Questions regarding the “consistent” policy of having budgets presented to the Birmingham City Council during the time of a vote took center stage during several items at the council’s April 18 meeting, including during the discussion of a three-year, $1,496,500 contract with ZOOM Motorsports to manage the Indy Grand Prix Racing at the Barber Motorsports Park.
The event has been held since 2010 in Birmingham and has an estimated economic impact of $27 million during the race weekend, according to the ZOOM representatives who addressed the council. This year’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama will take place from April 21 to 23 at the motor speedway. Several councilors requested to see the company’s budget for the event before voting on the item and asked why the annual payments have increased over the years.
The annual payments, as detailed in the agenda, would amount to $498,750 for the next three years. Initially, the council paid roughly $300,000 to the company in order to facilitate the event, a fact that did not sit well with Councilor Valerie Abbott, who described the expenditure as “one heck of a lot of money, considering the other things the city has to do.
“My concern is that this is a very successful event. My thought is we should only use public funds to help get something started. But then after it’s going in a direction, I’m not expecting the taxpayer’s money to be propping it up when it doesn’t need propping,” Abbott said.
A representative from ZOOM Motorsports clarified this year’s payment is $350,000 in cash, and that the rest will be paid through in-kind contributions such as police and other city services for the event.
“Next times this comes up, three years from now — if I’m still here — if I see this number increasing again, I’m not going to vote for it, because I don’t think we should be increasing the public’s money going into this. Is it the intent that we be providing this money forever, as long as Indy is coming to Birmingham?” Abbott asked.
“That’s more of a political response you’re looking for,” said George Dennis, a representative of Barber Motorsports. “I’ll say this much: success breeds success. There are other opportunities for this event to go other places. Sometimes it’s to our benefit to spend that extra money to attract them. It’s a huge benefit to retain that event.”
The money appropriated by the council represents “about 15 to 20 percent of our total revenue,” said Jon Bachnak with ZOOM. The remaining 80 percent comes from private donors and sponsors. “While we still need public funds, that amount has decreased over the years,” he contended.
Council President Pro Tem Steven Hoyt requested to see how much of the funding would be represented in the overall budget of the event. Neither the representatives from ZOOM nor Dennis could immediately provide the budget.
Once the discussion pivoted to which local businesses benefit from the event, Hoyt said he did not know the name of the minority business owner who handles the paddock operations at the race. “I never heard of him,” Hoyt said after being told Charles Thompson is the owner of TC Maintenance, the company that is contracted to work the event. “We only got one minority contract out of this, and I don’t know who it is,” Hoyt continued.
Hoyt also complained about the radio stations that Barber advertises with and what he described as a lack of minority-owned stations. “I’m not going to vote for this,” Hoyt said before tabling the item until a budget could be presented to the council.
Two hours later, the item was picked back up by the council and passed with the sole vote against the resolution coming from Hoyt, who added, “You can’t ask for the city’s help and have inclusion in such a way that benefits the community. This should’ve been dealt with in the committee and got an idea of what this participation looks like. We got to do better than this. We let this happen continuously.”
Ironically, despite councilors’ conversation about transparency, the monitors facing the audience that normally display the members’ votes have not been working for several months. Audience members on Tuesday could be seen craning their necks to glimpse the vote as the monitors facing only the councilors were reflected in the glass doors behind the dais.