Circumstances surrounding the planned construction of a new recreation center are causing discord between elected officials in the city of Homewood. Their disagreement is not over the merits of the $16.5 million project, but centers on the timing of its consideration by the Homewood City Council, the process for selecting firms to underwrite the bonds used to fund construction of the center, and questions about the city’s long-range capital improvement plan.
The controversy began last Wednesday, when city councilors Fred Hawkins and Walter Jones called a special meeting for this Monday evening, October 29. The city council is in transition: the newly elected members are scheduled to hold their first regular meeting November 19. Both Hawkins and Jones won re-election to their seats on the 11-member council in the August municipal election.
While the two councilmen have the discretion under council rules to call a special meeting, the outgoing council president questions their timing and intent in doing so.
“The decision of when and how the city moves forward on this project should be the responsibility of the new council,” says Allyn Holladay. “I have several concerns, the biggest of which is why we would encumber six new people on the council with a huge amount of debt that they had no say in assuming. For some reason, the people driving this process forward don’t want to wait for that. I don’t know if there’s some fear they won’t have the votes then, or if there’s another reason they’re trying to push it through, but there is a discussion that is not being had.”
Jones did not respond to requests by telephone and email for comment on this story. But Hawkins maintains that providing an opportunity for both outgoing and new city councilors to discuss the project in detail is the purpose of Monday’s called meeting. The primary reason for calling the meeting now, he says, is to ensure that the new center’s swimming pool will be open in time to allow for optimal usage of the pool.
“Our objective is not to ram something through,” Hawkins says. “We’ve had a deadline for getting this project on track for about a year, and if we don’t get all of the bid process done by January, we’re going to miss two pool seasons. We don’t need to wait until November 19 to get this moving. That’s why, when we called the meeting, we informed the new council members and invited them to come and participate and make their feelings known.”
Holladay rejects that explanation, calling Hawkins’ invocation of construction deadlines “an excuse that’s being used” to create a false sense of urgency. Stressing that she is not opposed to the new recreation center, Holladay says she is troubled by numerous “unanswered questions” about the October 26 meeting.
“The problem is not whether there should be a rec center,” says Holladay. “The problem is the process.”
An informal process
A big part of the “process” to which Holladay refers is the selection of bond underwriters. Homewood Mayor Scott McBrayer tells Weld that he plans to recommend two bond firms — Protective Securities, of Birmingham, and Montgomery-based Merchant Capital — to the council.
Contrary to a story on the rec center controversy published last week on AL.com — the website of the Alabama Media Group, which also operates the Birmingham News — McBrayer also confirms that the city did not issue a formal request for proposals (RFP) from prospective underwriters. Instead, at its last regular meeting in mid-October, the city council authorized the mayor to solicit proposals and make a recommendation.
“There was no RFP,” McBrayer says. “The council announced that I was authorized to seek proposals, but there is no requirement for [an RFP] for professional services contracts and it is exempt from the bid law.”
McBrayer says he was contacted by several firms expressing interest in the project, and that he ultimately received six proposals. His narrowing of the field to two firms is in line with the discretion he was granted by the council, he adds.
“They asked me to get it all hashed out and recommend the best proposals,” says McBrayer. “That’s all I have the authority to do. I can’t enter into a contract unless the council authorizes it, and they do not have to accept my recommendation. Whether they want to do that or not is strictly up to them.”
Holladay abstained from voting on the council resolution that authorized McBrayer to seek proposals. Among other reasons, she says, she was uncomfortable with the informality of the selection process.
“It was my understanding that this process would take longer than a few weeks, and that this was something the new council would address when they came on the job,” says Holladay. “My experience has been that the council is allowed to look at the proposals, and respondents are invited to make presentations. In this case I never even saw what the mayor put out as guidelines for proposals. The last time we did anything of this magnitude was when we refinanced some bond debt in 2006. That was an extraordinarily detailed process. In my opinion, a $16.5 million transaction should have the same weight.”
Hawkins counters that the process which has been followed to date is in line with what the council authorized — including the call for a special meeting to review the proposals gathered by McBrayer. Learning that the mayor will present only two proposals to the council, however, Hawkins also professes some concern.
“I have heard that the mayor has five or six proposals,” says Hawkins. “Part of the intent in calling the meeting is to talk about how we’re going to select the firms. I would hope that he would show us all of the proposals and then make a recommendation if he has one.”
Does haste make waste?
A final concern of Holladay’s is the potential impact of the recreation center project on the city’s overall plan for capital improvements. That plan includes eventualities for keeping Homewood’s police and fire vehicles up to date, and the ongoing needs in the city’s judicial and jail facilities. Holladay raised those concerns prior to abstaining on the vote authorizing the mayor to seek bond underwriters, but was not satisfied with the answers she received.
“That was where they lost me,” says Holladay. “I’m just not sure there’s an understanding by the mayor or the council of our long-range capital needs. Homewood is doing really well. We’ve been making improvements on 18th Street, along Central Avenue, in the Edgewood area. These are things that have young couples with children — the people who really provide your tax base — looking at this as a wonderful place to live and raise their families.
“We owe those people and all of our citizens every consideration in determining how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent. I just want to know if there’s a way this can be done that still allows the city the latitude to do other things it may need in the future. I just don’t understand the rush.”
McBrayer is in full agreement with Holladay’s assessment of Homewood’s ongoing growth. But he sees that as bolstering the case for moving forward with the recreation center. That is especially so, McBrayer says, given that the fiscal year which ended October 1 was the fourth in a row in which Homewood has had a budget surplus. Final calculations for FY 2012 won’t be done for several weeks, but the mayor said he expects this year’s surplus to be “probably between $1 million and $1.2 million.”
“I can see where the public might be led to think that this is something that’s being pushed through,” McBrayer admits. “But anybody who’s arguing against it on the basis of concerns about our debt capacity hasn’t looked at our financials. They haven’t looked at how much money is coming into our debt service every year. And the projections for this year don’t even take into account what we’re getting from new developments like The Hill and the new Target store at Brookwood. If anything, we’ve been conservative in looking at our future plans.”
For his part, Councilor Hawkins insists that all questions about the recreation center project — including how it will impact the city’s ceiling for bond debt — will be answered at the October 29 meeting. Holladay tells Weld that she plans to boycott that meeting, saying she “[doesn’t] see the point” of attending, “since my position on this and the questions I’ve asked have been disregarded.” She does acknowledge that “a quorum” of current councilors seems to be prepared to approve the mayor’s recommendations for bond underwriters and move forward with the project. Hawkins says that he has made phone calls to both current and new councilors and expects a majority of both to be present at the meeting.
“I believe we’ll have at least eight out of 11 at the meeting,” Hawkins says. “I also expect full attendance from those on the new council. As far as the questions, I’d say that nobody knows all the answers yet, but we’ll find out Monday. We’ll have the chance to talk about it, and if after that it turns out that a majority is not in favor of it, then I’d be hard-pressed to go against that.”