Dec. 12, 2017 — The Birmingham City Council Tuesday approved a budget for the 2018 fiscal year, more than five months after that fiscal year actually started.
“We have a budget!” proclaimed Council President Valerie Abbott after the unanimous vote, drawing a standing ovation from many who had gathered in the council chambers.
The delay was the result, at first, of an apparent breakdown in communications between former Mayor William Bell and the council. After the Oct. 3 municipal elections, the council further delayed passing the budget until newly elected officials — Mayor Randall Woodfin and the three new councilors — could have their input on the budget.
Two weeks into Woodfin’s administration, his office delivered his budget “compromise,” which trimmed significant amounts earmarked for city departments and culture and recreation funding.
While most councilors expressed a sense of relief about the passage of a budget, the specifics of the budget drew a more measured response.
President Pro Tem Jay Roberson described himself as “elated” that the budget had passed and praised Woodfin for his influence.
“I know he was ready to get this behind him, too, and ready to move forward to his next fiscal year for consideration,” he said. “There are some areas that I think need some work, but you can still make adjustments in that process as needed.”
Speaking from the dais, District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales thanked the mayor, but with muted praise. “The mayor knows that all of our expectations are very high with this incoming (2019) budget, and I think mine are probably superlative above,” she said, adding that, “in the spirit of willingness to work with everyone, I didn’t get all the things (I wanted).” But, she said, she was “looking forward” to the next set of budget discussions.
“It was six months overdue,” Abbott said after the meeting, calling the delay “embarrassing.”
“I would have agreed to almost anything to get our departments back functioning correctly and getting our employees their salary treatments that they desperately need at this time of year,” she added. “Not all of us like the budget, but we never all get what we want. That’s part of life. We’re used to that idea. We have to prioritize; my priority was to get the budget passed. Next year, things might be different.”
While the version of the budget that passed did include some changes, including an overall cutback in money allotted to city departments, the changes from the FY 2017 were more incremental than drastic. Many of Bell’s proposed budget increases for various departments were removed in favor of slight budget reductions, though.
For example, Woodfin cut the budget for his own office from last year’s $10,086,755 to $9,598,887. Under Bell, the budget for the mayor’s office had grown considerably, with nearly a $1 million increase between FY 2016 and FY 2017. Woodfin attributed his office’s budget reduction to his reducing the number of people on staff. “We’ve cut a lot of overhead as it relates to employee salaries,” he said, which allowed “additional funding” for other areas.
Other city government departments that took cuts were the city’s finance department (the budget dropped $419,455), law department (down $212,269), and information management services (down $881,421). The City Council’s budget, meanwhile, increased (up $76,146), as did the city clerk’s budget (up $227,288).
Every budget item categorized as “public safety” saw minor increases, though most of them, such as the police department, stayed approximately the same.
Elsewhere, the budget cut city funding to the Birmingham Construction Industry Authority, a nonprofit founded in 1990 to certify and support underutilized minority and disadvantaged businesses. At a committee meeting on Monday night, Woodfin described the BCIA as “failed” and said he had found “several red flags” about the organization that he found “really alarming.”
Though the BCIA still will receive $175,000 from the city for expenditures that had been made before the budget was passed, it will not receive subsequent funding during the fiscal year.
Speaking after the event, Woodfin emphasized that this did not mean the end for the BCIA, which receives funding from other sources, or the end for the city’s relationship with the nonprofit.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t want to partner with or work with the BCIA,” Woodfin said. “(But) we haven’t seen the function of that organization yield to that increase (of city funding in the past).” Woodfin said that his office would be looking at “in-house” ways of working with minority participation.
Also cut entirely was the Healthy Food Initiative, which was created by the council in March. That program would have allowed qualified recipients to receive up to $150 worth of food from participating stores. That program had been earmarked for $500,000 in the budget, though it had been passed with the expectation of a $2 million annual cost. Woodfin’s office removed that funding.
Woodfin said this did not mean he was giving up on making healthy foods more accessible to those who need them, but that his office would be looking to address such quality-of-life issues “from a comprehensive standpoint.”
Abbott added that the city needs “to do more around education and have more healthy food closer to where people live. … That previous initiative was simply a drop in the bucket and wasn’t going to help anybody who was having real health problems because they were eating potato chips and Cokes all day… . People eat unhealthy foods because they’re available and they’re cheap or they live in food deserts and they can’t get to a grocery store.”
Birmingham City Schools, on the other hand, received a significant increase of funding from the new budget — jumping from Bell’s proposed $1,725,000 to $3 million. When Bell initially proposed his budget in May, Woodfin, a former Board of Education president, had been critical that education spending was too low. “Education has not been a priority for the Bell administration, period,” he said then. “You can’t argue it. You can’t run from it.”
But on Tuesday, Woodfin said that the increase was “something that William Bell actually proposed … We have to give credit where credit’s due.”
Even so, Woodfin emphasized the importance of education funding and suggested that it increase even more in future budgets.
“You can’t talk about education being a part of your city if you have a $428 million budget and you give your school system less than 1 percent of it,” he said. “Truthfully, we can do better than $3 million. But that means we’re going to have to find more resources to support the system.”
Conversations on how to make that happen — with Abbott, BCS Superintendent Dr. Lisa Herring and other community leaders — were underway, he said.
Looking to 2019
Before he took office, Woodfin told BirminghamWatch that he would have a fairly simple approach to the FY 2018 budget: “It’s simple. Anything I feel is an abuse or some form of a hookup shouldn’t be in there. Outside of that? Everything else is cool.”
When asked after Tuesday’s council meeting if he felt the new budget reflected that approach, Woodfin didn’t hesitate. “It doesn’t reflect it deep enough,” he said, emphasizing the need for a performance audit to make sure the budget, along with department staffing, is rightsized.
“It’s not necessarily people-driven, and it’s not necessarily organizational-driven,” he said. “It is best performances for each department that allows us to spend and have the best yield of our tax dollars.”
To that end, Woodfin announced to the council that the 2019 budget would be zero-based — meaning that all expenditures would need to be justified for the new year to be included in the budget.
Woodfin also emphasized that the creation of the budget would start earlier and would be a much more inclusive process than it had been under Bell.
“We’ve seen some of the friction or dysfunction or fighting around the budget, (but) there’s a different way and a different style of doing that,” he said. “I think part of it is setting a calendar ahead of time, so the council has advance notice.”
Councils and departments, he said, will be asked to categorize their “wants, needs, and priorities within those needs,” which would assist in the creation of the budget.
Both during the council meeting and after, though, Woodfin made one priority clear for next year’s budget —to “(make) sure that our fiscal year 2019 actually starts on July 1.”