After a prolonged discussion over the lack of itemized expenditures presented at the meeting, the Birmingham City Council approved a $220,000 appropriation to pay for services associated with the management of Railroad Park.
Despite voicing lukewarm support of the measure, several councilors took issue with the fact that the mayor’s office had not shown receipts for the services that had been provided. The $220,000 would be used to pay “outstanding balances,” said Terry Burney, the mayor’s chief analytical strategist. Burney was speaking on Mayor William Bell’s behalf after he abruptly left the dais — seemingly on some other business suddenly brought to his attention by a group of men who approached him during the meeting — which appeared to cause momentary confusion among the councilors.
Last year the city paid a portion of the amount due, according to Burney. “It’s the outstanding balances for janitorial, landscaping, and the camera monitoring, which is what we agreed to do by contract,” Burney said. Of that amount, $28,998.62 was due for janitorial services, $152,450 for landscaping, $18,907 for path maintenance, and $16,000 in camera monitoring since June 2016 (totalling $216,355.62) according to Burney.
“That seems like a lot to monitor some cameras,” Council President Pro-tem Steven Hoyt said, referring to the $2,000 in monthly fees to the security camera monitoring service Ion 247 charges for their service. The city of Birmingham has held a contract with Ion 247 since 2007, during which time the company has installed and monitored security cameras for the Birmingham Police Department.
“Keep in mind when you say ‘monitor,’ Ion is actually reporting what’s going on if there is an incident… This is their monthly fee,” Burney retorted. “Also be advised Ion is the company that does this for the city as well.”
Hoyt contended that the city could get a better price if they opened the contract up to bidding.
Burney said the city is in the process of doing just that. He pointed to a resolution that appeared on the agenda but was withdrawn by the mayor before the vote, though Burney followed by saying, “I’m not sure what our action is going to be on that.”
The previous item Burney referred to was a resolution to approve a proposal submitted by Hitachi Data Systems Corp to “provide, install and monitor a security surveillance system for the City of Birmingham,” as written in the agenda. There was no indication of the payment detailed in the item.
Hoyt continued to ask Burney for the invoices for the services that have been provided for Railroad Park’s maintenance.
Burney’s response was, “We respectfully request that you would go ahead and approve it today, and we can send you copies of the actual invoices,” which elicited several disapproving comments from members of the audience.
“That’s not how we do business,” Hoyt said. “I think we need to be consistent. I’m inclined to delay this item until that documentation is in place.”
Councilor Jay Roberson insisted that the city has a fiduciary responsibility to pay for the services they are contractually obligated to fund. “This is something that is budgeted, and we have appropriated funds to support Railroad Park — security systems, janitorial services … I’m not sure what the debate is really about. As it relates to Railroad Park, this has truly been an asset to our community,” Roberson said.
The discussion pivoted to the lack of parity when it comes to funding other parks throughout the city. “I understand the contractual agreement,” Councilor Lashunda Scales said. “Make no mistake about it: Every park in Birmingham would be an asset if we invested this kind of money — with a park we don’t even manage,” Scales said. (The city owns the land and contracts out both security and maintenance of Railroad Park.) “That grieves me because I think you should have a Railroad Park experience in your neighborhood. I don’t understand why we’re struggling to get our neighborhood parks together and we’re paying over a million dollars to keep one park together — a park we don’t manage.”
Since its inception in 2010, Railroad Park has been both one of Birmingham’s most popular attractions, and a contentious point of debate over city funding. In 2014, the city made an effort to reduce the amount of debt associated with construction costs and privatize some of the managerial responsibilities, which now costs the city roughly $500,000 annually. The move reduced the expenses for the Railroad Park Foundation, the nonprofit that manages the park, from $1.19 million to $688,500, according to council records.
At the time, councilors questioned the move, as reported by The Birmingham News, which had published audio of a tense exchange between Scales and Railroad Park Director Camille Spratling over park funding. At the time, Scales called for Spratling’s resignation.
Three years later, disagreements over park funding persist among city officials. “You may have [the invoices], Mr. Burney, but I don’t have them,” Hoyt said. “I’m sick of it. There is no economic parity in what happens in this city and who gets the dollars. … We need to treat all these agencies the same way as we’re treating Railroad Park.”
Councilor Sheila Tyson said that the proposed construction of a park and housing development in Pratt City, a project she said will cost the city $10 million, could run into potential funding woes in regards to maintenance and security. “How are we going figure out how to pay them without pulling money from our parks?” Tyson asked. According to WBRC, the city will contract Navigate Affordable Housing Partners, the nonprofit responsible for developing Railroad Park.
An item passed on the consent agenda will allocate $4.6 million in Disaster Recovery Grant funds to street improvements in the Dugan Avenue vicinity, where the proposed One Pratt Park will be located. The agenda item did not specify what company — whether Navigate Affordable Housing Partners or any other — would be paid for the work.
“We need to figure this out before we build a $10 million park. We got to look at all this stuff,” Tyson continued.
Before the vote, Hoyt called on the council to stop “willy-nilly picking” what projects will be funded and which ones won’t. “[Tyson] is right. We’re not even taking care of the median in Pratt City. Do we expect to manicure, cut, and weed-eat? And now we want to talk about a park over there that’s going to be neglected. Nobody’s figured out how to pay for maintenance of our parks.”