Councilman Fred Richardson believes his colleagues will vote Tuesday, Oct. 20 on an ordinance amendment that would force the mayor to distribute additional capital funds evenly among the seven council districts each year. Despite Richardson’s enthusiasm for the legislation, its passage seems unlikely.
The amendment comes a week after a resolution supported by Richardson and Councilwoman Bess Rich asking Mayor Sandy Stimpson to reconsider certain budget appropriations after the councilors complained their districts were left out of a disbursement of surplus funds. Rich and Richardson argued the disbursements were illegal based on a 1991 ordinance asking for capital improvement money to be distributed “equitably.”
While Rich’s District 6 was represented in the disbursement — the city gave more than $1 million for a county project to extend a street — Stimpson argued Richardson’s District 1 received all the surplus funding in previous years for various projects.
Before the resolution failed, councilors asked attorney Chris Arledge for an opinion on the 1991 law. In his opinion, Arledge argued, there is no timeline in the ordinance, so what Stimpson did was not illegal.
The ordinance amendment in question would add a timeline to the law to prevent Stimpson or future mayors from spending more capital funding in some areas than others.
At the meeting Tuesday, Oct. 13, Richardson asked his colleagues to all support the amendment before it’s voted on.
Rich said Richardson’s ordinance amendment “dovetails” with her understanding that park projects, like the many funded through the surplus money this year, should be reserved to only normal council capital improvement program (CIP) funding.
“If surplus money is used for park projects, everyone should get a park project,” she said in a phone interview. “Having it be in a calendar year has some merit. Resources should be equal.”
Council President Levon Manzie seemed to have concerns about the legislation, as he said his District 2 probably has the greatest amount of need in the city. Manzie asked Arledge what resources would be defined in the ordinance. Arledge told councilors it impacted capital funds, which seemed to give Manzie pause.
Richardson said not supporting the ordinance meant giving Stimpson permission to do whatever he wants.
“You’re saying the mayor can spend money any way he wants to,” he said.
Manzie refuted Richardson on this point.
“No, I’m not,” he said. “I’m just saying I like it the way it is.”
Councilwoman Gina Gregory also wanted more information on the resources impacted by the amendment.
In a phone interview, Councilman Joel Daves called the ordinance “ill-advised.”
“There have got to be resources that address projects that are too big and impact the entire city,” he said. “The city needs flexibility.”
Daves said each councilor is elected in single-member districts, but they also have a duty to think about the city as a whole.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Daves argued the council could vote down or make amendments to spending in the budget or future budgets it doesn’t like.
“A mayor proposes a budget and the council disposes it,” Daves said. “The council doesn’t have to swallow what the mayor sends down. The council can amend the budget. We don’t need this ordinance.”
The strongest rebuke of Richardson’s ordinance came from Councilman John Williams, who called it a political stunt from the District 1 representative in a phone interview.
“I would prefer that the candidate leave politics on the campaign trail,” Williams said of Richardson, who is running for mayor in 2021. “I think everything that comes out of Fred’s mouth is political.”
In the phone interview and at the meeting, Williams cautioned against taking too much of the decision-making power out of the mayor’s hands and putting it in the council’s hands. He said the move would “undermine” the city’s system of checks and balances.
In his comments in the meeting, Williams supported the council’s supermajority ability to make informed and legal decisions.
“If you look overall the last few years, you’re going to find that maybe not every contract was to our liking … but overall we are not only in compliance with state and federal laws, but we’re following our own laws as well,” Williams said. “The supermajority has spoken.”
In other business, councilors questioned but eventually approved the planned purchase of 11 automated stretchers for the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department for almost $300,000.
On Oct. 6 Richardson asked administration officials for more information about the stretchers to help determine why they cost so much. Richardson didn’t receive any information in the week prior to Tuesday’s meeting so he asked again.
James Barber, executive director of public safety, told councilors the stretchers have hydraulics that move them up and down automatically. However, Richardson said the hydraulics are included in the base price for the stretchers and aren’t part of the extras that add to the price.
Williams, who had asked for a demonstration of the stretchers in use, threatened to vote it down if the agenda item comes forward before more information is available.
“I’d like to hear from the people who bought them,” Williams said. “I’d like to speak to [Fire Chief] Jeremy [Lami] or his purchasing person.”
Lami told councilors the stretchers were tested in the field for a number of weeks with a more expensive competitor and crews chose the one on the agenda. The base cost for the “powered” stretchers is $15,000 each. A manual stretcher from the same company costs about $8,000.
In addition to the cost of the stretcher itself, Lami said it would cost $5,000 to install a new fastener system into each ambulance. The department also added another $5,000 per stretcher for a seven-year warranty.
Lami said the department began thinking about moving to powered stretchers in 2017 after it was discovered the department had spent about $300,000 on paramedic injuries related to picking patients up in manual stretchers.
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