Citing a need for consensus on a number of issues, the Mobile City Council delayed a vote on Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s proposed 2018 fiscal year budget for two weeks.
The delay guarantees the budget won’t be approved by the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. However, the move to delay the vote beyond the deadline is not “unprecedented,” Council President Gina Gregory said during a pre-conference meeting. It would simply result in the city government operating on the 2017 fiscal year budget.
The issues remaining to be worked out involve longevity pay for firefighters, funding for the GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico and holiday bonuses for all city employees.
Continuing on his talking points since the budget was first introduced, Councilman Levon Manzie on Tuesday was set to cut GulfQuest funding by half to support a one-time bonus for city employees making less than $45,000 per year.
The $400 bonuses for 1,237 city employees would cost $535,200, Manzie said. To pay for the bonuses, Manzie suggested pulling $267,600 each from GulfQuest line-item budgets for personnel and operating expenses. The move would leave roughly $464,000 in the GulfQuest line item.
“It would be so we can at least show some appreciation for our employees who work hard day in and day out,” Manzie said during the pre-conference meeting.
Despite GulfQuest’s “uninspiring history,” Councilman Joel Daves said “what we have is what we have” in reference to spending almost $1 million on eight city employees as well as utilities and maintenance costs at the museum.
“I think we should do everything we can to help our city employees …,” Daves said. “We also need to continue to be careful with spending, especially in our general fund budget.”
Daves also mentioned the $27 million in grants from the Federal Transportation Administration and the Federal Highway Administration that helped build the museum. The museum has to keep a maritime focus, or those agencies could ask the city to pay back all or a portion of those funds.
City attorney Ricardo Woods compared taking money out of the GulfQuest budget and altering its current makeup to playing Russian roulette. He told councilors that altering the operating hours or maintenance of GulfQuest could trigger a federal inquiry into the spending of those grant funds, which could cost the city $27 million.
In Russian roulette, he said, there is a 17 percent chance there’s a bullet in the chamber when a player pulls the trigger. He estimated that the chances of the federal government stepping in if the museum is altered is greater than that.
“I think this is ill-advised,” Woods said. “I think this is a gamble.”
Further, Woods said the money would have to come from the city’s capital budget. An expenditure of that amount would mean a 15-month shutdown of the city’s capital improvement plan. He added that a default on federal grants in this area could lead to greater scrutiny going forward on all other federal grants the city receives.
“This is not chess or checkers, this is Jenga,” Woods said. “If you take one piece out, it all could tumble. I’m not saying it will, but it could.”
City spokesman George Talbot put a finer point on it, saying it would be hard for Stimpson’s office to budge on any negotiations involving GulfQuest at this time. He added that the mayor’s office did not think taking money out of the line item for the bonuses was worth the risk, citing the federal funds.
“The Christmas bonus proposal could be the most expensive Christmas bonus in the history of municipal government,” he said.
Undeterred, Manzie suggested only having the museum operate two or three days per week and have it manned by staff provided by the museum’s nonprofit. He said the city could provide staff from other departments when needed.
Woods said the nonprofit is healthier than it has been in the past, but can’t afford to pick up the slack yet. Woods said the city employees currently in place are specially trained to maintain the exhibits.
Manzie added that the city could work with the federal government on the museum’s opening hours. It’s currently open four days per week.
Councilman Fred Richardson called GulfQuest a “failure” and said it was time to “pull the plug” on it. He added that the city could work out an agreement on the grants to allow for the museum to be open part time. As for trained employees at the museum, Richardson said he can’t imagine it would be that hard to train other employees to work the museum. He used Airbus as an example.
“When we recruited Airbus, they brought people in who had never been on an airplane before,” he said. “In a year, they were building airplanes. You’re telling me we can’t keep the little museum open; we can do it if we want to do it.”
The administration and council seemed much closer to consensus on longevity pay for firefighters. The MFRD, under the guidance of new Chief Mark Sealy, have found savings in the 2017 budget. In a letter to councilors, Stimpson said once those savings are realized he would add the step raises to the budget, to go into effect in April. It would cost the city $925,000 to give each firefighter a 2.5 percent raise for each five years of service, up to 20 years.
Councilwoman Bess Rich and members of the Mobile Firefighters Association said they would like to see that wording and the projected funds added to the 2018 budget.
MFA Vice President Tony McCarron told councilors he wanted to hear a guarantee from Stimpson himself, as well as see it in the budget. In an example, he compared the city to a sports franchise, where Stimpson was the owner.