Prichard Mayor Jimmie Gardner got a pledge of support from local legislators after complaining about the selection of RESTORE Act projects last week, though many questioned why they were just now hearing from him.
In March, the Alabama Gulf Coast Recovery Council (AGCRC) selected $315 million worth of projects to be funded by BP’s civil penalties from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. If the U.S. Department of Treasury approves the expenditures, the money will flow to various projects along the coast in the coming years.
While 46 projects were selected, hundreds were not — including three submitted by the city of Prichard. In the month since, Gardner has made no secret of how he feels about the omission of those projects and has publicly decried the selection process as “unfair.”
Last week, he aired similar concerns at a meeting of Mobile County’s legislative delegation, which has no oversight or control over the federal legislation establishing the AGCRC.
The AGCRC consists of the presidents of the Baldwin and Mobile county commissions, the governor or an appointed liaison, the CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority and the mayors of Dauphin Island, Bayou La Batre, Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Fairhope and Mobile.
Gardner suggested the AGCRC puts cities such as Prichard, which does not have a vote on the distribution of recovery funds, at a disadvantage.
“When you’re not sitting around the table and not represented as a member, then those that have a vested interest in the outcome, they’re going to engage each other and say ‘you support me, I support you,’” he said. “If you’re not sitting there, you’re not included.”
Prichard proposed three projects for AGCRC’s consideration that, if awarded, would add up to $17.5 million. All were submitted under former Mayor Troy Ephriam’s administration and generally focus on improving city infrastructure, such as sewage and stormwater drainage.
Gardner said other cities submitted similar projects and saw them selected, and if the process was “blind,” he claimed, the results would have been different for Prichard, too. Noting that Prichard’s population is “90 percent African-American,” Gardner accused the RESTORE Act and other grant programs of disproportionately excluding black communities.
“In areas where people look like me — parts of Mobile, Prichard and other surrounding areas — there’s a disparity in receiving assistance provided by those funds,” he said.
While it is true that every entity represented on the AGCRC saw at least one planned project approved for funding, several other cities and agencies received funding as well, including Satsuma, Mount Vernon and Chickasaw.
Prichard was not alone in its rejection, either. Similar projects submitted by Daphne, Saraland and Spanish Fort weren’t funded, and some didn’t receive enough votes to even be evaluated.
Rep. Randy Davis (R-Daphne) told Gardner mayors from his district asked him to submit letters supporting specific projects, which he claims to have done. He went on to describe the RESTORE Act as “a lobbying situation” for entities seeking funding for projects.
City spokeswoman Melanie Baldwin has attended public AGCRC meetings in the past to speak on behalf of projects, but no members of the delegation said they received any correspondence from Gardner, and multiple AGCRC members told Lagniappe the same.
“I have always and will always endeavor to help cities in my district, but if you don’t come to us and tell us what you need, we don’t always know what those needs are,” Sen. Vivian Figures (D-Mobile) told Gardner. “We didn’t hear from you.”
Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile) also said one of Prichard’s proposals is actually being completed as part of a larger project that arose from a drainage study funded through the Mobile County Commission and the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program in 2016.
A $1.2 million proposal, that project was approved for another RESTORE Act funding stream, and includes drainage improvements to West Turner Road and Dunlap Circle submitted by the city of Prichard as a standalone project in 2014 with a $15 million price tag.
As for Gardner’s suggestion of racial disparities, Figures said she is always willing to stand up against any kind of injustice but appeared to push back a bit on his specific claims. She told Gardner until he could provide “facts and figures,” he was only making allegations.
She also asked how he would explain the $3.5 million project awarded to establish a welcome center and tourism program in historic Africatown. Gardner dismissed that project as a “token,” saying it was included “to say we’ve done something in an area in which a majority of us live.”
No matter the reason for Prichard’s exclusion in this first wave, there will be many rounds of RESTORE Act funding as money from BP comes down over the next 13 years, and all delegation members said they’d help Gardner and other Prichard officials any way they could.
However, the city could face a unique set of challenges because of its finances and the recent indictment of a high-ranking staff member in Gardner’s administration.
Though RESTORE Act projects have large price tags, they aren’t awarded as a single big check.
According to AGCRC Executive Director Eliska Morgan, entities receiving grants will have to front the costs associated with a project as it moves along and then seek reimbursement. That’s one of the reasons Mobile County is managing several projects for smaller communities.
Prichard has struggled financially in recent years and was paying off liens on its properties as recently as February. Even if a project is approved by the AGCRC, Prichard could face additional scrutiny at the federal level after the recent arrest of Gardner’s former chief, James A. Blackman.
Prosecutors allege Blackman stole “well over $100,000” through illegitimate purchases and real estate transactions he initiated while he had access to the city finances. Blackman is currently facing 21 criminal charges for theft and using his public position for personal gain.
Morgan said it’s possible those recent issues could make it harder for Prichard to get federal approval without a third party handling the grants associated with its project submissions, though that doesn’t mean they’d be excluded from RESTORE Act funding altogether.
“They would more than likely be put in a higher risk category. It doesn’t mean they couldn’t have a project funded, but it might mean we would find another entity who could manage the grant,” she said. “We wouldn’t penalize a whole community because of the actions of one individual.”