April 10, 2018 — The Birmingham City Council approved two revenue-generating ordinances during Tuesday’s meeting — one allowing for earlier alcohol sales on Sundays and the other extending the city’s 1-cent sales tax indefinitely.
The first of those, nicknamed the “brunch bill,” will allow restaurants in the city to service alcohol for on-premises consumption starting at 10 a.m. on Sundays. Previously, restaurants had been barred from selling alcohol from 2 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Sundays, a rule that still applies to retailers selling alcohol for off-premises consumption.
As its nickname implies, the bill is primarily intended to allow restaurants serving brunch to also sell alcoholic beverages that often accompany that meal, such as mimosas and bloody Marys.
“It’s one thing to open up liquor stores in the morning,” said District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams. “It’s a very different thing to serve food and offer the option to serve mimosas for breakfast.”
Birmingham’s bill follows a similar statewide bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Kay Ivey last month. That law required passage on a local level to take effect, though. Now that Birmingham’s City Council has done so, the brunch bill can take effect as soon as this Sunday.
The change must be advertised in two papers before it takes effect, which Council President Valerie Abbott said the council intended to do before the end of the week.
Williams, who drafted the ordinance, called it a “win-win-win,” citing the additional revenue that it would create for the city.
District 7 Councilor Jay Roberson, meanwhile, joked about another, unintended consequence of the bill’s passage. “I don’t know how many ministers you polled or how many clergy you polled, but I expect our church services to be a little more spirited in Birmingham,” he laughed.
The five members of the council who were present — Abbott, Williams, Roberson, District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales and District 6 Councilor Sheila Tyson — passed the brunch bill unanimously.
The extension of the city’s 1-cent sales tax, though, proved more controversial, with Scales and Tyson expressing concern over how the revenue it generated w
as being spent.
The sales tax initially was enacted in 2008, when then-Mayor Larry Langford promised the revenue it generated would be used to fund transportation, education and a domed stadium. Since its enactment, the tax has contributed approximately $32 million annually to the city’s $428 million operating budget, Tom Barnett, head of the city’s finance department, told the council.
Scales and Tyson, however, expressed concern that the money had not been allocated to what Langford had promised. “The city has to wean itself off collecting money that is not being used for the purchase of stuff for what it was intended,” Scales said. “Folk are tired of being taxed to death … (Businesses) are going to leave here if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing.”
Tyson echoed that sentiment. “We keep saying we’re going to stick to what we promised the citizens,” she said, addressing Woodfin from the dais. “We just have not kept our word.”
Woodfin cited the city’s $9 million increase to its public transportation budget after the passage of the sales tax increase in 2008. “The commitment to transportation has been there, and I think the public needs to know that,” he said.
He conceded that the city’s support of education has not been as strong, but he promised that his upcoming budget, which he has not yet presented to the council, would address some of those concerns.
“I’m asking for you to give me more time to do that, because I haven’t submitted the budget to you yet,” he said. “In regards to those three issues (transit, education, and the stadium), I’m not deviating from that commitment.”
Woodfin, along with Abbott, stressed the negative impact that losing $32 million from the budget would have on the city. “Truthfully, we can’t afford to go backwards and not have that $30-plus million toward our $428 million,” he said.
Abbott concurred. “Taking $32 million from our budget would absolutely devastate us,” she said. “I hate taxes. I don’t think any of us are in love with them … (but) to take $32 million out of the budget, I could not vote to do that.”
Ultimately, she said, the council would need to trust that Woodfin would stick to his commitment to fund transit, education and the stadium in his upcoming budget. “(His commitment) is good enough for me,” she said.
Tyson, while still expressing skepticism, ultimately decided to vote in favor of extending the tax. “I can’t do nothing else but trust you because you were voted in as a leader,” she said. “Mayor Woodfin, I’m going to take you at your word.”
Scales, however, refused to do so. “I’ve been hearing this ‘trust’ word for so long,” she said. She argued that the city needs to drastically reshape its spending priorities.
“We’re spending money on the wrong things, and the right things we struggle to spend money on,” she said. Ultimately, she cast the council’s sole dissenting vote; Abbott, Williams, Roberson and Tyson all voted to approve the extension. Pending further changes by the council, Birmingham’s sales tax will remain at 10 cents on the dollar.