The Mobile City Council voted Tuesday to adhere to amendments it passed last week to restore benefits to Medicare-eligible retirees and extend a 20 percent sales tax increase for three years, despite vetoes from Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
Stimpson submitted the vetoes yesterday afternoon and by law, the City Council must vote on vetoes during its next meeting. The council passed both overrides by 5-2 votes. The council needed a minimum of five votes to override the vetoes.
On the tax issue, Councilwoman Bess Rich and Council President Gina Gregory both voted in favor of Stimpson’s veto.
Rich, who will head up a council committee on tax reform, said she doesn’t believe the council should make the decision on such a lengthy extension without getting input from the public in the form of a referendum. Stimpson had asked council to extend the tax for two months, in order to help balance the fiscal year 2015 budget.
She said passing an extension would hurt any chance of a discussion on tax reform.
“If we have the tax there’s no real dialogue going on,” Rich said. “The easy thing is to keep adding to the penny, but it’s time to check in with citizens.”
Gregory said she supported the will of the majority, but voted to support the veto because it was the mayor’s will.
Councilman C.J. Small said supporting the veto meant saying “no” to an extra $32 million, which could be used to fix infrastructure and drainage problems.
“Say no to $32 million and let people live in poverty,” Small said. “I’m not that kind of person.”
Councilman Fred Richardson said his district is in need of money now, even with a “10 cent” sales tax. He said it would only get worse if they take it back down to 9 cents.
“If you want to predict what a person will do for you in the future, you’ve got to take a look at what they’ve done in the past,” he said. “If the answer is nothing, then expect nothing. I’m not getting anything now in District 1 with 10 cents, what do you think will happen with nine?”
Richardson added that the council should take control of the money and it should be spread throughout the districts in the city. He said it shouldn’t be given to Stimpson or the administration.
“We shouldn’t vote for it and then give it to someone who doesn’t want it,” he said.
Councilman Levon Manzie also voted in favor of keeping the tax in place for three years instead of two months.
“It’s incumbent upon us to be good stewards of taxpayer money, but we don’t have two months worth of issues,” he said. “We have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of issues.”
Councilmen Joel Daves and John Williams also voted in favor of the three-year tax extension.
The council also voted to adhere to an amendment to take $2.5 million from capital funds and put toward health benefits for Medicare-eligible retirees, by a 5-2 vote.
Earlier, Stimpson had suggested taking those retirees off of the city’s health insurance and instead giving them $175 a month for four years toward a supplemental plan to bolster Medicare coverage. Many retirees felt that the move took back a promise the city made at the time they were hired and the council changed the budget.
Stimpson vetoed the amendment because he said it would take money out of the budget originally earmarked for police and fire vehicles and equipment. Daves and Rich supported the veto Tuesday. Last week, Rich abstained from the vote because she said she didn’t know where the money was going to come from and Daves voted against the amendment.
Daves voted in support of the veto, in part, because he said it would continue the cycle of pulling money out of the capital fund and putting it back into the general fund. He also called the funding of Medicare-eligible retirees’ health insurance “unsustainable.”
“We’re not talking about just $2.5 million this year,” Daves said. “We’re talking about $75 million over 30 years.”
Rich agreed, saying there may come a time when the city can’t afford health insurance for any employees. She added that the money should not be taken away from police and fire equipment.
Stimpson told the council during its pre-conference meeting that a group of insurance coverage experts would be on hand two days next month to work with retirees on finding a more affordable plan, but Williams said that a vote to adhere to the amendment would put money toward retirees’ health insurance, until a better, or more affordable plan could be offered.
Small said he supported the retirees and questioned if a connection existed between Rich’s “no” vote and the fact that her amendment to put $1.5 million toward a county soccer complex project wasn’t vetoed.
“We’re looking at favoritism, or something,” he said.
Stimpson has come out against support of the soccer complex in the past, and even in his budget message he reaffirmed his stance that the money should be used to make improvements to city parks and not be put toward a project that the County Commission hasn’t even detailed or approved yet.
Next week’s City Council meeting will be held at B.C. Rain High School on Dauphin Island Parkway at 6 p.m.