Mobile City Councilman Joel Daves, the chair of the Finance Committee, said he would like to put Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s revised budget proposal to a vote of the City Council by April 2. Daves’ deadline came on the heels of a two-and-a-half hour Finance Committee work session today that gave city councilors an opportunity to ask the mayor’s administration specific questions about the revisions.
Although it focused mainly on the minutiae, some council people asked repeatedly how the administration reached its budget conclusions, if the revised proposal would affect city services or employee benefits and if it would eventually put the city in a position to offer bonuses or raises.
In one of the few pieces of news to emerge from the meeting, Stimpson told Councilman C.J. Small that while he didn’t support bonuses for city employees if the budget ends up with positive reserves, his goal was to write raises into the budget for 2015.
“Next years’ budget we have got to figure out how to make that happen,” Stimpson said of the raises. “It’s just that simple.”
A 2 percent raise that was promised under the current budget was rescinded by Stimpson after a review of year-end financial statements revealed a $4.3 million negative balance in the general fund. Stimpson then asked department heads to rebuild their budgets from the ground-up and his proposed revisions eliminate more than $13 million in unnecessary expenses.
If at least five members of the City Council adopt the budget revisions, Stimpson said the city will be on a path to “sound financial footing” and better positioned to offer pay raises. If not, Stimpson indicated that raises would be out of the question and he would also be unable to secure current employment levels or benefits.
“We’re required by law to balance the budget so we would have to do some drastic cutbacks,” if the council failed to adopt the revisions, Stimpson said. “I don’t want that to be a veiled threat, but there will be no way to do this if we say ‘we’re not going to do anything’ because when we run out of money in mid-summer, we will have to stop paying some bills.”
In a series of meetings with the media and again in front of the City Council, Police Chief James Barber said the $5.7 million in proposed amendments to his department were primarily managerial and would not affect average response times or the numbers of “boots on the ground” within his ranks. He anticipates to offset the loss of a class of 30-40 recruits this year by retaining at least that many current officers who in years past have elected to move on to other departments.
More than $9 million in Stimpson’s proposed cuts will be achieved by eliminating unfilled positions on the city’s payroll, not filling positions vacated by employees who retire or resign and cutting back on non-critical overtime.
“The opinion of the [finance department] was that based on where we were, the departments were not going to be able to live in the budgets as they were passed and give us the degree of services everybody is expecting,” Stimpson said. “We promised to give them an opportunity to tell us what they needed. We found out they had never had the opportunity to control the hours of their personnel and now each one of them is directly responsible for controlling their budgets so it’s unfair to them as mangers to dictate to them to stick to an unrealistic budget. What you have today is a group of department heads that are committed to living within this budget and going into next year we do a better job than we do today. “
City Comptroller Pat Aldrich also chimed in, thanking the mayor for allowing her to be part of that process.
“It was a great thrill for me after all these years that I’ve worked for the city to be a part of that budgeting process because as a department head, we’ve never had the opportunity to come in and talk to the administration about our needs. I sat in on most of those budget hearings and there are problems we’ll work through, but it was a wonderful experience to be able to do that and I’m very thankful. Every department head got to put their story on the table.”
Councilman Fred Richardson, who staunchly defended the current budget at last week’s City Council meeting, was generally more reserved at the Finance Committee meeting. He said he submitted a list of 20 questions to the mayor via email that he hopes to have answered before he can make a recommendation on the budget.
Meanwhile Daves called the meeting “very productive” and said he didn’t intend to stall the proposed budget revision any longer than necessary.
“My expectation is that the mayor will formally present the budget to the council next week, the budget will then be assigned to the Finance Committee and then the Finance Committee will determine whether or not to recommend the budget back to the Council on the following week,” he said. “So I’ll expect we’ll vote on the budget two weeks from today.“