After proposing a flurry of amendments to Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s spending plan, the Mobile City Council agreed Tuesday to delay a vote on the fiscal year 2023 budgets for two weeks.
The delay will put the board at odds with a Zoghby Act requirement to approve the documents by Sept. 20, but allows enough time for councilors to approve the budgets before Oct. 1, when the city would be forced to follow the last approved budget documents.
District 4 Councilman Ben Reynolds proposed five amendments to the budgets during a pre-conference meeting. While they garnered much discussion during that meeting, there was no discussion of them at the regular meeting.
Reynolds asked to reduce the budget of the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) by just over $1 million, while adding $200,000 to the legal department and another $50,000 to human resources for sexual harassment training. The move would also save $752,473 for a future department. Reynolds said it would allow the city to create a department through an ordinance, rather than via passing the budgets.
The reduction in the OPR budget would eliminate the line item. The move would increase the legal budget to about $1.9 million, which would be about $100,000 more than was budgeted last year.
Reynolds also asked to take $189,399 from the city’s Historical Development personnel and add it to municipal enforcement.
Shayla Beaco, executive director of Build Mobile, told councilors reducing Historic Development could prevent it from being fully staffed and federally recognized. A loss of staff would prevent the department from being considered a “certified local government,” she said.
“This move gets us to 2021 actual expenses in that department,” Reynolds said. “We had an outside funding source, which allowed the department to grow. It’s now up to us to fund the positions; we need to grow municipal enforcement.”
The request that seemed to garner the greatest pushback was Reynolds’ proposed amendment to take a $435,000 increase in the performance contract for the History Museum of Mobile and give $200,000 of it to Veteran Recovery Resources, $100,000 of it for stump grinding and $135,000 for right-of-way mowing.
Meg Fowler, the museum’s executive director, said the reduction would wipe out planned pay increases for staff, which would have put the facility in line with the city’s new minimum wage requirements. Although the museum is no longer a city department, Fowler said many of its 22 employees are well below the new city standard minimum wage of $15.22 per hour.
“What this allows us to do is to bring wages to $15.22 per hour,” Fowler said. “Our employees desperately need this and it’s critical to the operation of the museum and our ability to retain and recruit employees.”
Fowler said the increase is the first for the museum’s performance contract since 2015, despite the facility taking on more responsibilities, including the management of Fort Conde and the planning of the Heritage House in Africatown. Of the total, about $300,000 goes to directly support employees working on the Heritage House project, Fowler said.
When asked about how much the museum can supplement its own budget with grants, Fowler said the facility received about $250,000 in grant funding last year, but the city’s performance contract still makes up about 75 percent of its budget.
“We’re pulling our weight, but grant funders don’t want to fund personnel costs,” Fowler said.
Councilman Joel Daves told Fowler the museum has been “turned around” since she was hired and was supportive of providing a “living wage” for the employees there. He also called development of the Heritage House “important.”
“I’m in full support of this increase,” he said.
Council Vice President Gina Gregory echoed those comments, saying the museum has “turned around tremendously.”
“I support this increase because you need it to fund what we’ve asked of you,” she said.
Despite Fowler’s presentation at both the pre-conference and regular meetings on Tuesday, Reynolds was not fully convinced. Following the meetings, he mentioned the council being asked to improve firefighter salaries to put them more in line with minimum wage requirements as well. He said firefighters are city employees while museum employees are not.
District 6 Councilman Scott Jones suggested instead of pulling money from the History Museum, the city could give funding to Veteran Recovery Resources by pulling $200,000 from a city performance contract allocated to AltaPointe.
Councilors also disagreed on how best to deal with ditch maintenance and right-of-way mowing. Through his proposed changes to the budget, Reynolds was looking to add about $1 million to the budget to handle future requests for ditch maintenance by reducing the $1 million transfer from the general fund to the capital fund. Reynolds’ amendment would also take $1 million from economic incentives. However, Jones wanted to spend the money to plan how to move forward with the work.
The council will discuss the budget more at a finance committee work session following the regular meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 21. The council could vote on the budgets on Tuesday, Sept. 28.
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