Besides an estimated $2.9 million in fees waived last year, the city of Mobile performed hundreds of additional favors for private organizations and events at no cost, according to Finance Director Paul Wesch.
As minor as some of the tasks may seem, he said recently, they contributed to lost time and are among the expenses the new administration hopes to itemize and assign value with revamped performance contracts in the fiscal year 2015 budget.
This year, the city paid out 65 performance contracts worth just over $3 million. While some organizations, such as Mobile’s Singing Children and the Joe Jefferson Playhouse received less than $1,000 in public contributions, others, like the Boys & Girls Clubs, the Center for the Living Arts and the Exploreum, were awarded well north of six figures.
Still others, like the Mobile Tennis Center, the GoDaddy Bowl and the Senior Bowl, don’t have traditional performance contracts, yet still secure separate city funding and routinely benefit from additional waivers granted on a case-by-case basis.
For example, in fiscal year 2014, the Mobile City Council approved a $482,045 transfer from the general fund to the Mobile Tennis Center but in the same year, the center has been granted a total of $228,000 in fee waivers from the Convention Center in five separate requests.
The GoDaddy Bowl, which secured a five-year contract with the city in January worth $1.15 million per year, has also been granted $47,720 in fee waivers from the Convention Center this year.
Since 2009, the Tennis Center has been awarded $1.6 million in fee waivers from the convention center alone, while the GoDaddy Bowl (previously GMAC Bowl) has been granted $244,960 in waivers and the Senior Bowl has enjoyed $363,320 in waived rent.
The Civic Center is also a prolific granter of waived fees, according to the Finance Department’s evaluation.
Since October 2013, the Civic Center has waived $120,614 in rental fees, notably to the Mobile International Festival, Mobile Municipal Court and organizations such as the Mobile Opera and Mobile Chamber of Commerce.
In previous years, the Tennis Center has also cut deals at the Civic Center, where it avoided $216,335 in scheduled fees from 2011-2013. The Tennis Center uses both the Civic Center and Convention Center for indoor events, Wesch said.
Just last week, the City Council hesitated to award $86,221 for repairs at the Copeland-Cox Tennis Center over concerns about mounting public financial support of the sport. Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper told the council the center brings in $45 million to $51 million a year, which equates to about $2 million in tax revenue for the city.
But the Tennis Center was also not charged for other minor tasks performed by the city, such as the delivery, set-up and removal of tables and chairs for several events in 2013 — favors similar to hundreds of others public employees performed last year for dozens of private organizations for no compensation.
“These are basically service requests for city work without overtime,” Wesch said, explaining the unbilled expenses. “They would call the city and ask for something like barricades and the barricades would be delivered during normal work hours for free and the city did not have the ability to capture that time.”
Dozens of the city’s more popular annual events have benefitted from the apparent lack of accountability, from the First Light Marathon in January to the North Poll Stroll in December.
The $243,000 the City Council awarded Bayfest last year did not include the costs of such chores as delivering T-shirts, providing EMT service, removing parking meters, placing trash cans, running street sweepers and trimming trees before, during and after the event.
“What we are trying to do is eliminate services that are not clearly defined or requested in the contract,” Wesch said.
But significant fee waivers have been granted for more obscure or exclusive events, according to the evaluation.
In 2010, the Convention Center waived $56,960 in fees for the Alabama League of Municipalities’ annual conference. In 2011, the Alabama All-State Band conference was awarded $27,640 in waived fees. In 2012, the All-State Band, the Commission for Accreditation for Law Enforcement, the Marine Corps League and Harley-Davidson were awarded a combined total of $159,240 in free rent.
The top three fee waivers at the Convention Center since 2009 were $143,340 awarded to the General Conference of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in the summer of 2010, $121,770 for the ISA Automation Week in October 2011 and $103,900 for the Southern Legislative Conference in 2013.
During that same time, a total of $3.49 million in fees were waived at the Convention Center, while the Civic Center forgave $818,412 in fees.
Applications for 2015 performance contracts were due in April and will be awarded along with the approval of the general fund budget. In addition to criteria such as vision alignment, community impact, funding leverage, collaborative efforts and innovation, the new application requires contractors to align with Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s public safety, business-friendly and family-friendly objectives.
The city will also require agencies entering into performance contracts to participate in a mandatory clean-up initiative with Keep Mobile Beautiful and submit quarterly progress reports with financial and performance metrics “designed to bring a greater degree of accountability and fiscal responsibility to the process.”
“We’re not suggesting waivers won’t be granted in some instances or the city won’t provide assistance when it’s requested,” Wesch said of the new contracts. “It just needs to be accounted for.”