Photo |Lagniappe
The Mobile City Council will recommend changes to CIP allocations to allow for more discretionary spending.

To hear Mobile Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch describe it, the City Council started a game of whack-a-mole Tuesday, July 10, when members voted to make changes to the capital improvement plan (CIP) ordinance.

In essence, the council opened up access to more CIP money by removing certain earmarks from the ordinance, including a $2 million transfer to the general fund, a change that would force the city to make cuts. This means the capital budget would likely increase and the general fund would decrease, like the classic carnival game.

“When one goes up, another comes down,” Wesch said.

The changes are workable, he said, but he asked the council to coordinate with the administration once the new earmarks go into effect.

Those new earmarks were ironed out during a series of meetings of the council’s CIP committee concluding July 9. Whereas the original earmarks set aside $21 million of an additional one-cent sales tax per year, split evenly among the seven council districts for capital expenses, the additional money from the tax would be divided among economic development, motor pool and other expenses. Of those expenses, $2 million has been put back into the general fund.

The new earmarks would still set aside the $21 million for the districts, but would also earmark $4 million for studies on public-facing buildings. Funding for the studies currently comes out of each councilor’s CIP funds. Up to $6 million could be spent on any other capital needs, according to the new ordinance. The ordinance also sunsets in 2023, making the new CIP a five-year plan.

“It really is just a matter of math,” Wesch told councilors during the committee meeting. “An effort to increase CIP by $2 million means $2 million will have to come from another place. It won’t, most likely, come from capital.”

Councilman Joel Daves wanted to prepare his colleagues for some tough budget decisions the CIP changes would bring about.

“I’m in favor of any penny being spent on capital, but this will impact the general fund,” he said. “We need to be prepared for that.”

Councilman C.J. Small, committee chairman, said he supports the changes in order to give the districts as much CIP money as possible over the next five years.

“We need to make sure each of the council districts get every bit of the penny they need,” Small said.

In other business, the council held over until Tuesday, July 31, a vote to support the University of South Alabama in building a new on-campus stadium. Councilman Levon Manzie announced he would be holding a community meeting on Monday, July 23, to discuss the future of Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The community meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at Williamson High School.

Since starting a football program a decade ago, USA has used the city-owned stadium as a home field. The stadium has also for decades hosted the Senior Bowl and more recently the Dollar General Bowl and the Gulf Coast Challenge. With the proposed agreement, the city would contribute $10 million to the new stadium project over 20 years. In return, USA would give the city $2.5 million to rebuild Ladd into a 5,000-seat stadium for high school football. USA would also agree, in principal, to host those college football events.

Councilwoman Gina Gregory said she would be notifying residents of the Hillsdale Heights subdivision of a planned meeting before the end of the month to discuss the stadium deal. The school currently owns a number of lots in the neighborhood near where the new stadium is proposed. USA spokesman Bob Lowry has previously stated the school expects the impact on the neighborhood to be “minimal.”

“The university has purchased a significant number of the lots in the neighborhood that are directly adjacent to the university,” Lowry wrote in an email late last month. “Other than the possibility of some parking near the stadium, the rest of the property was purchased for possible future use, but there are no current plans to develop it.”

The council also approved plans to design a new rail station for Amtrak using a grant from the Southern Rail Commission. This move is in spite of a recent refusal from Gov. Kay Ivey to offer state funding for a federal grant to restore Gulf Coast passenger rail service. Among financial considerations, Ivey also offered possible interference with port operations as a reason to delay funding. SRC member Wiley Blankenship said as currently planned, a return of passenger service would not impact the port because it would use a home rail. If service was expanded to Atmore, he said, it could have a bigger impact.