On Tuesday the Birmingham City Council passed the long-beleaguered budget item that will allocate $3 million to the new Kingston Fire Station.
The council also overrode the mayor’s veto that would have prevented the council from retaining the services of Bainbridge, Mims, Rogers and Smith to represent them in the lawsuit filed by the Birmingham Water Works Board. The city of Birmingham — meaning both the mayor’s office and city council — have been named as defendants in the lawsuit, but Bainbridge, Mims, Rogers and Smith would only be representing the council.
It has been nearly two months since the budget deadline passed and the mayor and council are still at odds over some of the details, as was made evident at Tuesday’s meeting. By all accounts, the Capital Fund Budget and the city’s Operational Budget are both set to be voted on next week, according to Mayor William Bell, who said he will be submitting his budget ordinances to the council on Wednesday.
“You have my word in front of these individuals as well as the media that items that we agreed upon will be in the ordinances next week,” Bell said to a mostly empty council chamber, occupied primarily by members of the press.
The items agreed upon by Bell are as follows: an additional $1.3 million for public building funds (for Carver Theatre, for which the council recommended $4.3 million against Bell’s recommended $3 million); $25,000 for the Northwest YMCA; an additional $100,000 for the World Trade designation (currently proposed at $150,000 by Bell; in order to qualify as a World Trade Center designation, $250,000 is required by the organization) and $233,000 for the Carver Theatre operating budget, totaling $1.88 million.
“This is the first time we’ve heard the $233,000 number that has been put out there,” Bell said, though he would later agree to the total. “I checked with the finance director and we have not looked the budget in terms of being able to fund that. As for the World Trade, we can do that. We can do the $25,000. Originally we had recommended $2.1 or $2.3 million for Carver but we increased that to $3 million. Part of the rationale behind that we sent our people from planning and engineering to see what’s needed in terms of renovations to the property.”
Initially Bell requested the council take a recess until 2 p.m. on Tuesday in order to nail down specific details of the proposed budget before reconvening for a vote. However, Council President Johnathan Austin said the council would take it to a vote at next week’s meeting. This would allow Andre Bittas, director of the city’s department of planning and engineering, to visit the Carver Theatre and see what needs to be done, which as of Tuesday had not happened.
“I think in order for us to compare apples to apples, we need to have your team meet with [Carver representatives] so they can hash out a true number,” Councilor Marcus Lundy said, addressing Bittas. “If you could meet with them posthaste in the next few days, I think that would be fiscally prudent.”
Councilor Kimberly Rafferty took issue with the proposed changes to the budget. “I still can’t find a paper copy of everything we’ve been talking about. I’ve got four different versions of the budget, both operating, capital and the bonds project and I’m assuming the fire station is under the bonds project budget…I got the information late last night,” Rafferty said.
“I support [the Kingston Fire Station] but I don’t appreciate this being pushed on us at this very moment,” Rafferty said, referring to the specific budget items discussed at the meeting.
Austin said the reason for the changes that Rafferty took issue with was that Bell, who was in the chamber at the time, did not attend the two meetings last week to discuss the specific items. “That’s why we’re talking about this right now,” Austin said. “If he had shown up to one of those meetings we wouldn’t have had to have this conversation up here today.”
One major issue was the lawsuit filed in June by the Birmingham Water Works. The utility is suing the state in order to roll back legislation which would create two new seats on the board for appointees who live outside Jefferson County, essentially putting a strain on Birmingham’s ability to control the water system. The lawsuit states, “The Acts violate these provisions because they impair the obligation of contracts between the [Birmingham Water Works Board] and Birmingham.”
“Obviously the mayor does not agree with the action that was taken, which is why he vetoed it,” Austin said. “The Water Works filed a lawsuit and named the city, the council and the mayor as parties in this lawsuit. Currently we are defendants. The response that has been offered [by the mayor’s appointed counsel] answered the suit in a very ambiguous manner and did not take a position on whether or not the city wants to maintain 100 percent control of the asset our citizens pay for.
“The item before us today speaks directly to that issue. One, it would hire lawyers to represent the council in this particular matter. And two, it says that the city and the council believe it is in the best interest of the ratepayers and citizens who have built this system that we, the city, we need to defend their assets. Today the vote is either you are going to side with the citizens and protect 100 percent control of their assets or not,” Austin said.
The resolution passed 6-2 with one abstention from Councilor William Parker. Rafferty and Jay Roberson were the two dissenting votes. It remains unclear if Bell plans to push the issue. He was not available for comment before this story went to press.