For the first time in several years, Birmingham’s city government will enter the new fiscal year with a budget already in place. During Tuesday morning’s regular meeting, the Birmingham City Council voted unanimously to approve the city’s FY 2019 budget, nearly two weeks before the fiscal year’s July 1 start.
That timely passage of the $436 million budget — the city’s largest to date — represents a victory for first-term Mayor Randall Woodfin and the current council. Budget delays in recent years often had been viewed as symptoms of a communications breakdown between Woodfin’s predecessor, former Mayor William Bell, and the council. But speaking after Tuesday’s meeting, Woodfin said the new budget represents a renewed focus on governmental cooperation.
“Collectively, the message we’ve sent today is, ‘We know how to pass a budget on time, thereby knowing how to work together, negotiate, compromise and communicate with each other,” he said. “There was a lot of back-and-forth, individual conversations, and for me it’s taking the time to understand a councilor’s requests and to see where we can fit a compromise. I think for the most part, the majority of the council was very receptive to our style and process of making sure we could incorporate a majority of wants and needs. We were not able to get everything for everyone, but for the most part we did what we could.”
The Mayor’s Measures
But there was no compromise at all in some parts of the budget, with Woodfin’s office sticking to its original proposals for general government, public safety, and culture and recreation spending.
Also intact from Woodfin’s proposed budget was the elimination of funding from several economic development organizations such as REV Birmingham and the Birmingham Business Alliance. Though councilors proposed that funding be restored, those organizations will be required to apply for funding through the mayor’s new Department for Innovation and Economic Opportunity, which has $1.3 million allocated for “economic incentives.”
The FY 2019 budget also includes a $2.9 million increase in funding for Birmingham employees’ pensions — “the first significant step” in fixing a large hole in the city’s balance sheet, Woodfin said.
The biggest change between Woodfin’s proposed FY 2019 budget and the one that passed is the funding allocated to public transportation. Woodfin had proposed completely cutting city funding from the Birmingham Transit Authority, instead allocating that money — $10.8 million — to the line item of “future transit projects.”
Woodfin said in an April press conference that the move was intended to demand “public accountability and transparency” from the authority. Instead, the mayor wanted to set three requirements from the BJCTA before it could receive money from the city: that it develop “a leadership stability plan attributed to a timeline,” that it require 12 hours of governance training for board members and that it establish term lengths for board leadership.
But some councilors said they worried the cuts would negatively affect members of the public who relied on BJCTA buses.
District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt expressed concern during a Monday night committee meeting that cutting BJCTA funding would “hold the riders hostage for something the board does or does not do.”
Woodfin contended that his proposed cuts were not intended to remove options from the public, but to explore “other viable forms of public transportation.”
The final version of the budget moved $5 million back to the BJCTA, with another $5 million set aside in the “future transit projects” line item.
Funding to repave streets isn’t included in the FY 2019 budget; the only money going toward repaving will come from the Alabama Department of Transportation, which has given the city $2.2 million in funding for citywide paving efforts.
Funding for Neighborhoods
Perhaps the most significant public criticism Woodfin’s proposed budget faced was over its zeroing out of neighborhood allocations. Woodfin had cut the nearly $500,000 typically given to neighborhood association funds to “directly invest in neighborhood revitalization.”
Neighborhood associations, he had argued, had reserves of unspent money “sitting there” in their accounts.
But neighborhood officers argued that the money was only unspent because of the Byzantine approval process for spending requests. Central Park Neighborhood Association President Susan Palmer told the council during a public hearing last month that Woodfin’s office “never asked us why we have so much money in our accounts.”
The new budget doesn’t restore all of that money to neighborhood associations, but it does restore some: each neighborhood association will receive $2,000, for a total of $198,000.