Nearly everyone at Monday’s Fairhope City Council meeting seemed to be upset about something.
The main objects of unhappiness were a possible extension of time for the Fly Creek apartment project, items that were or were not listed in Mayor Karin Wilson’s proposed budget, and the possibility of the city taking total control of the public library. After about three hours of sometimes less-than-civil debate, no action was taken on any of these controversies.
Taking no action on making a city department out of the public library seemed to suit most citizens just fine. Wilson has said the city could save $118,000 annually and make the library operate more efficiently by making it a department of city government, but the Library Board objected before her first draft budget was presented.
“There’s no proposed takeover by the city of the library in the budget,” said Councilman Jimmy Conyers, the liaison to the Library Board. The other two councilmen at the meeting, Kevin Boone and President Jack Burrell, concurred they would not support it. The audience applauded loudly. (Jay Robinson and Robert Brown were absent Monday.)
But what may be in the budget is less clear. Council members received multiple pages of changes late last week, but those changes were unavailable Monday and the draft budget posted on the city’s website appeared to be the same one Wilson submitted earlier this month.
Whichever copy Burrell was looking at, he said in general he thought revenue projections were too “rosy,” and in the case of vacant positions and new jobs being created, “I can’t make the math work.”
Wilson said options she identified as ways of saving money during her original budget presentation weren’t actually in the budget, although she expected many of them would be implemented. Burrell pointed out such decisions as whether to go to a merit pay system or change insurance plans be made by the council, not the mayor.
Burrell suggested a 2 percent cost-of-living raise could be granted to all employees by raising electric, water and sewer rates by .008 percent.
Burrell also asked why the salary range for a new public works director was set higher than the highest pay classification for the old one. The upper end of the salary range for Jennifer Fidler, who was fired by Wilson last month for unspecified reasons, was $94,000. The new range budgeted is $120,000 to $180,000, and Burrell said he wants a recommendation from the city’s Personnel Board about what the range should be before the budget moves forward.
As has become common in public meetings, Wilson and Burrell repeatedly bickered. After one interruption by Wilson, Burrell said, “Oh my God, Mayor, may I please speak?”
The current budget year began Oct. 1. When Wilson took office in November, she asked for more time to present her own budget after being elected over incumbent Tim Kant. No timetable was given by the council members present Monday on when they would approve a budget, with Boone saying he needed time to study the late changes.
Except for library board supporters, many of the 200 people in attendance seemed to be getting frustrated by the heated disagreements between council members and the mayor. At one point, Police Chief Joe Petties spoke up from the back of the room to quiet the crowd. One woman literally shook her finger at Burrell as she criticized him.
The Fly Creek project, a proposed luxury apartment complex behind the Fairhope Publix, drew as much opposition as ever. Wilson, via her Facebook page, and Adam Milam, the attorney for some residents who have sued over the project on environmental grounds, had encouraged people to attend the meeting in another attempt to stop it.
Developers and landowner Arthur Corte had a year to submit a site plan for city approval. The first site plan was rejected by the Planning and Zoning Commission, and the year is almost up. Developers are seeking an extension in part because of the change of administration and other growth issues.
Fly Creek has been the subject of widespread opposition and is believed to be at least partly responsible for some of the election results. Among the speakers Monday were a group of children who said they were worried about environmental damage that might result from the project.
Council members said they had to be careful of what they said about the project because of the ongoing litigation. Burrell, who had been reluctant to put the matter on the agenda because of the lawsuit, said all council members agreed to put the extension on the agenda. A vote is scheduled for the April 10 meeting.