With a new year on the horizon, the Mobile City Council came together on a hot topic today voting in a compromise that resulted in a solution no one disliked.
As workers prepared for tonight’s MoonPie Drop downtown, the councilors were still dealing with more weighty subjects and unanimously approved the hotly debated six-month oil and petroleum storage tank moratorium. However, it wasn’t the originally proposed ordinance and resolution. Instead, the council, which was divided on the issue, worked around the major issues to offer up something different.
Amendments made the moratorium only applicable in a smaller area of the city. Part of the concern voiced during the Dec. 19 Mobile City Council Rules Committee meeting was that it would negatively effect Airbus, since its site was originally included in the moratorium zone.
However, the council today excluded the Brookley Aeroplex, which was the major change in the areas encompassed by the moratorium. Another change is to the process for businesses seeking a permit for oil and/or petroleum storage tanks.
Council attorney Jim Rossler explained how the process would work during the 180-day moratorium. Typically the council is not involved in the process until much later, but during the moratorium that will change.
“During the six-month moratorium, the process for anyone seeking a permit is as follows: the company will submit an application to the Urban Development department just as always. The Urban Development department will do a staff report and that will be given to the City Council,” Rossler said. “The City Council can approve or deny the application. If it is approved, it will go back to the Urban Development department and begin the permitting process, which must be approved ultimately by the Planning Commission.”
Numerous people who spoke during the Dec. 19 meeting also voiced their opinions about the temporary ordinance. Proponents of the moratorium championed the council for “taking a stand” against “big oil,” which they said created “dirty jobs.”
Opponents argued the “sweeping moratorium” would scare off businesses and give the sense that Mobile is closed for business. Some also said the standards for oil storage tanks are such that safety is ensured.
With the amendments, the moratorium is no longer sweeping, but it does allow for the council to determine what businesses will be approved. The main point of the six-month moratorium is “to press pause” on allowing oil and petroleum storage tanks so the city can look at whether it something beneficial for Mobile.
Mobile Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway urged the council to include the public in the study into oil and petroleum storage tanks.
“There are plenty of people ready to help the study,” she said. “I hope you include the public in looking into this issue since it affects everyone.”
Budget woes addressed
Another issue was discussed that also affects everyone in Mobile — the city’s recently disclosed financial woes.
“Yesterday I had to deliver some disappointing news that no mayor or CEO wants to give — the city employees would not receive a raise,” said Mayor Sandy Stimpson. “On the Monday before Christmas, our City Finance Director (Paul Wesch) came into my office and told me last year’s numbers are worse than what was anticipated.”
The external audit’s preliminary findings show that as of Sept. 30, 2012, the city had a balance of $11,371,036 in the general fund. However, one year later the general fund went to a negative $4,439,607. That means the city ran a $15,810,643 deficit that year.
Stimpson said it also means the budget for the current fiscal year is not balanced and therefore must be amended, by law. Stimpson and his staff will be making recommendations to the council hopefully in a month.
Stimpson said the city has been living beyond its means for years now. However, he said he would not point fingers at previous administrations.
“I will not speculate or look back at our previous administrations. Instead we are going to look forward and proceed with facts,” he said. “We are going to work with the city council, department heads, employees and advisors.
“There will be a degree of transparency never before seen.”
One thing Stimpson said must stop is the city’s recent history of taking from the capital fund to cover operating expenses.
“We have taken from the capital fund while we have crumbling infrastructure,” he said. “There is $159,000 to maintain the city’s five million square feet of properties. It’s just not possible to do that.”
Although the bad news about the city’s financial issues came at the end of 2013, Stimpson is looking forward to 2014.
“I need (the citizens’) help. I need you to be willing to embrace the necessary changes,” he said. “At the end of 2014, I want us to look back see that it was a great year for Mobile.
“My prayer is the city and its citizens to be bountifully blessed in 2014.”