone’s ox is going to get gored,” Wesch said.

Wesch also pointed out that the city has yet to find funding to cover the unfunded liability for the longevity raises the council passed last year for MPD employees.

Councilman Joel Daves seemed to agree with Wesch.

“(MFRD) personnel richly deserve longevity pay,” he said. “There are a million different things we could do in the general fund if we had the money to do it. We have to find $1.7 million for this years and $3 million for each of the five years after that.”