By Sam Prickett and Cody Owens
Last week, Mayor William Bell revealed his proposed operating budget for the fiscal year 2018. At $428 million, the budget is Birmingham’s largest ever, which appeared to be a point of pride for the mayor. “The city of Birmingham continues to show strong signs of economic growth, allowing us to present the largest budget ever in the city’s history,” Bell said in a statement.
That growth, which Bell attributed to “aggressive business recruitment and retention,” meant that the budget increased by approximately $3.1 million from the previous year’s adopted budget of $424,858,869.
A degree of contention almost always surrounds proposed budgets. Last year, Bell and the city council spent months negotiating the FY 2017 budget’s expenditures. That budget was eventually passed on August 30 — 61 days after the start of the fiscal year. This year, with both Bell and the city council up for re-election, that debate might be even more prolonged. A budget hearing, open to the public, will take place at city hall at 4:30 p.m. on May 31. The 2018 fiscal year begins on July 1.
But what is in the proposed budget? How is the growth the mayor spoke of reflected in spending choices? And what are the points of contention that will likely influence not only the budget talks but the upcoming municipal elections?
The Budget, In Broad Strokes
Bell’s proposed operating budget anticipates $428 million in revenue, up from last year’s reported revenue of $421.8 million. (The original 2017 budget had anticipated $425,858,869 in revenue, a figure which was later decreased by over $4 million after the revenue was actually collected.)
The increase in projected revenue this year comes primarily from upticks in property tax revenue and business tax revenue, which have risen by about $2.1 million and $6.3 million, respectively.
Every cent of that $428 million is appropriated in the 204-page budget proposal. The largest portion of it, roughly $357.9 million, is slated to go toward city departments — for example, the mayor’s office, the city council, the city clerk, public safety, and culture and recreation. Public safety, which includes the fire and police departments, public works, and municipal court, gets the biggest chunk of that, about $237.6 million.
The second-largest portion of the overall budget, $16.6 million, will go toward servicing the city’s outstanding debt. Non-departmental appropriations, which include attorney fees, council discretionary projects, and payments to organizations like the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, is allocated about $12.1 million. Infrastructure and redevelopment incentives get $5.4 million, while the nebulously titled “other services” — which largely funds events like the World Games, Steel City Jazz Fest, and Party with a Purpose — is slated to receive $2.1 million.
The budget gives $11.1 million to transportation, $4.8 million to city-owned facilities such as the Birmingham Zoo and Railroad Park. Contractual payments, the recipients of which are as varied as UAB football, REV Birmingham, housing for the mentally ill, the Magic City Classic, and the Vulcan Park Foundation, total about $4.2 million of the budget.
The Board of Education, meanwhile, is slated for about $2.4 million. Youth programs will receive $1.5 million, and “economic services” — which include the Birmingham Urban League and Urban Impact Inc. — get $521,999; the social services category, which only includes Jones Valley Urban Farm and Children’s Village, gets $75,000.
“Signs of Growth”
So how are these “strong signs of economic growth” reflected in Bell’s proposed budget? For one, you can look at the mayor’s office, the budget for which, at $10,205,618, has grown by nearly $1 million since FY 2016. (It’s also higher than the budget for the mayor’s office that was approved last year — $10,086,755 — though that was amended later in the year to $10,281,940).
Perhaps the most steadily dramatic increase in the mayor’s office’s budget has happened in the “General and Administrative Marketing and Promotion” category, which received $96,010 in 2016, $204,698 in 2017, and $243,676 in the FY 2018 budget. (As of press time, Bell’s office had not responded a request for comment about the need for more money in this category.)
As has been reported by AL.com, the budget for the mayor’s office is much higher than those in much bigger cities — largely due to his 101-person staff, which includes 52 administrative assistants, a chief administrative assistant, and an executive administrative assistant.
Also showing major growth is the city clerk’s office, the budget for which has nearly doubled since 2016, from $1,018,030 to $1,975,262. Part of that comes from an increase for election-year expenses ($536,000), but it also includes $40,000 for furniture.
Compared to 2016, the council’s budget has also risen, from $3.24 million to $3.65 million. (Though the proposed budget is down slightly from last year’s amended budget of $3.79 million.) As with the mayor’s office budget, the council’s “General and Administrative Marketing and Promotion” category has grown, from $5,562 in 2016 to $10,000 this year. The council’s budget for consulting fees — for which the council has come under fire in the past for a lack of documentable results — has decreased, from $685,345 last year to $417,985 this year.
Not taken into account in the mayor’s proposed budget were the raises the city council voted to give themselves in August 2015, which were slated to go into effect on January 1, 2018. Initially, the council had voted to raise each member’s salary from $15,000 a year to $50,000 — though earlier this month, Governor Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that set the council’s salaries at the median household income in Birmingham, which is currently $32,000. Even so, that raise was not included in the proposed budget, councilors said.
“That portion was intentionally not included in the budget that was presented to us,” said Councilor Kim Rafferty at Tuesday’s city council meeting, saying that this meant that the mayor’s budget was “off by about $300,000,” leaving it unbalanced. Because of this, the council opted to send the budget back to the mayor’s office to be corrected.
“We don’t know what changes they are going to make to pay for the $300,000 difference,” said Council President Johnathan Austin after the meeting. “How that happens, we don’t know.”
The proposed budget does account for the hiring of a full-time information security officer and a full-time employee relations advisor. The position of human resources personnel analyst, meanwhile, has been removed.
Another part of the budget that has seen steady growth is funding for the Magic City Classic, which received $605,226 in the 2016 budget, $675,000 in the 2017 budget, and a proposed $705,000 in the new budget. Last year, April Odom, the mayor’s director of public relations, told AL.com that most of the city’s budget for the Magic City Classic went to the two participating schools, Alabama A&M and Alabama State University.
The Birmingham Urban League, an organization “devoted to helping empower underserved individuals in the Birmingham community to enter the social and economic mainstream” has also seen a consistent growth in budget — from $87,999 in 2016 to $195,999 in this year’s budget. The BUL did not immediately respond to requests for comments on this growth.
“Clearly, This Is an Election-Year Budget”
“Clearly, this is an election-year budget,” said Austin, speaking after the May 23 meeting. “[The mayor] is a veteran politician; he’s been there almost 40 years as an elected official. He knows it’s election time.”
The budget’s focus on neighborhoods, Austin said, reflects an opportunistic attempt by the mayor to rally voters. “If you recall the budget from a few years ago, there was no money being appropriated for demolition and weed abatement,” he said. “There was no attention being given directly to the neighborhoods. All the mayor has been focusing on since 2010 [is] downtown development. It’s all on the record. The council has been focused on the neighborhoods and we’ve consistently tried to focus money on those things.”
Bell was unavailable for comment as of press time.
Austin, whose relationship with the mayor has often been publically adversarial, is not the only one critical of the proposed budget. As this is an election year, some of the mayor’s challengers for the office have also criticized the budget.
“I think the current proposed budget is reflective of the old guard,” said Ervin Philemon Hill, one of nine candidates for the office. “There are no new transparency parameters added. We still don’t know or have any understanding of the spending from the mayor’s office from 2016 and 2017. We have no accountability measures that have been proposed in the budget. …
I will be recommending to the council not to be accepting the proposal in its current state and until there is an itemized spending report from the mayor’s office from the previous year.
We also need to have a current breakdown of the various assets that the city owns and the revenue streams that the city has within the last year and prior to that.
“Until we get that information from the mayor’s office, I don’t think it’s fair to the citizens to approve a budget during an election year without those.”
Randall Woodfin, a current member of the Birmingham Board of Education and another mayoral challenger, expressed dismay at the relative lack of education funding. “Look, you’ve got cities with budgets way less than ours that give their school systems $20 million a year,” he said, pointing specifically to Huntsville and Tuscaloosa. “Education has not been a priority for the Bell administration, period. You can’t argue it. You can’t run from it.
“Even suburban school systems give their schools $3 or $4 million on the short end,” he continued. “The Birmingham school system has to beg the city for $1.8 million on a $400 million budget.”
Austin also expressed concern for the city’s education budget in relation to the education systems in Birmingham’s suburbs. “We have a school system that needs to be funded,” he said. “If Mountain Brook, Vestavia, Hoover, all these surrounding municipalities can fund their schools out of their general fund, then we can too. Cities put their money where their priorities are and the city of Birmingham should be aligned with our school system. What’s more important: the continued militarization of our police force, or investing in the children and the future of our city?”
Hill added that, “We need to see a more engaged city hall when it comes to the education of our kids. We need to have more funding for mental health initiatives that will improve the quality of life for our homeless citizens.”
Mayoral candidate Patricia Bell (no relation to the incumbent mayor) took issue with the more than $10 million allocated to the mayor’s office. She promised that, if elected, she would redirect at least $5 million of that money into programs designed to prevent crime and to encourage better relations between the police and community.
Chris Woods, president of CW Woods Contracting and another mayoral candidate, also raised reservations about the budget’s allocation to the police. He took particular issue with the $2.3 million set aside for police overtime, saying that much of that money could be better spent hiring new officers.
That $2.3 million allocation for overtime, while on par with the FY 2017 budget, is significantly down from 2016’s $8.7 million overtime budget. While the budget does not allocate any funds toward the hiring of new officers, it does allocate $3,123,155 toward the nondescript “other professional services” — a category which has risen from $2.65 million in 2017 and $1.93 million in 2016. (Curiously, the police force’s only significant budget cut comes in the form of food for prisoners, which went from $250,000 last year to $0 in this year’s budget.)
“It ought to be clear that we’re going to protect our police officers and provide them with the tools and the necessary manpower to do their jobs,” Woods said, noting that FBI statistics for 2016 listed Birmingham as the third deadliest city in the nation. “Our residents deserve to have enough officers on patrol to discourage crime. We want to be proactive: we want to prevent the crimes. We don’t want to be reactive.”
Patricia Bell concurred. “This year [William Bell] did increase the police budget, but it was not enough,” she said. “We cannot continue to squander money and misappropriate funds. I think we’ve had the limit reached.”
Despite repeated requests for comments and clarifications, Bell’s office had not provided a comment on the budget as of press time.
With additional reporting by Ryan Scott.