By Sam Prickett
Minutes after the Birmingham City Council voted 7-1 to pass the city’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year, Mayor Randall Woodfin stepped out onto City Hall’s third-floor terrace with a smile on his face.
“Did it take longer than I wanted it to?” he asked. “Yes. But am I glad it passed? Yes.”
Woodfin presented his original $451 million budget proposal to the council May 14, calling it a “fundamental shift” for the city’s budgeting process. “It’s as lean as they come,” he said then, arguing that the budget reflected his administration’s “moral obligations’ to prioritize neighborhood revitalization and city employees’ pension fund.
“During my (mayoral) campaign, I said we’d engage councilors on shared priorities and aligning our priorities, and then focus on finding money to support those priorities,” he said Tuesday. “Each councilor told me their top three, and I’m happy to say that for each councilor, at a minimum two of their priorities are in this budget. It wasn’t just what the mayor’s office wanted, it was collectively what the 10 of us, the mayor and council, wanted.”
But the budget process proved difficult, largely due to controversies over its’ cutting a slew of line items and instead giving each councilor an additional $50,000 in discretionary funding. Woodfin’s plan to reallocate $2 million from Birmingham City Schools to his new Birmingham Promise apprenticeship program also garnered debate, despite the support of BCS Superintendent Lisa Herring and a majority of the city’s school board.
But the budget was passed relatively smoothly at Tuesday’s council meeting, with only one dissenting vote: District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt. District 9 Councilor John Hilliard was absent.
The final version of the budget passed Tuesday did not differ much from the version Woodfin presented in May, which also emphasized neighborhood revitalization and city employees’ pensions.
The budget allocates $8 million toward street paving and $4.7 million toward weed abatement and demolition of dilapidated housing. “You have to make those investments because no one else is responsible for that,” Woodfin said in May. “By moral obligation and fiscal obligation, they’re the priority.”
The budget also increases the city’s contribution to its employees’ pension fund by $5.8 million. The pension, which had been underfunded since 2002, represented a looming crisis for the city that eventually would have resulted in credit downgrades and budgetary shortfalls.
The FY 2020 budget’s increase means that the city will fully meet its obligation to the pension fund “for the first time in more than a decade,” Woodfin said, although city Finance Director Lester Smith warned that there are still steps to be taken by the city’s pension board before the problem is fully solved.
The increased pension funding also meant that city employees would not receive a cost-of-living adjustment for FY 2020, Woodfin said, although he hinted that a raise would be considered for the FY 2021 budget.
The FY 2020 budget’s approach to education is one of the biggest changes from previous years, cutting the city’s funding for Birmingham City Schools from $3.2 million to $1 million. The budget shifted $2 million from the school budget to fund the Birmingham Promise Education Initiative, a public-private partnership that will provide juniors and seniors in Birmingham city schools with paid apprenticeships and dual enrollment opportunities.
The program, which Woodfin described as “probably the biggest apprenticeship program this city or any city its size has ever seen in America.”
District 9 Councilor John Hilliard, an outspoken proponent of the initiative, called it “one of the best things we can ever do that will last us a lifetime.” Hoyt, meanwhile, opposed it, arguing that the city should increase its existing programs in Birmingham schools. “This is something new, and I can’t get excited about something I don’t know is going to work,” he said last week. “There’s an academic component I think we need to put more emphasis on.”
Speaking after the budget’s passage Tuesday morning, Woodfin said he was “happy to see that the council supports Birmingham Promise” through its passage of the budget. “I know change is hard for people, but what I would like to say to every parent who has a child in Birmingham City Schools … the ability to give your child direct dollars from apprenticeships is a big deal. What we’re supporting is workforce development and education for our children. These two things I’m happy to see.”
Perhaps the most controversial part of Woodfin’s budget was his decision to nix a slew of line items — including funding for District 8’s Party with a Purpose, Magic City Smooth Jazz and Red Mountain Park — from the city’s operating budget. Instead, Woodfin offered what he described as “an olive branch” to the council by increasing councilors’ individual discretionary funds from $50,000 to $100,000.
“Nonprofits are not a priority this year because there’s not enough money,” Woodfin said in May. “If there’s a squeeze somewhere, it’s going to be on things that aren’t the priority and that aren’t the moral obligation.”
He also said removing those smaller line items from the budget would keep the process from being mired down by $10,000 or $15,000 line items, though, in the end, that was the argument that did push the budget passage past its July 1 deadline.
“When you’ve got a $450 million budget … I think it’s important that we level up,” he said. “Let’s do it differently. We think the ability to move toward more discretionary money for councilors … I think that’s productive for the overall budget.”
Woodfin said councilors would be able to fund the items cut from the budget out of their increased discretionary funds “through whatever process they would like to choose.” Economic development organizations cut from the budget, meanwhile, were encouraged to apply for Bold grant funding through the city’s Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity.
Hoyt — whose district’s Party with a Purpose, a $50,000 line item, was cut from the budget — took issue with these cuts. Though he did not respond to BirminghamWatch’s requests for comment, he told AL.com that the increased discretionary funding for councilors would “perhaps put councilpersons at odds with other nonprofits because there’s not enough to serve everybody. As I see it, the administration is setting the council up.”
Woodfin did offer some compromise in his final budget proposal Tuesday, adding $25,000 in funding to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, $10,000 to the Bush Hills Historical Garden and $30,000 to the police athletic team.
He also restored Party with a Purpose as a line item in the budget, removing Hoyt’s $50,000 discretionary increase in exchange. Shortly before Tuesday morning’s vote, however, Hoyt announced that he would prefer the discretionary increase. Woodfin, though visibly confused, agreed to the change.
“I yielded to what he said, and everybody else was cool with it,” he said after the meeting. “And then he changed his mind today, from the dais. We asked him as late as yesterday, ‘What do you want to do?’ And then he changed his mind.”
But, Woodfin added, he was in no mood to dwell on the budget debate. “It’s time to move on,” he said. “It’s time to take this work that we’ve now passed and make it tangible out here for our residents.”