Questions over a $4.1 million loan and how it was used in Prichard highlight a division between Prichard Mayor Jimmie Gardner and members of the City Council.
For months, Gardner has praised the Regions loan, which has helped the city pay down debt and purchase capital equipment, like police cars and garbage trucks. In an interview earlier this month, Gardner said it was important to provide city employees with the equipment they need to better perform their jobs.
“I have often shared with council that you cannot expect the performance of employees to meet what the citizens are asking [without the] equipment they need, [and] they should have it to be able to respond to whatever the need may be at the time,” Gardner said. “You cannot expect [the] Public Works [Department] to go out and cut grass and cut trees and do other things in and around communities and not have the equipment to perform certain tasks. You can’t cut grass with scissors and I can’t over-emphasize that.”
The loan has paid for a slew of garbage trucks and new cans, which has allowed the city to start it’s own service. It had previously contracted the service out. The loan also paid for police, fire and public works vehicles, as well as helped pay off debt.
“So, now, the $4.1 million has allowed us to get equipment that’s necessary to perform those specific jobs by each of those divisions of the city — police, fire, public works and what have you,” he said. “Today, as you ride around, you can even see it. I’ve received calls from citizens about what they’re really seeing and the work speaks for itself.”
The equipment in question was purchased through a cooperative, Gardner confirmed in the interview, which means the purchase didn’t have to follow typical state bid laws.
However, Councilman Lorenzo Martin has questioned those purchases for two reasons. He said councilors approved the loan for capital equipment and he questions why it was used for the refinancing of debt without council approval. He also argued the individual purchase agreements should’ve come through council, but didn’t.
“Any new equipment would then require a bid and new information would need to come in front of council,” Martin said. “That is a decision of the council.”
Even when the purchase is through a cooperative, Martin said, the decision to purchase the equipment should have come through the council.
Gardner used a portion of the loan to purchase garbage cans, Martin said, again without council approval. As for starting garbage collection, Martin said he would’ve liked to have seen a competitive bid where private companies could compete with Gardner’s plan to see which entity gave the best price. Gardner has previously said the city would save hundreds of thousands of dollars on its own service and be more accountable to citizens.
“We don’t know what the cost of garbage collection is,” Martin said. “It could be a savings and I hope it is.”
The questions over the loan highlight a fractured relationship between mayor and council, which has spanned months. The city is working off of the fiscal year 2019 budget because the two sides cannot get a new one passed. The stalemate has been dragging on since September, Gardner said.
The council had two outstanding questions, which Gardner said have been answered, but there has still been no movement on a new spending plan.
“That’s on them,” he said. “When we talk about budget and financing and those things, we first have to sit at the table and have discussions. In the spirit of cooperating, in the spirit of communicating with each other, it is necessary that council engage this administrative office.”
With better communication, Gardner believes the results for the city would be better. For example, he mentioned he would like to talk to each councilor separately about capital improvements in their individual districts.
“When we talk about capital improvement, or capital outlay, every councilperson in their own district should provide to this office their priorities of what they’d like to see in their districts,” Gardner said. “You should offer a plan as you see it and how you see the city as a whole. We can bring all of that together in a comprehensive way and then do a layout based upon all the information that has come in so we can prioritize even that.”
Martin blamed Gardner for the lack of communication and argued the council has a meeting every Thursday and the mayor is invited to speak about whatever topic he wants.
“In this case, it can’t be the council because we meet every week,” Martin said.
There was a time, Martin said, when Gardner stopped attending meetings, but more recently he has been there. The council has stopped holding pre-conference meetings before its regularly scheduled gathering, Martin confirmed, but that’s to avoid getting bogged down with issues that aren’t on the agenda.
Aside from the communication issues with council, Gardner hopes to see progress in the next year or so on bringing public transportation back to the city. Mobile cut its bus service out of Prichard and WAVE buses only stop at a federally funded depot in downtown Prichard. However, Gardner disputes the legality of Mobile’s decision and said he would have a “discussion” about taking the larger city to federal court over it.
“Citizens are crying out because they have a need,” he said. “They need to be able to get to wherever they’re going, whether it be to work, play, be it to the hospitals. They should have that.”
Mobile cut the WAVE service back because the city was paying the lion’s share of the cost to operate the service and it was losing money. At the time of the decision, Mobile was paying more for bus service than Montgomery or Huntsville.
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