Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson says his biggest “OMG — that’s Oh My Gosh in Sandy’s world — Moment” so far in his first three months in office was facing the fact the budget he’d been handed was wildly unbalanced and pushing off a financial cliff.
“It’d shock anybody,” Stimpson said earlier this week while looking back at life over the past three months on the 10th floor of Government Plaza. The mayor sat down with Lagniappe to talk about his impressions and plans as he closes in on 100 days in office.
Stimpson said there have been good surprises he’s enjoyed as mayor — naming the best of those as being able to attract the type of personal staff he has assembled and calling them all “stars.” On the flip side, though, the most unpleasant surprise, he said, was wading into the budget after inaguration and discovering the city had overspent by roughly $15 million last year and was set to do it again this year. This prompted the administration to cancel across-the-board raises promised by former Mayor Sam Jones, and to start reworking the current budget to come back before City Council for approval soon.
“Some of the not pleasant surprises have been how monies have been say ‘redirected’ from capital to pay for the general fund and the obligations the city has for so many buildings and so many facilities. When you go down the list of GulfQuest, the cruise terminal, the civic center, Ladd Stadium and then 5 million square feet of buildings, BayBears stadium. And the effort to promote tourism is part of it. We haven’t generated enough revenues to support some of this,” he said.
While he tiptoes carefully around pointing the finger at Jones, who was notoriously tight with the information handed out to public, media and the council, Stimpson says part of the issue with the budget revolves around department heads not being part of the process.
“The department heads had certainly never felt responsible for their budgets. They were not held accountable for their budgets, nor were they aware of everything that was in their budgets,” he said. Asked whether money had been spent improperly, Stimpson continued, “Money was just being spent, and I’ll leave it at that. From the standpoint of whether it was unethical, I don’t want to go there. I know going forward, because of the transparency that will evolve as we start presenting things, that it will not be spent in the fashion it has been spent previously.”
So how does a city that has had two knock-down-drag-out battles over the past three years about increasing the sales tax as a means of keeping things on an even keel face the realization that even that supposed financial stopgap fell far short of what was being spent? Millions have been siphoned from the capital fund each year to support various high-profile projects and to pay bills, leaving almost nothing to repair crumbling streets and dilapidated buildings. Still, Stimpson says a turnaround is possible, though it won’t be easy.
“Yes, it is achievable. It’s going to cause some pain in certain areas. Everybody will not be pleased. We’ve got to get back into the framework of why the people voted the taxes in and where the money was supposed to be spent. That’s where it needs to be spent,” he said. “We’re supposed to have about $15 million for capital expenditures every year. It’s probably been 12 years or longer that, in our effort to do different projects, it became easy to take money out of the capital fund. Therefore sidewalk repairs, street repairs, drainage repairs, building repairs, police cars, fire and rescue vehicles all suffered from it. So today what we have is the crumbling infrastructure. In year one can we do it? No. But by year two, can we? The answer is yes.”
Not only does Stimpson feel confident the city can get back to apportioning money properly and meeting capital needs, he hasn’t even given up on the possibility it can be done without “The Penny,” as the 20-percent sales tax increase rammed through by Jones in recent years came to be known. Stimpson says it’s premature to say yes or no in terms of whether the budget can ultimately be balanced without the tax.
One of the habits that has gotten the city in financial trouble, he said, is entering into public/private partnerships in which the city was supposed to supply seed money then get out as the project stood upon its own financial feet. The vacant cruise ship terminal, Hank Aaron Stadium and the Saenger Theater make up part of that list. Many fear the GulfQuest Maritime Museum — already two years behind schedule in opening — could soon become a financial albatross as well.
“I believe our citizens are really frustrated with supporting projects that were supposed to be supported on a one-time basis to get them going and then the city continues to have to support them. The citizens are frustrated we haven’t been able to manage them better so that came to pass,” Stimpson said. “I think GulfQuest is a big question mark. I think there’s a multitude of challenges there. Someone made the comment that maybe the city was too involved in the day-to-day management.”
But the upbeat Stimpson says he’s taken all of these “OMG” revelations on as opportunities rather than hindrances. And one of those where he sees the most opportunity is the cruise ship terminal. Vacant since Carnival Cruise lines pulled the Elation in 2011, leaving Mobile with a $2.2 million a year loss when debt service and parking revenue were combined. The city still owes roughly $26 million on the terminal. Why the company left Mobile, where cruises were routinely sold out, has never been fully explained. Publicly, financial unhappiness on the part of Carnival was blamed, but behind the scenes it is spoken of matter-of-factly that personal issues between city leaders and Carnival led to the split. Regardless of the reason, Stimpson says having a new ship tie up on the Mobile River eases many issues.
“I think the cruise ship is crucial. Having the cruise ship come in solves several problems. Number one it directly solves the problem of servicing the debt, but it also generates revenue through the hotels and restaurants and all. If you had one wish, the most immediate impact to the city in both savings to the city bottom line and generating revenue is a cruise ship because it touches both sides of it,” Stimpson said, also mentioning that it’s position next to GulfQuest would give the museum a more sporting chance at success.
Though he couldn’t speak in specifics, the mayor said he is putting personal effort into bringing a ship back in.
With a new mayor and a City Council sporting two new members and being directed by a new president, the dynamic is bound to take time to develop. Certainly the previous council and Jones could hardly be described as having been chummy, especially over the past few years. Stimpson’s burgeoning relationship hasn’t been tough, but it also hasn’t been a complete lovefest.
District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson, an ardent Jones supporter, kicked up some dust in December over what he thought was a lack of support for his pet project — the New Year’s Eve MoonPie Drop — and has also led a coalition of the council’s three black members to put off approving Stimpson’s choice for Fire Chief, Paul “Randy” Smith. Even as this paper goes to press, Smith’s approval by the council still seems unlikely.
Stimpson thinks he and the council will eventually hit their stride and get to a point where they are really working together on almost every issue.
“It’s early in the game. I think once they realize they have a mayor who truly wants to work with them and is interested in their constituents, that we’re going to do things in every district to make sure the citizens feel like they’re part of the city, then I think the relationship will only strengthen,” he said.