Mayor Sandy Stimpson does not plan to honor the amended fiscal year 2019 budget approved by the Mobile City Council, which awarded the Ladd-Peebles Stadium board an additional $750,000 in funding.
Acting Chief of Staff Paul Wesch informed the council Tuesday, Dec. 4 the city would not be giving the stadium’s board any additional money above its $200,000 annual performance contract.
The additional $750,000 for Ladd came in the form of a budget amendment passed by a 6-0 vote of the council on Sept. 26. Councilman Joel Daves was not present for the vote. The council’s vote followed weeks of debate over whether to give money to the University of South Alabama for its proposed on-campus stadium. The council eventually rejected the proposal, despite heavy pressure from Stimpson and the USA community to approve it.
The funding was taken from the city’s legal liability fund, which is used to pay outside attorneys who take cases on behalf of the city. Because of the move, the liability fund amount decreased from $2.8 million to just over $2 million.
Wesch told councilors the administration wasn’t sure the amount left in the budget would cover outside attorneys fees because it’s “less than what was spent in 2018.” He didn’t rule out allocating the money to the volunteer board later in the fiscal year.
“To spend that money early in the year would not be something we’re likely to do,” Wesch said.
Ladd board Chairwoman Ann Davis told councilors the money would be used in part to pay for an engineering study on the stadium from Cain & Associates, as well as for a fitness trail.
Davis said the study was needed because the board wanted to get clarity on how much it would cost to fix cosmetic issues with Ladd. However, the report also refuted some of the safety concerns highlighted in a similar study commissioned by Stimpson’s office in 2016, Davis added.
For one, Davis said stadiums aren’t typically given letter grade designations like roads and bridges. She also said Cain engineers found the stadium’s superstructure to be safe.
“Ladd is in very good shape for its age,” Davis told councilors. “The only damage has come from water leaks the city was supposed to fix when they upgraded the suites for [the University of South Alabama] about 10 years ago.”
The board has also spent money repainting portals at the stadium and replacing 200 toilet seats in preparation for the Dollar General Bowl and Senior Bowl games, Davis told councilors.
Wesch said it is the opinion of Stimpson’s office the Ladd board’s charter, signed into state law, prevents it from making capital improvements on its own. The board’s articles of incorporation limit its activities to the day-to-day operation of the stadium, a task Wesch pointed out was being performed by the Mishkin Group.
He also argued the board is not required to follow state bid laws or any other requirements spelled out in state laws governing municipalities.
“This is new to us,” Davis said after the meeting. “From what I understand — and I don’t have the bylaws in front of me — we have a right to take on capital projects. I’m so shocked by this.”
This new information would likely halt some of the projects Davis and the board were planning. For instance, she said they had partially paid Cain & Associates, but hadn’t paid them in full.
“I can’t believe it,” Davis said. “Once again, we’ve been blindsided.”
The revelation comes after weeks of Davis’ correspondence to Wesch, which she said has been unanswered.
“I’ve gotten no response from the the city,” she said. “I’m just floored. This just took me by surprise.”
She added she hasn’t spoken to the mayor in a while either.
“I’ve known the mayor for over 50 years and we used to talk all the time,” Davis said. “I haven’t heard from him in over a month.”
Davis wasn’t the only one who felt “blindsided.” Councilors voiced their surprise over the new information, as well.
Councilman Fred Richardson said the council would do whatever needed to in order to allow the board to operate autonomously.
“The council can authorize them to have the power to do what they need to do,” Richardson said. “The council is the ruling authority of the city of Mobile.”
Councilman C.J. Small said he wished there was better communication between Stimpson’s office and the council.
“Transparency is just not there,” Small said. “I wish he would’ve been more transparent with us.”
Small said the fitness trail would not only enhance the stadium but also the community around it.
Stimpson’s refusal to provide the funding for the trail, Small said, was a slight to the broader community.
“I just have some concerns with the mayor and his actions,” he said. “Some very deep concerns.”
Richardson believes Stimpson is choosing not to give the stadium its funding as a way of proving himself right about Ladd’s condition. He asked the council to do what it needed to in order to fund the stadium with the money it placed in the budget.
“He’s put this plan in place to make his prediction come true,” Richardson said. “We have an obligation to make sure what we say comes true.”
When asked about the legal issues surrounding the funding, council attorney Wanda Cochran said some interesting questions have been raised. She asked city attorney Ricardo Woods for a “written legal opinion” about the issue. He told her he would provide one only if the mayor asks him to.
This marks, at least, the second deviation Stimpson has made from the council’s amended budget. Stimpson has already said he intends to pay the city’s GulfQuest employees through other department budgets. Councilman John Williams asked the administration for a public accounting of the budget amendments they planned to ignore.
“At this point, I think it would be great if the mayor’s team could communicate with the entire city on what they plan to do and not do … ,” Williams said. “I think it’s just fair.”