It wasn’t an April Fool’s Day joke, but rather a rare instance of fiscal unity on the Mobile City Council as all seven members voted in favor of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s $21.6 million budget revision April 1. The vote came about three months after Stimpson announced that an end-of-year audit discovered a $4.3 million hole in the city’s general fund and serious imbalances in the 2014 budget already in place. The revisions were the result of a weeks-long process that allowed the city’s department heads to build their budgets from the bottom up.
Stimpson’s new budget shaves $13 million in expenditures off of the remainder of the fiscal year while also accounting for a projected $8.6 million in previously unbudgeted revenue increase. The council’s approval represents a political victory for Stimpson, who warned of drastic cuts to city services and employee benefits if the revisions were not adopted.
Afterward, Stimpson said he wasn’t surprised by the vote and was grateful for the council’s full support.
“I had an indication last week,” the revisions would be adopted, Stimpson said. “We answered every single question asked by every councilor.”
Council Vice President Fred Richardson, who adamantly defended the previous budget and sent Stimpson a list of nearly 20 questions about his revisions, reluctantly threw his support behind the changes after conceding the mayor had a legal right to make them.
“This is where we are and what the mayor is doing is legal based off what our attorney told me,” Richardson said, before launching into a nearly 30-minute justification of the city’s current financial affairs, claiming repeatedly that “the city is not broke.”
“There is a lot of fear out there that the city is broke,” he said, adding that the mayor’s revisions were unnecessary because the general fund budget deficit could have been rectified by simply transferring money from one or several of the city’s 43 other accounts. But Stimpson said the days of transfers are over.
“Our hope is we will have the discipline in the general fund to be operating on a balanced budget and we will not have to transfer capital dollars into the general fund to balance it,” he said. “That’s the very reason we don’t have any money to maintain buildings, or to fix sidewalks and drainage and buy new police cars.”
In an odd situation that came to light after Stimpson officially proposed his revisions, the City Council also adopted a resolution approving the mayor’s organizational chart and the position of Dianne Irby as the Senior Director of Planning and Development on his staff. Attorneys for the mayor and the council clashed over an interpretation of the laws that govern which of the mayor’s appointed positions need to be approved by the council, and the resolution was recommended under the mayor’s protest.
Essentially, council attorney Jim Rossler believed the council needed to approve the position before it was funded by Stimpson’s revisions. City Attorney Ricardo Woods disagreed and may eventually seek an opinion from the state’s Attorney General. Regardless, the council’s action paved the way for the vote on the new budget.
“This will be the first time in my memory we have had a unanimous vote on a budget,” council President Gina Gregory said, adding that she hopes the spirit will continue going into the 2015 budget process.
District 3 City Councilman C.J. Small said he disagreed with some of the revisions but was supporting the mayor’s recommendation in order to repair the general fund and protect city services.
“Two facts I received helped me to make my decision here this morning,” he said. “Number one, the council had received a letter from [the auditor] addressing the unassigned balance of the general fund… which by law the mayor has rights to go in and amend. Number two, from my understanding, if the council does not vote on this amended budget, the city employees could be facing layoffs, furloughs or health insurance going up. I am not a gambling man and I’m not about to gamble on anyone’s livelihood.”
District 6 Councilwoman Bess Rich, who voted against the previous budget, prepared a speech to explain her support of the revisions.
“We have known for a number of years the city’s finances are unstable,” she said. “We remember the pleas of the former administration two years ago when the 25 percent sales tax increase was discussed to address the city’s financial shortfall. Adding revenue by increasing our sales tax to 10 percent obviously was not the answer. Since we find ourselves with a $4.3 million deficit despite this penny increase, what is needed now is the same thing that was needed prior to the sales tax increase; a realistic budget, which addressed this spending.
“I’m voting yes because the amended budget is based on actual, historical numbers. Unfortunately the (former Mayor Sam) Jones administration’s budget grossly underestimated cost centers to the tune of $6 million. Additionally, it also grossly overestimated attrition. They balanced this flawed budget by banking on huge number of city employees retiring or quitting in order to create an imaginary $17 million in savings to the city. Today’s amended budget puts that figure at $1.9 million and is based on the realistic historical data of employees actually leaving the city’s employment.”
Councilman Levon Manzie, who joined the council after it adopted the previous budget and after serving as a member of the school board, said in his experience he has never worked on a budget that has “required the amount of time and attention this one has.” Still, he was inclined to support the changes after receiving a commitment from the mayor that it would not affect public safety or the job security of municipal employees.
“From a budgetary perspective, we are at a fiscal crossroads,” he said. “This budget proposal is by no means is perfect however, in asking the mayor and his administration key questions relative to the safety and overall security of citizens, the response times of our first responders and to the job security of public employees, I’m reasonably conformable we are moving forward in the right direction. I believe this situation is a clear and stark wake up call to be more deliberate, to be more inquisitive and to be more involved in the formulation of future municipal budgets.”
In other action, the council is prepared to approve a $64,499 contract with KONE Inc., for various maintenance on city-owned elevators and a $58,000 contract with Dogwood Productions for ongoing maintenance of the city’s website. Stimpson said in next year’s budget, he’d like to get the ball rolling on a website redesign that could possibly incorporate live streaming of the council meetings, among other features.
In other news, the city is working with various organizations and volunteers to repair damage at Cooper Riverside Park inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. Stimpson said the park would be closed except for special events, and would likely reopen by midyear.