It’s not often that money for tree trimming results in a lengthy debate over the future financial health of the city, but Tuesday’s pre-conference meeting of the Mobile City Council was an exception.
Triggered first by Councilman Ben Reynolds’ questions related to capital money from his district going to the city’s greenway project, other councilors used the discussion to show concern over moving capital money to city operations for a tree-trimming contract.
The debate began over the reallocation of leftover, citywide capital funds from a signal project to the greenway. While he admitted the project was worthwhile, Reynolds said he didn’t feel comfortable with leftover capital funds from District 4 being used for a project outside the district.
The debate intensified when the next agenda item proposed to reallocate funds from a capital account meant for reroofing projects to a $500,000 tree-trimming contract.
“We need to be prioritizing roofing repairs and if we need to fund trees, let’s fund trees,” he said. “We have more than $500,000 of tree work that needs to be done. Let’s fund it, but let’s not fund it on the backs of other projects.”
Reynolds stopped just short of criticizing Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office for pushing money that could be used for projects like the tree-trimming contract into a surplus. However, Councilman Scott Jones did question it. He asked city Chief of Staff James Barber directly why the millions in surplus funds couldn’t be used on these types of projects instead of pulling money from capital projects that haven’t happened yet.
“That’s a significant amount of funding that could be used to take care of capital projects that have been delayed,” he said.
Barber said the city’s rainy day fund is meant for big, long-term projects. He referenced the $30 million the city recently agreed to give the Mobile Airport Authority for a new downtown commercial terminal.
In the middle of the debate, Councilman Joel Daves, who had spent some time explaining the capital improvement plan (CIP) process to his new colleagues, began to realize Stimpson’s office was doing what previous administrations had done — moving capital funds to the general fund. In this case, Daves argued, routine tree trimming should be considered operational and, therefore, he was “philosophically opposed” to reallocating the funds in question.
“I don’t understand why we’re doing that,” he said. “The tendency in government is for money to move from capital to operations because there’s more pressure to increase the operations’ budget. That’s what happened before. Eight years ago we were spending no money on capital expenses.”
Executive Director of Finance Bob Holt said he doesn’t like to leave money sitting in accounts unused and that’s why the leftover capital money was being used for the tree-trimming contract. Executive Director of Public Works Jim DeLapp told councilors he actually meant to make the tree trimming a capital expense and part of a larger project, but Daves and others, including Council Vice President Gina Gregory, didn’t buy the explanation.
“I remember the days when we had no capital funding because they were robbing capital to pay operations to keep the doors open,” Gregory said. “I agree with my colleagues.”
Councilman William Carroll, who previously served on the council before an eight-year hiatus, also described previous administrations’ actions as “robbing” capital accounts to pay for operations. He also criticized Stimpson’s office for asking for a reallocation instead of a budget amendment because it was moving from one account to another.
“We’re lightyears ahead of where we were eight years ago,” Carroll said. “I remember those days.”
The council voted to hold over both the tree-trimming contract and the $400,000 greenway reallocation.
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