City Council Vice President Fred Richardson wasted no time defending Mobile’s current budget Thursday, even after Mayor Sandy Stimpson and Finance Director Paul Wesch outlined a convincing case against it. In handing off a revised budget for the council to consider, Stimpson warned that the city has a spending problem and compared the situation to a family that has blown through its life savings.
“Our day of reckoning is here,” Stimpson said during his presentation, which concluded with a commitment to provide full fiscal transparency, financial stability and departmental efficiencies that could eventually provide for an employee pay raise. As he has done several times before, Stimpson noted that his administration “inherited” a budget problem that “had developed over a long period of time.”
Richardson questioned how the administration arrived at numbers that indicate a $13 million operational deficit and before reading a word of it, suggested the mayor’s new budget simply “moved money around.”
“If you all have concluded that we have a budget deficit, if we swap the money around in every department, would that generate one penny for the city?” He asked Wesch. “So really we’re not solving the budget problem with this because we don’t have no more or no less after we get through with this than we did when did when we started. So if we’re having a budget deficit, we’ve got to have some more money.”
Wesch explained that the revised budget was less about revenue generation than the elimination of unnecessary expenses, particularly those related to personnel and operating costs. Richardson asked if that translated to “sanctions” or hiring freezes.
Indeed, Stimpson’s budget achieves the majority of its cuts through a hiring freeze, as well as workforce loss due to attrition and the elimination of unfilled budgeted positions, but Richardson suggested the mayor’s own spending needed to be reined in.
Under the current administration, Richardson said, “I have seen an expansion of government. We have six divisions of government rather than four under past three administrations. We can talk about past administrations if we want to, but I see spending in manner that is not being controlled.”
Councilman C.J. Small asked the administration to provide the council with a comparison of salaries between the current administration and the previous administration prior to a meeting of the Finance Committee next week that will consider the budget further. The mayor needs a supermajority vote of the council to adopt the revised budget, which means he’ll need to convince five councilors the new budget is the right one.
Councilman Joel Daves, who also chairs the Finance Committee, asked a very basic question about the current budget.
“Is it not true that while our projected revenues are larger than originally budgeted, additional expenditures far exceed the number of revenues?” he asked.
When Wesch responded in the affirmative, Daves concluded that, “what we see is, and this goes a long way back – the City has simply spent more in the general fund year after year than what it has in general fund revenue. The options are, we address it now or get to a point where there is not the ability to address it except with drastic actions.”
Meanwhile Richardson continued to deflect criticism away from both the past administration and the City Council that approved the current budget. But he also said he would commit to working with Stimpson.
“Whatever is happening with this city financially is up to this administration ,” he said. “Nothing the past administration has spent is causing problems today. All of this business trying to point back to the past, no ma’am, no sir. The budget is not out of order. Whatever we projected we have raised even more than that. This administration is going to have to lead us forward from where we are. Let’s move forward and work together — if we need to move some money let’s move it.”
Stimpson balked at Richardson’s lack of responsibility, but also agreed to work together going forward.
“There is nobody in this room that has a greater desire to move forward and look forward than me,” he said. “But to say the previous administration has not affected the budget is something I take issue with. You started 2013 with a projected surplus and ended up with a $4 million deficit. We inherited that. I am perfectly comfortable never talking about what has happened in the past because it’s really about the future. But just so you know, I’m greatly for the sacrifices that have been made by our citizens and finances to develop the string of pearls. Our administration wants to build on positive things [previous] administrations have accomplished, but those things have not come without an impact on our budget and our citizens.”