Birmingham City Council

Birmingham Council OKs Firehouse Funding After Contentious Meeting

Birmingham City Councilor Steven Hoyt (Source: Sam Prickett)

More than a month after the Birmingham City Council rejected a five-year funding proposal for the Firehouse Ministries Homeless Shelter, it voted on the item again Tuesday — and this time, it passed.

The funding proposal hadn’t changed since it had last come before the council on Oct. 23; it still allocated $200,000 per year for five years to the Firehouse, which is building a $5.6 million facility to expand its services for the homeless.

But the council itself had changed drastically since Oct. 23, with two councilors leaving and another, District 7’s Wardine Alexander, being appointed in the interim.

The absence of former councilors Lashunda Scales and Sheila Tyson, who both resigned from the council in November to join the Jefferson County Commission, was likely the deciding factor in the proposal’s passage. Both had vehemently opposed the measure, citing unsubstantiated allegations that the Firehouse did not give black patrons equal treatment, and along with District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt and District 9 Councilor John Hilliard, they formed the voting bloc that had initially blocked the Firehouse’s funding.

But Hilliard was mostly silent during the discussion of the Firehouse funding Tuesday, and while Hoyt expressed at length his reservations about the funding, both ultimately voted to approve it. Alexander abstained from voting.

Perhaps the greatest sign of Hoyt’s disapproval of the measure came when he removed 15 items from the meeting’s consent agenda, meaning that they would have to be voted on individually. It’s a delaying tactic that he’s used as a protest several times before, notably during discussion of the FY 2018 budget last November and during a debate over the closure of an Ensley gas station in July. His fellow councilors appeared to recognize the strategy, with District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams visibly rolling his eyes and “reluctantly” moving to accept Hoyt’s modifications to the consent agenda.

Some of the items Hoyt pulled from the consent agenda passed without discussion — he even voted for one of them — and his questions about other items seemed to frustrate Mayor Randall Woodfin. Those questions were mostly about contractors who had won bids to do construction work for the city; Hoyt requested information about the makeup of those businesses and whether they were minority- or women-run, saying he had “a fiduciary responsibility to know who these folk are.”

“Uh, I can Google it for you,” Woodfin replied, before proceeding to do just that and reading Hoyt the results aloud.

When Williams said that Hoyt was attempting to micromanage the already completed bidding process, Hoyt suggested that Williams was “friends” with some of the companies receiving bids, which Williams denied.

When Council President Valerie Abbott told him she was growing increasingly “irritated” by his actions, he responded by telling her to “lower your voice when you talk to me.”

During the discussion of the Firehouse, Hoyt argued that “homelessness is a business, and (the Firehouse is) not trying to go out of business, quite frankly.” The real solution to solving homelessness, he said, was was to build “permanent, affordable housing.”

“It’s clear to me that we have no direction in terms of how we maximize our dollars,” he said.

Hoyt also balked at Woodfin’s claim that the funds given to the Firehouse would be “unrestricted,” which would have meant the Firehouse could spend the funds on anything, not just the new facility. Woodfin later walked back on that, saying “100 percent of the funds will go toward construction.”

When the vote occurred, Hoyt voted in favor of the funding, though he did not explain why.

Speaking after the meeting, Firehouse Executive Director Anne Rygiel called the vote “a game changer.”

“We’re going to be able to double the amount of people we’re able to serve,” she said. “This is a huge step for Birmingham and for people who are living in poverty. It speaks very highly of our community that we’re putting homeless people first.”