Birmingham City Council

A False Start: Birmingham Council Brings up Budget Then Decides the Newly Elected Need More Time to Study It

Birmingham City Council President Valerie Abbott (Source: Sam Prickett)

Nov. 14, 2017 — A budget for the 2018 fiscal year came closer to passage than ever during Tuesday’s meeting of the Birmingham City Council, but consideration eventually was pushed back to December because of concerns that newly elected officials had not had enough say in the matter.

Typically, the budget would need to be recommended to the council by the Budget and Finance Committee, but a motion by Council President Pro Tem Jay Roberson to “discharge” the item — to bring the budget to the floor without committee approval — was narrowly successful. Supporting the move was Council President Valerie Abbott, who also is head of the Budget and Finance Committee, and Councilors John Hilliard, Hunter Williams and William Parker.

Abbott was the most vocal supporter of passing the budget, noting that fiscal year 2018 started on July 1 and that the process of creating the next fiscal year’s budget was slated to begin in January.

“To me, we have a responsibility to pass the budget so our city can function,” she said. “This is the operating budget of the city of Birmingham, and our departments do not have a budget yet … .  There are things in this budget that I don’t agree with, but I’m willing to pass it so that our employees can get their raises, so that our departments can function, so that we can purchase supplies and things that are needed to serve our citizens. Our reason for being here is to serve our citizens. I don’t want to hamstring our departments any longer.”

“We have gotten to the point of ridiculousness,” she continued. “We want to put things off and change them, like, forever, it seems … . I am embarrassed. I have been on this council nearly 16 years. This council has never held up a budget this long… I’m hearing from a lot of employees who say, ‘What is wrong with y’all?’”

But councilors who opposed the measure said that the budget had not been the subject of enough discussion.

Should Have Been Discussed Before

Councilor Lashunda Scales said seeing the budget on the agenda was “disheartening” because the council had voted to discuss it in a meeting of the Committee of the Whole so the newly elected councilors could be included.

There was no discussion of the budget during that Committee of the Whole meeting, however. Instead, Director of Finance Tom Barnett provided a broad overview of city finances.

“These three council members don’t have a voice in what they’re doing,” Scales said. “(The committee meeting) never gave them an opportunity to say what they wanted to see in this budget that is representative of the needs of their district.”

Councilor Steven Hoyt also pointed to the lack of communication from Mayor William Bell, who repeatedly was absent from discussions of his proposed budget.

“If you want to talk about history, in the seven years he’s been mayor, I can count the times that he’s been to a budget and finance meeting, and you can too, if you choose to,” he told Abbott. Attempting to pass a budget without discussion between the mayor and the council, he said, “is not fair to the citizens and it’s not fair to us as a council.”

Bell, who leaves office in two weeks, was not present at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Hoyt also criticized Abbott’s leadership in attempting to pass the budget without that discussion.

“If (this) is the kind of leadership I have to look forward to, then I’m going to sit here every week and raise questions that you all failed to raise in committee,” he said. Hoyt ran against Abbott for council president but lost on a 5-4 vote.

Councilor Sheila Tyson also was vehemently opposed to the attempt to pass the budget. “No, I don’t agree with this budget,” she said. “There’s a whole lot I don’t agree with on this council.”

Eventually, the council voted 5-4 to postpone the budget until after a special Committee of the Whole Meeting, to be scheduled by Abbott. Williams was the swing vote in this decision. He voted to detach the item from committee but ultimately voted to postpone a decision on the budget.

“The reason I voted for it to be detached was so the budget could be discussed,” Williams said via email after the meeting. “It was a formality that allowed for it to be discussed in greater length in a public setting. I think it is important that we are as transparent as possible in regards to how we budget and spend taxpayer money.”

“I did vote for the budget to be delayed to committee so the incoming mayor will have more time to give his input on the budget,” he continued. “It will also give the council time to review the changes that were proposed on paper the morning of the vote. I am not satisfied the Mayor-elect has had enough input, but when he has had the input he needs I will support the budget.”

The council also voted unanimously to delay for one week an ordinance authorizing an agreement with the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority to create a bus rapid transit project along a route from Woodlawn to Five Points West.

The ordinance was delayed due to a higher-than-expected project cost, which was roughly $42.4 million compared to the originally proposed $40 million, $20 million of which would have come in federal matching grants.