Against Mayor Karin Willson’s request, the Fairhope City Council declined to table two contentious agenda items Monday night and voted to pass them instead. But neither vote was unanimous.
For the first, a resolution to increase both the mayor’s and council’s salary for the next term, Wilson urged the council to wait until the city received the results of a citywide compensation study currently underway by Auburn University. There is no indication when the study will be delivered, but Wilson claimed the vote could have waited until February 2020.
Councilman Jimmy Conyers, who has been leading an effort to update the salaries ahead of election season, said he wasn’t opposed to waiting but was also wary of it becoming a “political issue.”
Wilson said two major obstacles were free family insurance awarded to elected officials and an optional $60,000 salary the next mayor can claim for serving as utilities superintendent. Wilson accepted the same $32,400 base salary as former Mayor Tim Kant, but opted to forfeit the superintendent role and divert that money toward the salary of a professional engineer.
City Councilors are paid $9,600 per year, but the council president, Jack Burrell, gets an additional $1,200 for his duties. Both the mayor and council are classified as part-time employees, but they also have the option of participating in the city’s free group insurance plan, and all of them do. In fact, Wilson said there is 100 percent participation among all eligible employees, whether it is individual coverage or coverage for an entire family.
Last week, Wilson said she was “blown away” when she learned about the insurance plan after being elected in 2016.
“There’s no premium, zero deductible benefits for the whole family” of full-time employees and elected officials, she said. “I didn’t realize until I started to put budget together what the true cost was. It’s unheard of anywhere in the country and not financially sustainable for taxpayers.”
The council has since adopted amendments to exclude new hires from the all-expenses-paid family plan, but Wilson said the elected official salaries approved for the next term aren’t transparent because they do not disclose the value of insurance and further, shouldn’t be eligible because they are part-time positions. While both the mayor and councilors argued their roles are indeed full-time, a designation as such would require a constitutional amendment.
The new council salaries, effective next term, will be $12,000 per year. The council president will be paid $13,200. The mayor’s base salary will be raised to $85,000. But Wilson says those numbers are misleading because the insurance package is worth an additional $15,576 for families. It also leaves the option for the next mayor to claim the $60,000 salary for utilities superintendent, raising the total compensation package to $160,576.
Conyers said he contacted 17 different municipalities for comparables and Fairhope’s elected officials were paid the least. While he was willing to wait for the Auburn study, he expected it would recommend even higher salaries. But when the motion was made to approve the ordinance, Conyers joined every other councilman except Jay Robinson in approving it.
Separately, Wilson also attempted to delay the council’s resolution to purchase nearly 114 acres on the corner of County Roads 13 and 32 for future recreational use. Earlier this year, the city attempted to purchase 40 acres off Twin Beech Road for the same purpose, but negotiations broke down after the seller allegedly refused to lower the asking price after an appraisal indicated the property was worth substantially less.
Afterward, Burrell and the city’s recreation board sought alternatives. The acreage near the city’s airport is owned by the Burmeister family and is listed by Sotheby’s International Realty for $3.74 million, but the city utilized an appraisal management company to determine the property’s value was $2.37 million. Ultimately, the council voted 3-2 to purchase the property Monday night for $2.65 million, roughly $23,245 per acre.
Burrell said the location, condition and price of the property were “a steal” considering the Twin Beech alternative was priced at $48,000 per acre, but admitted the city has not yet budgeted the purchase. Wilson argued the Twin Beech property was recommended as the preferred alternative by the National Park Service and aligns with the city’s comprehensive plan. Further, she claims it would have been fully paid off with impact fees over three years. Burrell’s alternative, she said, would likely require the recently debt-free city to take out its latest loan.
“The purchase is not in our 2020 budget … limited city reserves are needed for critical infrastructure for our facilities, none of which has been presented yet,” Wilson said Monday. “The city just paid off our debt in June.”
She also argued the appraisal used at least one pending sale and one listing as comparables, rather than the industry norm of comparing recent sales. Further, she requested there be a public hearing on the purchase.
But Burrell said the city needed to act fast to prevent the property from being acquired by developers. Responding to public comments after the meeting, he suggested it could partially be funded with “cuts” to the 2020 budget. Robinson and Conyers voted against the resolution, but it was approved.
Finally, the site plan for a long-planned boutique hotel on the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Section Street was approved unanimously. The project had been delayed since June, while the developer and city councilors tried to negotiate a property swap to preserve open space surrounding the “Fairhope” clock on the corner. But ultimately, the price was too high.
Regardless, the developer agreed to concessions that included moving one entrance from city-owned property on Section Street to the sidewalk on Fairhope Avenue; a standard eight-foot sidewalk width on Fairhope Avenue rather than a requested variance for seven feet; and language that would regulate the building’s ability to be converted to alternate residential use such as condos in the future.
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