Mayor Tab Bowling said his proposed $67.3 million budget for fiscal 2020, up from $63.5 million in fiscal 2019, shows he’s optimistic about Decatur’s financial outlook.
The mayor's proposed budget, which Chief Financial Officer John Andrzejewski presented last week, includes a 1.5% cost-of-living raise that will cost the city $543,169, a new $1 million residential growth fund and $1.4 million in paving for the fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
“The city is doing well,” Bowling said. “We’ve had 13% growth since we took office in 2016. Sales tax revenues are up. We’ve not sure about ad valorem (property) taxes yet. We expect them to be the same or up, but we don’t expect them to go down.”
Bowling's proposed budget, which will receive a council vote Sept. 16 at the earliest, also adds eight new positions to the city payroll with combined annual salaries of $441,355. The highest salary is for a proposed communications specialist position, budgeted for $98,270 per year, followed by a historical preservation specialist at $78,019.
The budget projects $32.2 million in sales and use tax revenue, up from the $31 million budgeted in fiscal 2019. It also projects $950,000 in fiscal 2020 from the online sales tax, revenue that wasn't budgeted in fiscal 2019. Actual city revenue from the online sales tax so far in fiscal 2019 totals $744,113.
Councilman Charles Kirby said the mayor's $67.3 million budget is too optimistic. He thinks the city is spending too much and the pay raise “isn’t sustainable” for the long term.
Bowling said the strong economy makes it a good time for a raise. The raise is part of a plan approved last year to increase city workers’ pay so it’s more competitive with wages offered by other Alabama cities.
Kirby last week said the city doesn’t know enough about its expenses to be sure of where it stands financially. He said he’s been told by the city’s Finance Department that they can’t tell him how much money is being collected and spent in specific parts of town.
“They can’t define their costs,” Kirby said. “They don’t know.”
He also expressed frustration at what he believes is inadequate support for some areas of town, including Wilson Morgan Park.
Kirby said the budget cuts $50,000 out of the park's maintenance to offset the cost of new foul-ball netting.
“They would never tell the Delano Park ladies that they won’t do a project,” Kirby said. “All areas of town are not created equal.”
Kirby complained that the council majority of Paige Bibbee, Chuck Ard and Kristi Hill are controlling too much behind the scenes and are cutting him and fellow Councilman Billy Jackson, who could not be reached for comment, out of the decisions.
“Two or three people are making all of the decisions, and they don’t want the public to know what is going on behind closed doors,” Kirby said.
Meetings of a quorum of council members are required to be public under Alabama law.
Ard called Kirby's accusations “absurd.”
Bibbee, the council president, said the accusations are “absolutely untrue.”
“I don’t have a problem with talking about anything in public other than good name and character,” Bibbee said.
Kirby has been unhappy with the council majority for most of the summer after getting along with the council for most of the first three years of the term.
The ambulance service ordinance, which he fought vehemently for many years, was adopted in August on a 4-1 vote, with him as the lone opposition.
“I don’t know what the problem is,” Bibbee said. “You would have to ask him. Maybe it was the ambulance service issue.”
Kirby said he hasn’t been included in any of the budget discussions that have been ongoing since late spring.
“They scheduled the meetings without consulting me and at a time when I was at work,” Kirby said.
Andrzejewski said Kirby isn’t telling the full truth. Each council member is a liaison to multiple city departments, and Andrzejewski said he invited the council members during a council work session to schedule their budget meetings with these departments.
When response was slow, he sent them emails. He said all of the council members responded except for Kirby. He said Jackson declined to attend, Hill and Bibbee attended most of their meetings and Ard had family issues that kept him from attending.
“Kirby saw me at a meeting and said, ‘Oh, I think I owe you an email,’” Andrzejewski said.
Andrzejewski said he never heard from Kirby.
Bibbee said Kirby didn’t attend the second day of the meetings with the nonprofits seeking city appropriations and their leaders noticed.