The Mobile City Council approved on a 6-1 vote Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s initial plan to spend $58 million in American Rescue Plan funds.
Only Councilwoman Bess Rich voted down the spending plan, after a majority of her colleagues failed to approve an amendment that would’ve included Mobile Public Library employees in bonuses aimed at city staff members.
Stimpson’s plan, which still has not been finalized, would set aside $11.2 million to provide “premium pay” for essential workers to the tune of $5,000 bonuses for full-time workers and $2,500 for part-timers, who worked during the pandemic.
After hearing from library staff at the previous week’s regular council meeting, Rich disagreed with the administration’s determination that MPL workers were not city employees and they were not considered essential and thus could not be considered for the additional funds.
“The argument is do they qualify under the letter of the law as a service considered vital,” she said. “My response is that it was and is still (a vital service) and I would like to see them get the bonus. They provide a huge service for all age groups.”
City attorney Ricardo Woods argued that from a legal standpoint, if Stimpson were to name library workers essential employees that other quasi-government agencies employees could also become eligible for the bonuses. Included in this hypothetical were agencies like the Mobile Housing Authority, the Mobile Airport Authority and the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System.
Like the library, all of these entities have a director and operation that is separate from the city, but have boards appointed by either the mayor or council.
In addition to the bonuses, Stimpson’s plan for the money asked for $17.3 million be used to deal with “negative economic impacts, $29 million for equity focused services and $500,000 for grant administration.
Rich offered an amendment to the plan that would’ve removed $250,000 from “economic impacts” bucket and the “equity” bucket and reallocate the funds to the “premium pay” bucket to pay for the bonuses for more than 100 library employees. The amendment was defeated with only Rich voting in favor.
While council members insisted at the meeting on Tuesday that the plan the city was submitting had not yet been finalized, Stimpson outlined a number of line items he would push for moving forward, including $3.5 million for gun violence technology, including Shotspotter, $3.4 million for down payment assistance, $1 million for utility assistance and $2 million for social services assistance. Most of the $29 million from a second bucket of funds would be set aside for affordable housing, including $6 million for units east of Interstate 65 and $14 million along Michigan Avenue.
“I’d like to thank the Mobile City Council for adopting the People First Plan after carefully considering it over the last several weeks,” Stimpson said in a statement. “This plan follows the spirit of President (Joe) Biden’s executive order, the letter of the law and goes directly to the needs of our community. We still have a lot of work left to do as we thoughtfully apply these funds to have a generational impact across our community.”
Councilors also heard from a number of residents in support of an alternative plan that its organizers say took more community feedback into account.
Teresa Bettis, with the South Alabama Economic Roundtable, said her group held a number of community meetings to help come up with a plan they felt was truly equitable and in the best interest of the residents.
“The mayor’s plan missed an opportunity to advance equity in the city,” Bettis told councilors. “The voice of the people will once again be ignored and disrespected by a plan from the mayor.”
First, the SAER proposal would cut the “premium pay” bonuses for city employees to $3,000 for full-time workers and $1,500 for part-time workers. The group added $2 million each for afterschool programs and “evidence-based educational support services.”
Specifically, on the school-related programs, Councilman C.J. Small argued that the Mobile County Public School System would get its own federal funds for that.
The SAER plan increases affordable housing funding to $9 million each for east of Interstate 65 and along Michigan Avenue. It increases the amount for housing rehabilitation to $3.5 million and adds $1 million each for mental health assistance and food insecurities.
In a statement, Stimpson said he looks forward to working with SAER on the initiatives.
“We are grateful for all the input we have received from citizens and community groups throughout this process,” Stimpson said in a statement. “I’d particularly like to thank the South Alabama Economic Roundtable for their dedication to ensuring these funds are spent in ways that best serve the community.”
Councilors argued in response to Bettis and a number of others that what they were approving with the vote Tuesday was an outline of where the money could be spent and not the individual programs it would be spent on. The alternative to not voting, Councilman Fred Richardson said, was worse in this instance.
“We could vote down the mayor’s proposal and lose $58 million,” he said. “We’re not spending any money today. We’re trying to save the money. I’m not voting against $58 million.”
Rich and Richardson both said that community groups could come in down the road and submit proposals for the funding. The proposals would then come to the council in the form of contracts that each of the seven representatives would vote on.
“This is still going to come to council,” Rich said. “The debate is still very much open.”
While that is definitely still the case, those who left the meeting feeling like nothing had been decided on the funding side of things, might get a bit of a surprise. When Rich asked specifically about the line-items listed in Stimpson’s proposal, Chief of Staff James Barber, borrowing a term used by council attorney Chris Arledge earlier in the debate, called the proposal a “budget” and said it could be “amended.”
District 1 council candidate Tim Hollis argued that not only should library employees receive the bonuses, but so should WAVE Transit employees.
District 2 council candidate Reggie Hill urged members to consider the SAER plan because voters wouldn’t forget on Aug. 24 when polls open for the municipal election.
“You have free resources to fix the things people come down here to complain about,” he said. “You vote today, we vote in two weeks.”
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