Mayor Randall Woodfin revealed his proposal for the city’s FY 2019 budget during Tuesday’s meeting of the Birmingham City Council.
At just more than $436 million, it’s the city’s largest budget to date, clocking in at nearly $7 million more than that of the previous year. As the first budget proposal created entirely during Woodfin’s time as mayor, it is the clearest representation of his nascent administration’s economic goals to date.
“It’s a new day in Birmingham,” Woodfin told the council, “not just through the budget process, but with the way we spend and oversee the tax dollars entrusted to us.” The budget, he added, “represents some difficult and responsible decisions that must be made to support our priorities,” most significantly neighborhood revitalization.
Unlike previous years’ budgets, the Woodfin administration used a “zero-based” budgeting strategy, meaning that the new budget was built from the ground up and not based on the previous year’s budget.
“Throughout this process, there were two critical messages,” Woodfin said. “Each department must prioritize needs over wants. Second, nothing is viewed as untouchable.”
That last statement will likely prove itself to be particularly true. Birmingham’s recent history of budget negotiations is one of disagreement and deadlock. Last year’s budget, initially proposed by then-Mayor William Bell in May, wasn’t passed until December, nearly six months into the fiscal year. That was partially due to that year’s municipal elections, which unseated the mayor and City Council president. But even during a non-election year the process has proven contentious; the FY 2017 budget, for example, was passed two months late.
Woodfin has stated multiple times that he intends to make sure the budget is passed before the fiscal year starts on July 1. During Tuesday’s meeting, he encouraged councilors to contact his staff directly with questions.
Members of the public will also have the opportunity to comment during a public hearing on the budget, which is scheduled for Monday, May 14, at 5:30 p.m. in the council chambers.
One of the most striking aspects of Woodfin’s budget is that it cuts nearly $1 million from the mayor’s office, taking it from roughly $9.5 million to $8.5 million. That’s largely due to the elimination or transference of 27 positions, many of which were holdovers from Bell’s notably large mayoral staff. Thirteen administrative assistant positions are eliminated in the new budget, with five more transferred to other offices. Also eliminated are the positions of chief administrative assistant, executive administrative assistant, mayor’s executive assistant and senior security officer.
Woodfin told councilors Tuesday morning that the city had eliminated 133 longtime vacant positions citywide to save costs.
Two mayor’s office positions, the director of economic development and an economic development specialist, have been transferred to the new Department for Innovation and Economic Opportunity (IEO), which Woodfin earlier this year announced he would be creating. That department is budgeted for $2,576,232, which is being used to fund 13 new positions.
Woodfin told councilors that the department would receive funds typically allocated to external economic development agencies.
“Many of those agencies deliver valuable services to the city and our residents,” he said. “However, the current system is neither sustainable nor a responsible stewardship of taxpayer money.”
Entities such as REV Birmingham, which previously had received $725,000 annually, and the Birmingham Business Alliance, which had received $137,975 annually, will not receive any funding from Woodfin’s proposed budget. Instead, he said, the IEO “will launch a request-for-proposals process” for those external organizations to apply for municipal funding.
“This process is necessary to ensure that our partners are coordinated in executing a shared vision of building a more inclusive economy,” he said. Woodfin’s budget has $1.3 million in “economic incentives” earmarked as part of the IEO.
Other departments taking cuts include the city clerk’s office, which had seen a spike in funding to oversee last year’s municipal elections; and the law department, which will see roughly $600,000 less allocated for outside attorney’s fees. Before he took office, Woodfin had criticized the city’s tendency to outsource legal services, calling it “a hookup culture.” In March, Woodfin told BirminghamWatch that the city was in the process of “phasing out” contracts with outside legal counsel.
“Once we phase it out, we’ll definitely be able to easily identify some cost savings in that space,” he said. Now, it seems, there’s a concrete number attached to those promises.
Spread throughout the budget is an increase of $2.9 million in funding for city employees’ pensions, which the city has been underfunding since 2002. It’s an issue that both Woodfin’s transition team and outside consulting company Crowe Horwath identified as a pressing financial issue for the city — one that could lead to credit downgrades and other budgetary shortfalls. You can read BirminghamWatch’s full report on the issue here.
Though the additional $2.9 million is far short of the $10 to $15 million that would be required to fully fund Birmingham employees’ pensions, Woodfin described it as “the first significant step as we work to keep our promises to our current and retired employees.”
“This is the beginning of the solution process for the pension fund,” he said.
The city also will allocate $2.8 million toward a cost-of-living adjustment for city employees.
Public Safety, Public Works and Transit
The Birmingham Police Department will receive roughly $4 million less than it did in last year’s budget, dropping from $98,026,464 to $93,944,712. That’s largely because 47 positions from the department are being eliminated, including one deputy police chief, 17 corrections officers, two correctional supervisors, four park rangers and five public safety dispatchers, among others. Woodfin’s office confirmed after the presentation that these positions had all been vacant for more than two years.
The proposed budget also cuts funding to the public works department by nearly $3.4 million, largely by eliminating 225 positions, including 184 positions designated as “laborer.”
It appropriates $1.25 million from the city’s general fund toward weed abatement, as well as $2 million for demolishing dilapidated structures. As he promised the council on Wednesday, the budget also directs $495,000 toward starting a “preventative maintenance program” for city infrastructure.
Woodfin also repeated his encouragement that neighborhood associations tap into their allocated funds, which he says have accumulated to roughly $3.7 million across the 99 neighborhoods.
“We challenge the neighborhood associations to work with us with the existing funds they have to address weed abatement, demolition, and other neighborhood improvements,” he said. “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.”
He added that the money typically allocated to those neighborhood associations will instead “directly invest in neighborhood revitalization.” Last year, the city transferred $499,700 into neighborhood funds; this year, that line item has been zeroed out.
Woodfin’s budget also makes good on the demand he issued Monday afternoon to the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority. During a press conference, he said the city would not give “any additional funding” to the beleaguered authority until it met three criteria: adopting a leadership stability plan attached to a timeline, mandating a minimum of 12 hours of governance training per year for board members, and establishing rules and procedures for the length of board officers’ terms.
The BJCTA’s situation has been dire for months. Its executive director, Barbara Murdock, is suspended without pay after being accused of paying her personal power bill with a BJCTA credit card. The authority, meanwhile, has gone through four board chairs since October — and these are far from the only controversies.
Woodfin’s proposed budget takes the $10.8 million typically allocated to the BJCTA and instead lists it under a different, vaguely titled line item: “future transit projects.”