After many weeks of rhetoric and number crunching, here’s where things stand in Fairhope.
The 2016-2017 budget is passed, about six months after it should have gone into effect. The hiring freeze put in place by the City Council is lifted.
Mayor Karin Wilson says she’ll “likely” have to cut city services because the council’s hiring freeze left her short-staffed.
Councilman Jay Anderson talked to the League of Municipalities and was told Wilson can’t do that without council approval.
The new job created for Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop, Wilson’s most high-profile hire since taking office, has been eliminated. So has her department of community and economic development.
Employees who have been with the city a year or more will receive 2 percent raises. That’s another defeat for Wilson, who wanted to give no raises this year while she implements a merit pay system.
“I received a hard copy of council’s changes to my proposed budget on Thursday,” Wilson said. She provided copies at Monday’s council meeting and asked how council members could have done so much work in detail without consulting her.
As for the elimination of Botop’s position, she said, “It’s not council’s role to determine the positions needed to run a city.” Botop herself was reported to be out of town at the time on city business.
Council members said they all had experience in preparing budgets for their private businesses. Burrell said Wilson’s budget didn’t balance, so he and Councilman Robert Brown made changes in consultation with other city staffers and reviewed them among council members individually via email.
As late as Monday morning they discovered there was a shortfall of more than $800,000 in the capital projects fund. They successfully rerouted money throughout the process by asking department heads what they could eliminate for another year.
Cuts were made in heavy equipment and in personnel. Burrell noted Botop was welcome to apply for the community development director position, which has been vacant since Sherry Sullivan was abruptly fired by Wilson in late February. The firing without explanation of Sullivan and Jennifer Fidler, the longtime public works director, led the council to institute the hiring freeze that would have expired next week had it not been lifted Monday.
“The old paradigm is no longer sufficient,” Wilson said. “The new approach includes integrating Fairhope’s strategic growth and priorities with a regional comprehensive plan.
“This must be done not to change the identity of Fairhope and its small-town charm, but to protect.”
Wilson walked out of Monday’s meeting well before it ended.
On the previous Thursday, April 20, Wilson posted on Facebook that the City Council’s hiring freeze will “likely” force cutbacks in services, while Council President Jack Burrell called Wilson “childish and unprofessional.”
Despite public pleas from citizens in recent weeks to work together and be civil, the divide between mayor and council seemed to be widening. Wilson accused council members of dragging their feet on the hiring freeze and the then-unapproved budget.
Burrell shot back, accusing Wilson of playing politics with city services.
Some of the potential effects of reducing city services include closing the Recreation Center on Sundays, letting the city’s flowers die and halting wedding reservations at the Nix Center.
“This is a ridiculous situation. But unfortunately it’s just come to the point now where even when the hiring freeze is lifted, we are so understaffed,” Wilson said.
The process of advertising positions, reviewing applications, interviewing and hiring can’t all take place overnight, Wilson said. Overtime spending to maintain current service levels can’t continue.
For example, the manager of the Nix Center left city government Friday, Wilson said. “If we weren’t under a hiring freeze, it would have been posted long before now.”
Possible cutbacks were listed in a news release, including:
• Decreased recycling to preserve regular garbage pickup.
• Flower services reductions to reassign landscaping workers.
• Reduction in hours and tournaments at tennis courts.
• Soccer field maintenance.
• Closure of the Recreation Center on Sundays and two hours earlier (at 6 p.m.) on weekdays.
• Closure of the water department for the lunch hour daily, and a shift to a four-day work week.
• Ending multiple events at the Nix Center and taking no reservations for weddings.
In addition, the moratorium on new single-family subdivision lots and multiple-occupancy plans may have to be extended because the Planning Department remains short-staffed, Wilson said.
“Dragging their feet, which is what they’ve been doing — council — will have long-term effects on the city,” she said. “And this is what it looks like, when you try to, I guess, what I’d call a power grab. Unfortunately, this affects the citizens. It’s not about me. It’s about the citizens and the services they demand.”
Wilson said the cuts she listed had been recommended by department heads and assistants. Burrell countered the council is not at fault, saying, “If [Wilson] chooses to cut off city services, it’s all on her.
“I’m highly disappointed in the mayor doing this to use the city services for a political tool,” he said. “There are only five or six positions that are currently unfilled, none of which would affect the Nix Center, none of which would affect city services at all.”
Those positions are a fire inspector, police dispatcher, two police officers, one parks maintenance worker and one person in the revenue department, though Burrell said some 30 other new positions were requested by Wilson in the new budget.
Anderson said actions such as closing the Nix Center and reducing garbage service simply can’t happen without council approval. He said he didn’t know why Wilson acted as she did. “I do know one of the results was to divide the community,” he said.
“We’ve got to stop the political posturing that has created division in this community. If there ever is a point where we are attempting to divide this community for political reasons, that is absolutely unacceptable and should not be tolerated by anybody.”
According to Burrell, Wilson knew the freeze was near its end and the budget near passage before making her statements about cutbacks.
“It’s unfortunate for the city of Fairhope that she tends to engage in such childish and unprofessional behavior,” he added.
On Monday, Brown read a list of positions originally in the city budget. “I hardly believe the city of Fairhope is going to shut down if these positions weren’t budgeted,” he said. “They were all budgeted except for nine positions that were cut out of the budget.”
Some positions were reduced from full-time to part-time, Brown said. Three positions had been in the budget for a couple of years but were never filled, so they were cut.
Wilson, on the other hand, said she and her staff owed citizens an explanation for why cuts were necessary after receiving a growing number of complaints about city services.
Yet Burrell claims the council wouldn’t have a way to get that information because Wilson has ordered city supervisors not to speak to council members without her permission. Wilson denied that, saying she only asked supervisors to inform her when contacted by a City Council member.