Mayor Randall Woodfin was not present Monday night at the public hearing on his proposed FY 2019 budget. If he had been, he would have faced complaints from a handful of organizations unhappy that their city funding had been cut or eliminated entirely.
The members of the City Council who were there — all but District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales — appeared sympathetic to almost all of the parties who spoke at the hearing, and they even pledged to some organizations that they would advocate for them during the upcoming budget negotiations with Woodfin’s office.
Eliciting the most sympathy from the council were several neighborhood association officers, led by Central Park Neighborhood Association President Susan Palmer, who expressed anger that the new budget would cut funding to neighborhoods. This year’s budget allocated nearly $500,000 in total to neighborhood associations, but Woodfin announced that his budget proposal would move those funds “to directly invest in neighborhood revitalization,” citing what he described as unspent funds “sitting there” in neighborhood association coffers.
“We challenge the neighborhood associations to work with us with the existing funds they have to address weed abatement, demolition and other neighborhood improvements,” Woodfin said in his budget presentation earlier this month. “Our goal is to address the issues you have agreed on in your community, and we ask you to team up with us to finish the job.”
At Monday’s hearing, neighborhood officers said they had been trying to spend that money for years, but the bureaucratic process of getting expenditures approved meant that their requests for funding were often much-delayed or forgotten entirely. The mayor’s office, Palmer said, “never asked us why we have so much money in our accounts.”
Council President Valerie Abbott noted that the majority of council members had previously served as neighborhood association officers and that the difficulty Palmer mentioned had been a perennial one. “We feel your pain,” she said. “And we’ve been feeling it.”
District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt said he felt that the council should “streamline the process” by which neighborhood associations receive funding, while District 9 Councilor John Hilliard vowed to do “whatever we can do to make sure you can spend your funds and make sure they’re replenished.”
Community Development Organizations
The majority of speakers at the hearing, though, represented organizations whose funding would be cut by Woodfin’s budget, often entirely. Woodfin’s budget would zero out many economic development entities that previously have received money from the city in favor of consolidating funding requests through the newly created Department for Innovation and Economic Opportunity, which would have $1.3 million in the new budget dedicated toward “economic incentives.”
Representatives from both the Birmingham Sister Cities Commission and the Birmingham Urban League spoke out about being defunded in the new budget — though, ostensibly, both could fit into the Department for Innovation and Economic Opportunity’s purview.
The Sister Cities Commission, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building international relationships, in particular argued for its ability to facilitate economic development on an international scale, drawing declarations of support from both Hilliard and Hoyt. The organization received $225,000 this year; the new budget proposal does not allocate any funding.
Birmingham Urban League CEO William Barnes asked the council to restore his organization to 2017 funding levels of $181,000. That was cut to $100,000 in this year’s budget before being eliminated entirely in the proposal. The Birmingham Urban League has the stated goal, according to its website, of “helping empower underserved individuals in the Birmingham community to enter the social and economic mainstream.”
Barnes emphasized the human element of his organization’s goals. While plenty of money is spent on economic development, he said, “where is the investment in the people?”