City budget like runaway train
barreling into the station
By Chip Drago
Mobile Bay Times
Like a runaway train barreling into the station, the city budget for fiscal year 2008-09 is scheduled to arrive at City Hall Tuesday at noon for a vote by the City Council.
A City Council finance committee meeting Monday failed to generate a consensus on the proposed budget despite attendance by four council members, Mayor Sam Jones, Chief of Staff Al Stokes and an array of city officials, none of whom seemed able to gain control of the engine. In fact, if anything, the session concluded with officials as divided as before the meeting and opinions on the city's wisest financial course more muddled than ever.
The city's proposed general fund budget is almost $217 million and the capital improvement budget is just under $5 million after reserve and debt service requirements and transfers.
Budget votes require a simple majority vote for passage by the seven-member council. Virtually all other council transactions require a super-majority vote or a minimum of five votes for adoption.
District 4 Councilman John Williams appeared, as before, to hold the key to the outcome of the vote on Tuesday. And Williams' position remained much as before and perhaps stronger still as a likely "yes" vote for a controversial increase in funding for the Gulf Cost Classic football game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium here from $40,000 to $450,000. Williams acknowledged pressure to oppose the measure, but he maintained that the occasion and its success were a city "quality of life" issue and noted financial backing for other community events in their early going such as the GMAC Bowl which originated as the Mobile, Ala. Bowl. Nevertheless, Williams said he remained troubled by the randomness of the city's approach to its business. There continues to be no coherent, objective analysis of city needs and a workable strategy for addressing them, according to Williams.
The proposal calls for the city's investment to decrease each year as the game becomes established as a traditional classic with broader appeal to fans and followers of the two institutions.
Other Council members including Reggie Copeland, Connie Hudson and Gina Gregory have suggested the allocation is far too generous in light of current economic circumstances and the many other worthwhile community undertakings that look to the city for seed money.
Gregory offered a proposal to bring all sides toward middle ground.
Among its provisions were level funding for the following:
- Azalea Trail Run, $9,000;
- Business Improvement District, $107,000;
- Christmas parade, $20,000;
- International Festival, $27,000;
- Alabama School of Mathematics and Science, $50,000;
- America's Junior Miss, $108,000;
- Penelope House, $162,000;
- Child Advocacy, $125,000;
- Boys and Girls Clubs, $419,450
Other performance contracts would be cut by 10 percent, saving $248,870.
A budget amendment trimming the Mobile Area Convention and Visitors Bureau by 10 percent from $3,132,888 to $2,819,600 would result in savings of $313,288.
Gregory proposed amendments to the Strategic Plan budget as follows:
- Gulf Coast Classic cut by half from $450,000 to $225,000 (still representing a boost of $185,000 over the previous year);
- LPGA (golf tournament at Magnolia Grove) cut by half from $350,000 to $175,000.
- Mobile Education Fund cut 10 percent from $150,000 to $135,000;
- Mary Abbie Berg Senior Center cut 10 percent from $100,000 to $90,000.
Under Gregory's proposal, the monies would be redistributed as follows: transfer $175,000 to the Senior Bowl; transfer $225,000 to city reserves; transfer the remainder to City Council Capital Improvement Discretionary Accounts. The arrangement would see each council district receive about $100,000 to address pressing capital needs as determined by the Council member and his/her constituents.
Among a number of other issues and items that came in for discussion and scrutiny were:
- The need to find nearly $127,000 to fund cost of living raises to enhance the pensions of firefighters who retired before 1997. In the transition from the city retirement system to the state system, some 333 Mobile firefighters lost out on a boost that others received.
- The "black hole" in the budget created by operation of the Mobile Civic Center.
"We've got a lot to think about between now and tomorrow," said Hudson, who chairs the Council's Finance Commitee.
Media consultant Steve Harrelson is a principal with the Gulf Coast Scholar and Sports Foundation, a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation and the prospective new owner of the Gulf Coast Classic which has been played here with Alabama State University as the host team from 35 years. Other GCSSF figures include Richard Davis, a retired educator who serves as a director on the boards of Ladd-Peebles Stadium and the Mobile Airport Authority; and local businessmen Ray Lapierre and Taylor Hodge. Hodge serves on the ASU Board of Trustees.
This year's game would launch the event as a true "classic," one in which the same two teams played each year at a fixed venue on a consistent date. The "classic" format calls for related activities leading up to the game creating a festival atmosphere which would become a "must-do" tradition among followers of the two schools, the theory goes. Classics are popular among historically black colleges and universities. As many as 19 are scheduled this season, ranging from Sacramento to Indianapolis to Orlando and a variety of points in-between.
ASU and Southern are set to square off in the 35th annual GCC Saturday, Nov. 15 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Viriginia Street.
GCC supporters suggest the happening here could be grown to mirror such nearby successes as the Magic City Classic in Birmingham and the Bayou Classic in New Orleans.
Promoters bill the GCC as "a week chalked full of fun, festivities and-of course-football. With the Stomp the Bay Step Show, the Gulf Coast Classic Parade, the Manning's Food For Less Tailgate Party, Battle of the Bands Halftime show and the 5th Quarter Battle of the Bands, get ready for one jam-packed week."
Last year's game was notable for considerable RV and tailgating activity, stadium personnel
assessments of the
GCC vary widely
from a low of less
than $1 million to a
high of more than
$9 million. One
spending $274 a day for three days. The total raw economic impact projects as almost $1.5 million. It jumps to more than $2.6 million using the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitor Bureau's multiplier of 1.77. Using the MBCVB's 2.5 multiplier, the total economic impact of the GCC balloons to nearly $3.7 million.
Initially, Southern University was resistant to partnering with ASU for the GCC, according to reports, because the Jaguars would surrender two home games and the resulting heavy paydays under the four-year agreement. With a guarantee of $250,000 a year though, Southern officials were persuaded. The contract provides ASU with a guarantee of $225,000.
Should the city supplement be cut in half, the numbers probably would no longer work for Southern, according to Harrelson.
"The question is not whether I can live with it (a $225,000 appropriation rather than the $450,000)," said Harrelson. The question is whether the schools can live with it and I don't know the answer to that. I would expect that Southern can't live with it because they're looking at losing two home games with a 22,000-plus capacity stadium that they typically sell out."
Area hoteliers indicated that past GCC games have not generated revenues that city officials hope to see under the true classic formula.
Copeland did not attend the finance committee meeting. He was diverted by an unexpected family medical issue.