Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin gave members of the City Council a preview of his proposed FY 2019 operating budget during a committee meeting Wednesday.
While his brief presentation included few specifics — the full operating budget will be presented during the City Council’s regular meeting Tuesday — Woodfin did address the pressing issue of the city’s unfunded pension liability and encourage neighborhood associations to be more proactive in their individual revitalization efforts.
At $436 million, the new budget will be the city’s largest to date, edging out the previous year’s budget by $8 million. While that budget, originally presented by then-Mayor William Bell, was passed shortly after Woodfin’s inauguration last year, the FY 2019 budget will be the first his administration has overseen from the beginning of the process.
That process has changed drastically from the previous year. The FY 2019 budget will be zero-based, meaning that each budget item is considered anew, not based on its inclusion or lack thereof in the previous year’s budget. During Wednesday’s meeting, Woodfin emphasized that this meant there were “no sacred cows” when it came to determining funding. “Literally nothing was untouchable,” he said. “It is time to make some difficult-yet-responsible decisions in order to meet our core values and number-one priority, which is neighborhood revitalization.”
To that end, Woodfin announced that $500,000 of the new budget would go toward establishing a “preventative maintenance program” for city infrastructure. He also said that the budget would invest more in ShotSpotter technology, which allows law enforcement to detect gunfire.
But Woodfin also placed some of the responsibility for neighborhood revitalization on neighborhood associations, which he pointed out had existing expense accounts that are rarely, if ever, used. A four-page document breaking down the balances of each neighborhood association’s account was given to councilors, showing that the city’s neighborhood associations have a total of $3.7 million set aside, with individual neighborhood balances ranging from $7,363.37 in Fairview to $74,867.91 in Forest Park/South Avondale.
“We’re asking residents to get involved at the neighborhood level,” Woodfin said. “Call your neighborhood leaders (and) discuss your concerns … . The money’s sitting there.”
The only other part of the budget addressed with depth at Wednesday’s meeting was the city’s pension plan funding. Birmingham has consistently underfunded the pension plan for its city employees since 2002, which Woodfin’s transition team said could lead to a financial crisis for the city in the near future.
Woodfin said steps had been taken to address the problem; specifically, the city will allocate $2.9 million more to pensions than it had the previous year. That’s a fraction of the $10 million to $15 million needed annually to fully fund the city’s pension obligations. Woodfin said that this would be the first step in a plan for the “long-term sustainability of our pension,” and that his office would need more information before setting that larger plan into motion.
Woodfin will present the budget to the Birmingham City Council during its next meeting, which is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 1.