The 2019 budget approved by members of the Mobile City Council more than quadruples funding for Ladd-Peebles Stadium, restores funding to the Mobile Public Library, gives public works employees a 5 percent raise and puts the future of GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico in doubt.
In a unanimous 6-0 vote at the meeting Tuesday, Sept. 25, councilors made their priorities known, passing a total of 10 amendments to Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s proposed budget.
Officials from Stimpson’s office were not immediately available to comment on the changes.
The board managing Ladd-Peebles Stadium will receive an additional $750,000 in funding in next year’s budget. The funding for Ladd was taken from the city’s legal liability fund. The fund is used to hire outside counsel on legal matters, Council Vice President Levon Manzie said. The city’s legal department currently has 14 staff attorneys, Manzie said.
The extra money gives the Ladd board a total of $950,000 in funding from the city.
Ladd board Chairwoman Ann Davis told Lagniappe a portion of the funds would go toward a study to determine what changes need to be made to help modernize the facility.
“We want to find out how much it will cost to update it,” she said.
Stimpson’s office released the findings of a 2016 study of the structure’s deficiencies earlier this year, but Davis said she and board members are skeptical of those findings.
“I feel like a lot of the stuff they’re showing in those pictures is cosmetic,” she said. “It has got to be studied. We have to see what we need to do structurally.”
The board has already repainted the portals leading to the seating area and now wants to spend money to paint the stadium’s corridors, as well as the bathrooms.
“We put in 200 new toilet seats,” Davis said. “I don’t know if you’re excited about that, but we are.”
The board also wants to build new locker rooms, Davis said, suggesting it’s cheaper than expanding the existing ones. The board has also met with historical groups in Mobile about getting a designation for the 70-year-old stadium.
The future of the stadium was a hotly debated topic through much of the summer, as Stimpson and others pushed hard for a city contribution toward an on-campus stadium at the University of South Alabama. The funds for USA would come with a $2.5 million kickback to help improve and possibly repurpose Ladd. The proposal, which called for a $10 million contribution to USA over 20 years, was ultimately defeated by the council.
This move coupled with last weekend’s Gulf Coast Challenge hosted at Ladd seem to have put the debate to bed, for now. The game pitting Alabama A&M against Southern University drew about 20,000 fans to the stadium, the Mobile Sports Authority estimated.
In addition to the funding for Ladd, the annual game between two Historically Black Colleges and Universities will receive $152,000 in 2019 through the Mobile Sports Authority — the same amount the city gives the Senior Bowl each year.
“Anyone who thought Ladd was on its last legs should have come to the game Saturday,” Council Vice President Levon Manzie said. “Ladd is not on her deathbed. We will continue to support the Ladd management team.”
The council voted to cut all city funding for salaries at GulfQuest Maritime Museum. The $496,000 will be put toward the Mobile Public Library to completely restore funding Stimpson had proposed cutting.
The cut to GulfQuest puts the responsibility of funding employee salaries on the museum’s nonprofit board. The city took over operations from the board when the museum became insolvent.
It’s unclear if the board has the funds available to cover the salaries in question. A call to GulfQuest board Chairman Mike Lee was not immediately returned. Manzie said he is not sure what the future holds for GulfQuest, but added the council’s priority was the library.
“What the future couldn’t hold is the city paying $1 million per year into GulfQuest,” he said.
One of the reasons Stimpson decided to have the city take over GulfQuest rather than let it close for good was the roughly $27 million in federal grants that went toward the building’s construction. At the time, Stimpson’s office believed closing the museum’s doors could leave the city on the hook to pay back the money.
The University of Alabama announced at the end of July it would be leasing space in GulfQuest for a transportation institute. It’s unclear if this institute would satisfy the requirements of the federal grant.
The Innovation Team, which began with a now-expiring $3 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, was cut by about $567,000 to help the council fund a number of its priorities. The I-Team was tasked with finding solutions for blight in the city. After making a splash early on by digitally documenting all blighted structures within the city, the team has more quietly been working on legislative solutions to help speed up the city’s response to blight.
The I-Team budget was cut by $36,000 and was added to a $180,000 cut to Stimpson’s communications department to restore level funding to all of the city’s performance contractors. Stimpson’s budget had called for 10 percent cuts to performance contracts, while $180,000 was added to the communications budget for an additional staff member and $10,000 raises for each of two staffers in that office. The cuts also increased the funding for Via! by $25,000, Councilman John Williams said.
A $140,000 cut to the I-Team will give the Connie Hudson Regional Senior Center $120,000 more in funding for an art instructor and bus driver and would give $20,000 for Trimmier Park playground equipment.
A $100,000 cut to the I-Team will go to the city’s engineering department for park and other improvements for the Hillsdale community.
A $35,000 cut to the I-Team was moved to Events Mobile, to add more funding to the MoonPie Over Mobile event.
A $104,000 cut to the I-Team was coupled with another $846,000 set aside for an incentive package proposal for Public Works employees to give employees in that department a 5 percent merit raise.
It appears all of the changes were made without consultation from Stimpson’s office or Executive Director of Finance Paul Wesch. Williams said he asked multiple times for help to find funding for council priorities, but no communication was made from the other end.
Williams added the council hopes the mayor’s office will work to modify any funding streams in order to make the budget amicable to all parties. He was clear the priorities and level of funding would not change.
It is unclear if Stimpson plans to veto any portion of the approved budget. However, a veto would be tough, as every amendment was approved with a 6-0 vote and the council only needs five votes to override a veto.
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