A “blue flu” sickout conducted by officers of the Prichard Police Department over salaries just days before a runoff election to decide who would be the city’s next mayor highlighted one of several issues facing the local government as a new term approached.
Incumbent Mayor Troy Ephriam lost to challenger Jimmie Gardner, despite accusations that the patrol officers’ plan had been politically motivated.
“I don’t believe in blue flu,” Gardner, Prichard’s former police chief, said. “I wouldn’t suggest anyone engage in that behavior.”
Instead, Gardner blamed the officers’ absence on $5,000 across-the-board raises received by officers in neighboring Mobile with the approval of Mayor Sandy Stimpson and the Mobile City Council.
“That’s really what sparked all of that to begin with,” he said. “These men and women deserve higher paid wages than what they were receiving. They got angry and felt they should be respected and handled in the same way.”
In a number of press conferences held prior to the runoff, Ephriam threatened to possibly terminate officers who had not given proper notice, or did not return to work with the proper paperwork. Once patrol officers returned to work, though, Ephriam backtracked.
Ephriam said he had met with a number of officers about their demands prior to holding press briefings on the subject. Gardner said if he were mayor at the time, he would have met with the officers as well.
“I would’ve asked all the officers to come in so we could have some dialogue about fixing the real problem, which was a pay raise,” he said.
While raises for officers are a priority for city leaders going forward, Gardner said it wasn’t his only plan to improve public safety in Mobile County’s second largest municipality. In addition to better pay, Gardner said he would find ways to improve officer equipment and training, even if it means finding federal grants to do so.
“It’s bigger than just raises. It’s about transportation, outdated vests an officer may have on, the weapons that he carries,” Gardner said. “Training plays a really big role in all of this. You know, the federal government provides training across the United States and it’s free. We’re going to reach out and make sure we’re getting that free training from the federal government.”
Additionally, Gardner said he’d like to think “outside the box” when it comes to hiring more officers, including possibly employing retired officers part-time.
“We have a lot of retirees across Mobile and Baldwin counties now and [I want to] look at getting some of those retirees to come on, and they set their own schedules and that’s just out of the box,” he said. “It’s just [about] reaching out to them and getting them involved.”
One of the issues highlighted during the municipal election cycle was the number of police chiefs the city retained under Ephriam’s administration. Bernard Parrish is the last in a line of appointments Ephriam made to the position. Gardner said he hasn’t decided on what appointments he’d make, or if there would be any changes at the top of the department.
“We’re going to have a steering committee that will engage in much of that for my transition team,” he said. “We’re going to look at all those things.”
Ephriam said he had included 10 percent raises for all employees in the current fiscal year’s budget, but the Prichard City Council failed to approve it. Councilors and Gardner see it differently.
Councilwoman Severia Campbell Morris said the council was ready to approve 10 percent raises for first responders, but had concerns about other line items in the budget. That’s why, she said, the city had been working off of fiscal year 2015’s budget. The council only needs Ephriam to recommend an amendment to that budget in order to give police officers raises.
“I would like to see at least 20 percent raises,” she said. “I think there’s enough revenue to do it.”
For example, Morris said the city loses too much money by overpaying for garbage collection.
“It’s not a money problem, it’s a spending problem,” she said. “There’s money out there, we just need to fund it.”
On the issue of raises for police officers and firefighters, Councilman Lorenzo Martin agreed there should be enough money in the city’s roughly $10 million budget for that and then some. He said his goal is to have the highest-paid police force in Mobile County by 2018.
“It almost scares me how doable it is,” Martin said. “We’ll have to cut out some habits in order to take care of needs.”
Martin admitted “drastic cuts” would be needed, which include downsizing and eliminating some city positions, but it could be done. His plan would not only increase pay for first responders, but would also allow them to take advantage of Retirement Systems of Alabama benefits. First responders in the city currently do not have retirement plans through their employer.
“If the City Council can manage a $500,000 to $600,000 budget a month, we can do it,” Martin said. “Cuts are needed.”
At $500,000 per month, the city would cut its annual budget by 40 percent to 50 percent, according to projections from Martin, Gardner and Morris.
Councilors also wanted to give Gardner a chance to review the budget before they approved it, Morris said.
“I think it’s not only to the advantage of council, but even to me, to look at it together so we can be open and aboveboard in terms of transparency on what actions have taken place in the budget,” Gardner said. “I think that’s a good thing for the citizens as well.”
If the city can improve its public safety, it can work to attract more businesses and increase its tax base, which has been a problem in the past, Gardner said.
“Regardless of what city we’re talking about, public safety is the cornerstone for anything that improves the city for whatever you’re trying to attract,” he said. “If public safety doesn’t exist in the city, then none of the other things are going to exist in the city. So, my platform has been about public safety.”
With improved public safety, the image of Prichard can begin to change, Morris said. She credited the mayor-elect with working to change the image through a proactive style while he was still police chief.
“He walked the streets of Prichard,” she said. “He knew he had to get out and involved. The image was already changing.”
Martin, Gardner and Morris all said the city would have to do a better job of marketing itself in order to help increase tax revenue. Martin said he wishes the city had a marketing arm to help focus on the positive things going on. The local high school football rivalry called the “Battle of Prichard” cannot be the city’s biggest event in the future, he said.
“We’re waiting on someone else to market the city,” he said. “Prichard will have to do more.”
Gardner and Morris said Chickasabogue Creek and its park, which is managed by the county, should be counted among the city’s assets. Gardner said he’d also like to highlight famous athletes, politicians and others who grew up in Prichard as part of a rebranding in the near future.
“If we don’t reach out to them and brand the city with them, nobody is ever going to know they were here,” Gardner said. “At the end of the day … we’ve had a number of people who’ve done very well.”
Prichard water board
The Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board has been looking at ways to cut ties with the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System. Board Chairman Russell Heidelberg has said Prichard could save more than $100,000 a month by digging its own wells, but enthusiasm for that among other city leaders is waning.
New wells would be a great next step in lowering residents’ water bills, Martin said, since the board has already taken over the day-to-day operations from third-party contractor Severn Trent. However, he added, the wells would be costly.
“They would take two years to develop and it would cost $18 million to $20 million per year to do it,” he said.
It would be more feasible, at least in the short term, Martin said, to sit down with MAWSS and work out a purchase agreement.
Martin and Gardner believe the city can relieve residents of high water bills by increasing the threshold for minimum usage, which would allow more residents to have a minimum bill.
In addition, Gardner said he’d like to sit down and discuss water board issues, noting councilors have appointing authority on the board.
“Whether we’re talking about wells, whether we’re talking about MAWSS, or anyone else for that matter,” he said, “we need to look at any of those [with] what would be in the best interest of the citizens of Prichard. Until we get all that information and get a chance to review it and look at it, I think I would be ahead of myself if I said anything else.”
Mobile’s bus service, known as WAVE transit, had several routes that ran through Prichard and other parts of Mobile County until the service in those areas was discontinued in April to make up for more than $500,000 in cuts to the budget.
As a result, all routes in Prichard were terminated outside of the federally subsidized transfer hub downtown. While Ephriam worked with the City Council to bring a consortium of business owners to sponsor “Comfort Coach” to transport the riders left behind by Mobile’s cuts, Prichard’s leaders now say it’s time to expand to a formal transportation system.
Much like with the appointment decisions, Gardner said he would bring together a steering committee to look at the feasibility of bringing a municipal bus system online. He said the committee would look into local, state and federal funding sources, including grants, in order to see if there’s money available for it.
Martin said he’d like to see the formation of a countywide system similar to the Baldwin Rural Area Transportation System in Baldwin County.
“It’s beneficial to have an authority with other municipalities,” Martin said. “It does the county no good for Mobile to have an authority and for Prichard to have an authority.”
While building a bus system from scratch would take time, Morris said she’s confident Gardner and the city can negotiate with Mobile in the interim.
The councilors seem prepared to work with Gardner on issues and understand the time to transition to a new administration has been shortened by the runoff in October.
No matter what the future holds for Prichard, Martin said the council and Gardner have a lot of work to do and a short time to transition to business as usual.
“I’m enthusiastic about the city of Prichard,” Martin said. “I’ve lived here 22 years and I’m ready to see it move forward. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
He said city leaders would have to “roll up their sleeves in order to face the challenges head on.
“I stated to my colleagues and the mayor-elect ‘we have 30 days to get things in order.’ There will be some midnight oil burning.”
Morris said she’s “very happy” to be able to work with Gardner.
“I’ve always wanted transparency and I think we’re going to start with that,” she said. “[Gardner] is an honest person who understands policy and procedure. The expectation is the city will move forward.”