During a nearly hourlong debate between some vocal Birmingham City Councilors and members of the city’s law department, the legislative body unanimously passed an ordinance for Birmingham to become the first Alabama city with a Healthy Food Incentive Program.
The program will cost $2 million and will be allocated from the city’s general fund budget for the fiscal year 2018 and is slated to begin August 1, 2017. Essentially, the ordinance would allow qualified recipients to receive a food incentive card — which will mean a debit-type card or voucher; the details have not been finalized — to be used toward the purchase of eligible foods at participating stores. The cards would have a value of up to $150 annually.
Before the vote, Councilor Lashunda Scales took issue with the fact the law department “has gone week to week discussing the same thing,” referring to changes in the language and the proposed launch date of the program. “We make plenty of time for economic development. When do we make the time to help the poor people,” Scales said, directing her comments to Assistant City Attorney Tracy Roberts.
There was some confusion among the councilors on the dais as they discussed which changes had been made to the measure and whether it was an ordinance or a resolution. Specifics about dates that had been changed accounted for a large part of the conversation.
The tense exchanges revealed fissures between the mayor’s office and city council when it comes to what Councilor Steven Hoyt called the “highly politicized law department.” Hoyt had pointed criticisms about how city attorneys working for the mayor’s office had not moved quickly enough on the Healthy Food Incentive Program.
“Scales is absolutely right,” Hoyt said. “The mantra of the law department is, ‘Tell us what we can’t do.’ It’s just not consistent. It’s strictly subjective. You need to represent the council in the same spirit as the mayor’s office. This is something that will be of great benefit for citizens and every week you’ve come in here saying you haven’t dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.”
Hoyt continued to scold the attorneys seated below the him in the chamber for several minutes. “Justice is supposed to be blind, but you all are peeping,” Hoyt said.
After nearly an hour, Jarvis Patton, the mayor’s chief of operations, announced he was “highly offended” by some of the comments being levied toward the law department. “You came to us with problems [with the language of the ordinance], and we attempt to give you something legally sound,” Patton said. “Then we were told it doesn’t meet the standards. You want to talk about playing a political game, it happens everywhere…You got three legal scholars on your staff. Why don’t you ask them for assistance? It happens time and time again. You won’t see our administration playing politics.”
Hoyt retorted by calling Patton a “phantom” as the discussion wound to a close.
Details of the ordinance were made available to the press after the long exchange between the governmental branches.
“Following the effective date of this ordinance, the City shall advertise and receive bids
pursuant to Alabama competitive bid laws for an entity that will contract with the City to
administer the program,” the ordinance reads. “The initial contract with the administrator shall be for a term ending June 30, 2018. Thereafter, the term of the contract awarded following the competitive bid process shall be up to three years, subject to availability of funding.”
The administrator would be in charge of distributing the annual funds to qualified applicants.
According to Council President Johnathan Austin, the administrator fees will be taken from the $2 million allocated for the program and would not be an additional expense. His hope is that Tuesday’s vote would “send a message to the legislators in Montgomery,” who have been debating whether or not to remove sales tax from groceries.
Earlier this month Governor Robert Bentley called for the state to remove taxes on groceries, even though similar bills calling for such measures have been introduced and swiftly voted down in recent years. Alabama is currently one of four states that still has a grocery tax, putting a burden on low-income families, said Austin, who indicated that Birmingham has a responsibility to show the state legislature the importance of “doing the right thing.”
Applicants wishing to enroll in the city program will have from April 15 to June 30 to do so, according to the ordinance. While it is unclear exactly what constitutes “healthy food,” Austin said, fresh produce and possibly some meats will be accessible through the program.
Initial numbers indicate that somewhere between 40,000 to 50,000 people in Birmingham could qualify for assistance. “This is a great day,” Austin said. “We just want to be able to provide some relief for people struggling to put food on the table.”