Mobile’s Executive Director of Public Safety, James Barber, at far left, speaks to Mobile Fire Rescue Department Personnel after the Mobile City Council’s Sept. 26 meeting. During the meeting, Barber said that if the city doesn’t come through on funding for a longevity pay raise for MFRD personnel, he’ll quit and his salary can go toward the raise. (Lawrence Specker/LSpecker@AL.com)
Mobile County has passed its 2017-2018 budget, and the city of Mobile has turned consideration of its own fiscal plan into a high-stakes game of Jenga.
The Mobile City Council voted Tuesday to hold over Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s proposed budget. The council won’t meet next week, as several members will be out of town, so that means the earliest up-or-down vote on the budget will come Oct. 10 – a week and a half after the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.
Tuesday’s discussions didn’t want for strong stances. At one point a council member warned his colleagues against playing Russian roulette with GulfQuest funding. On another problematic issue, the question of longevity raises for Mobile Fire Rescue Department personnel, the city’s public safety director said that if the administration failed to follow through on its promises, he’d quit and the city could use his salary to pay for the raises.
Despite such firework, it’s an open question whether the council will be in a different position two weeks from now.
County approves raises
The 2018 budget approved Monday by the Mobile County Commission weighs in at just under $142 million, an increase of less than one percent over the 2017 fiscal year. According to information released by the county, it includes $5.1 million in capital improvements made possible by a $6 million carryover from 2017.
It also includes some new money for employees:
A 2.5 percent merit raise for eligible employees who have completed their probationary period and have received a satisfactory or above service rating, to take effect the last full pay period in October.
Sworn and corrections officers from the Sheriff’s Office will instead receive a 2.5 percent cost of living raise, also to take effect the last full pay period in October.
Eligible employees also will receive a one-time $500 payment during the first full pay period in November.
Commission President Merceria Ludgood said in a county news release that the budget funds some needed projects that have been delayed, and that "Our conservative approach to budgeting enables us to plan ahead for declines in revenue and catastrophic events."
Commissioner Connie Hudson said the county was in "a good position going forward;" Commissioner Jerry Carl said that conservative budgeting had "put us in a good situation" and cited a recent decision by Moody’s to upgrade the county’s bond rating.
According to information released by the county, 50 percent of its resources go to public safety.
The Jenga analogy came from City Attorney Ricardo Woods, during discussion of the city’s support for the GulfQuest Maritime Museum of the Gulf of Mexico. District 2 Councilman Levon Manzie has become an outspoken critic of the roughly $1 million the city has budgeted to pay employees, utility bills and other expenses at the semi-dormant museum.
On Tuesday he said he was prepared to offer a budget amendment that would drain off more than $500,000 from the GulfQuest allocation and spend it instead on a one-time bonus of $400 for more than 1,300 city employees.
District 5 Councilman Joel Daves, who also heads the council’s finance committee, cautioned that "I think we take a huge risk in making these reductions." GulfQuest was funded partly by $27 million in federal grants tied to its function as a maritime museum, and if it ceases to function in that capacity, the feds could ask for their money back, Daves said.
"This idea of taking this risk, y’all aren’t going to like this analogy, but if you play Russian roulette, you’ve got a six shooter, the chances that there’s going to be a bullet in the chamber when you pull the trigger is only about 17 percent," Daves said. "It’s a relatively small percentage. But the consequences, if the bullet is in that chamber, are tremendous."
Daves didn’t want to get too specific about how the city did might pay back the federal GulfQuest grants. "I think I know where the money’s going to come from, but it’s going to be very unpleasant," he said.
Woods, however did spell it out. "That $27 million is on the capital side," he said. "That’s a 15-month shutdown of the Capital Improvement Program." That popular program, now in its third year, has been pumping $27 million a year into drainage, road and park improvements in the city.
Woods went on to say that the administration had worked carefully with federal agencies to determine what level of support was required to meet the city’s obligations. "It’s not playing chess or checkers," Woods said. "This is Jenga."
The implication that one wrong move on the budget could bring unwanted consequences crashing down didn’t end the dissatisfaction. District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson said he backed the employee bonus sought by Manzie, and also agreed with Manzie that veteran city employees could run GulfQuest just as well as new employees paid by the city since its temporary shutdown of the museum last fall.
"They are babysitters, they are babysitting the maritime museum," Richardson said. "We can get the babysitting done" without the money Manzie was seeking to cut, he said.
Since the budget vote was postponed, Manzie’s suggested amendment never came to a vote. And a scale of longevity raises for Mobile Fire Rescue Department personnel also remained unresolved – or, at least, not enshrined in the budget to the satisfaction of District 6 Councilwoman Bess Rich.
The administration announced last week announced that in the current year, it projects the MFRD will come in about $800,000 under budget. Its plan is to use that money to pay for longevity step raises taking effect in April. Chief Mark Sealy said the program would implement a 2.5 percent pay boost for every five years of service, an incentive that would help the department retain veteran personnel who might otherwise retire or move on to other departments.
The administration has said that because the savings is projected, not money in hand, it can’t put the allocation in next year’s budget. Stimpson and other administration officials have called for the council to pass the budget as-is, and said the administration will later offer an amendment creating the longevity pay raises.
Rich’s position is that she thought the raises were going to happen last year and they didn’t and she was left feeling she’d made a huge mistake by not getting it in writing. She’s repeatedly expressed the belief that there must be some way to translate the administration’s promise into numbers in the budget before the council.
And the administration’s position has been that, regrettably, there’s no way to do that. Rich acknowledged Tuesday that Stimpson had sent a letter on Monday evening, promising that the budget amendment would come soon if the savings developed as planned. But she said that still didn’t give her the "comfort level" she wanted.
"I’m at a loss to approve the budget without this being part and parcel of the budget," she said.
Rich floated the idea that possibly the raise could be budgeted with funds designated for economic development, and that cut could then be repaid with the projected savings in this year’s MFRD budget. But Council Attorney Jim Rossler said the economic development money was committed to that purpose by law.
Later in the discussion, during the council’s formal meeting, Executive Director of Public Safety James Barber said that he was putting his own paycheck behind Stimpson’s pledge that the raises would happen. If Stimpson didn’t come through with the budget amendment, he said, "you can take my resignation and use that money to fund the longevity raise."
That stance drew applause from a contingent of MFRD personnel in attendance at Tuesday’s council meeting. But by that point, the council had already voted to hold over the budget vote for two weeks.
The question now is whether the delay will bear any fruit, or whether the council will find itself in exactly the same spot on Oct. 10. If the game really is Jenga, it’ll still be the council’s turn to move.
Several council members, notably Rich, Manzie and District 4 Councilman John Williams, have lamented that they’d like to see the administration respond to its wishes in a collaborative way, by suggesting where money might be found to pay for such things as the employee bonus.
But as Finance Director Paul Wesch said last week, and Senior Director of Communications George Talbot reiterated this week, the administration has offered what it thinks is the best budget plan it could come up with and there’s not much wiggle room to be found. If the council wants to redirect money, they said, the council is going to have to figure out where it’ll come from as well as where it goes.
Talbot said that aside from Stimpson’s letter pledging action on the MFRD longevity pay, the mayor had also sent the council a second message: One saying council members had been pondering the budget for 35 days and it was time to get the job done and move on.
With next year’s budget hanging fire, the city will continue operating under the current one. Woods said that could fritter away savings included in the new one, an argument Williams rejected.
Williams restated his belief that if the council wades into the budget with amendments, cutting here to pay for things it wants there, its actions could have unintended consequences. It would be far better, he said, if the council had been able to engage in the process months ago, and the administration had taken a collaborative approach to implementing council priorities. But he said he thought the council had been shut out.
"We’re chasing a rabbit here," he said.
The council voted 6-1 to postpone consideration of the budget. Daves cast the sole vote against the delay.
Jacksonville Jaguars players lock arms and kneel down during the playing of the U.S. national anthem before an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens at Wembley Stadium in London, Sunday Sept. 24, 2017. Jaguars owner Shad Khan can be seen at left in blue suit. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)