Well it looks like Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s attempt to wrench his budget and priorities back from a City Council that appears to be charting a much different course has failed.
Stimpson threw down the gauntlet in vetoing amendments made last week to his proposed budget — amendments that snatch millions from the capital budget to fund retiree benefits and soccer fields while also making a “temporary” tax increase part of the landscape for three more years.
But as the mayor has looked to streamline the budget and take aim at repairing the city’s creaking infrastructure and aged public safety equipment, the council let politics get the best of them and started trying to buy votes and influence. Sandy’s two vetoes were quickly smacked down by the City Council yesterday.
The council has decided to take the easy road by extending the infamous “penny” sales tax for three more years, rather than the two months requested by the mayor. This will mean tens of millions more flowing in over the years, making it much easier to put off some hard choices.
I’ve often said it wouldn’t particularly bother me to keep “the penny” for a while if the money was used for capital improvements, but this council has shown it has the same types of instincts as its predecessors. Those previous councils voted money for one bad deal after another in the name of tourism or progress even as the roads fell apart and the parks deteriorated. This council already set the tone by gathering more pocket money for themselves while the mayor drafted the budget, demanding behind the scenes that their discretionary funds be increased from $25,000 to $40,000.
Stimpson was put in the position of vetoing Council President Gina Gregory’s amendment that moves $2.5 million out of the capital budget to keep retired city workers paying healthcare insurance costs most of us couldn’t dream of. It was done in the name of keeping our “promise” to the retired city workers, but few noted that those workers were employed under a system where they would carry 20 percent of costs and the city would carry 80 percent. That’s now slipped to 84/16. If the city ever promised anyone they would always pay the same rate forever and ever, I haven’t seen that.
Stimpson also saw his effort to improve city parks shaved drastically by a surprising amendment transferring $1.5 million as a donation to County Commissioner Connie Hudson’s mystic dream of a huge soccer facility at the nexus of I-10 and I-65. I say this amendment is surprising because it was made by Bess Rich who is consistently the council’s most conservative and principled spender. On this day it seems the pressure of the soccer coalition and her relationship with Hudson may have pushed Rich out of her usual voting habits.
Speaking of Hudson, I can’t imagine she didn’t do great damage to her relationship with the mayor by leading the charge to change his 2015 budget. She apparently asked Stimpson to include money for her soccer mecca as the budget was being prepared, but decided to employ raw politics when he didn’t acquiesce.
Hudson encouraged the council to strip away half the money set aside for the parks and gave them a bit of a pep talk on rearranging the budget. The move certainly left me wondering what type of relationship she wants to have with the city and whether her carefully crafted image as a fiscal hawk is little more than twine and feathers.
Stimpson is right to be wary of dumping money into this soccer complex at this time. Hudson has provided no specifics, no reasonable cost estimates or economic impact studies. She has a grand vision pushed by her belief that 85,000 cars passing the soccer complex a day will guarantee success — a condition that has not manifested itself in Hank Aaron Stadium just across I-65 from where “Connieville” would sit.
Going into Tuesday’s meeting it looked like the mayor might not get too much trouble from the council for his veto of the three-year extension of “the penny,” as even its most spendthrift member has recanted and called for the two-month extension. But things got weird once the vote came as Richardson flipped back to supporting the three-year extension and Gregory, who voted for it last week, was on the nay side this time.
Council President Gregory has once again let “the penny” make her look less-than-genuine when she draws a line in the sand. She famously “caved” in 2010 to allow the sales tax to be raised to 10 percent within city limits, claiming she would never do it again. Two years later she had a “read my lips” moment, when she again voted to keep the increase because it would take money from police and fire.
Ironically, this go ‘round she supported the first vote on the three-year extension while simultaneously pushing an amendment to pull $2.5 million from capital set aside to upgrade — you guessed it — police and fire equipment. Her reversal on the “penny” may offer Gregory some political cover in the next election as she was taking heat for once again supporting a tax she had vowed to let die.
At this juncture it’s really hard to see what kind of relationship Stimpson and the City Council will have. They’ve done a lot this week to push back against Stimpson’s core initiatives. Whether that will continue to be the case remains to be seen.
Certainly with the tax extension in place the council has done Stimpson a political favor of giving him more money to work with without having to take the wrap for asking for it. However, my guess is as that money comes in it will be very tempting to let old spending habits rear their heads.
THE GADFLY BY LAURA RASMUSSEN
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