A lobbyist working in Washington, D.C., is now on retainer with the city of Decatur to push for bridge funding, while the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce’s city appropriations are fully restored for fiscal 2022.
The City Council approved the lobbyist hire, at an annual cost of $90,000, and the chamber funding as part of $2.66 million in community service and economic development appropriations at its Monday meeting.
Mayor Tab Bowling proposed hiring Dayne Cutrell, director of governmental affairs for Maynard Cooper & Gale law firm in Birmingham, on a one-year contract to seek federal funding for a third bridge over the Tennessee River and other possible grants.
Bowling said he initially wants Cutrell to seek $3 million to $4 million he believes will be needed to do a study — including route selection, geotechnical and environmental impact and engineering — for a third bridge that would take transportation pressure off Hudson Memorial Bridges.
Money will also be needed later to build the bridge, the mayor said.
The Alabama Department of Transportation estimated in 2014 that it would cost $444 million to build a toll bridge across the river. The proposal died because of local opposition, but Bowling pointed to it as a reference point.
“We don’t have the money to build a bridge,” Bowling said.
Council President Jacob Ladner said a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., is not only needed to help the city come up with the bridge study plan but also to seek other grants for the project.
Ladner said Decatur needs to take advantage of funding that becomes available from any infrastructure spending Congress approves.
“We don’t need to miss any opportunity for bridges or roads,” Ladner said. “A lot of people say, ‘I hate lobbyists.’ Well, I like lobbyists who are lobbying for things we want them to lobby for, and the city of Decatur is one of those things I want them to lobby for.”
Bowling said Cutrell is “going to work with us in any way we need to get federal funding.” He said it helps that Cutrell is a former aide to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa.
Councilman Carlton McMasters said a lobbyist will help get the money for the bridge and study.
“From the research I’ve done, it’s going to take $4 million to $7 million to do the study,” McMasters said. “I don’t know if we’re in financial position to set aside $4 million to $7 million. This helps with the relationships to find the funding.”
Jackson said he opposes spending $90,000 on a lobbyist who he doesn’t believe is necessary. Jackson also said it’s premature to hire a lobbyist until the city knows more details about the bridge and where it should be built.
“If our legislative delegation is doing what it’s supposed to be doing, we truly don’t need a lobbyist,” Jackson said.
While city appropriations were in the approved fiscal 2022 budget, the council still had to vote Monday for the mayor to exercise the contracts with the nonprofits.
Jackson insisted on separating six appropriations for separate votes, and he cast the dissenting votes as all six passed 3-1. Councilman Hunter Pepper was absent from the meeting.
The six appropriations separated for votes were $100,000 for the chamber; $80,000 for the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts; $17,000 for the Carnegie Center for the Visual Arts; $100,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of North Alabama; $84,100 to the Decatur Downtown Redevelopment Authority; and $165,000, including $90,000 for the Best Brightest Program, for the Decatur-Morgan County Entrepreneurial Center.
Last year, the previous council removed the chamber allocation from the fiscal 2021 budget because of perceived interference in the 2020 municipal elections. The new council added $30,000 for the chamber back to the fiscal 2021 budget in June and approved $50,000 for business development and $50,000 for its partnership initiative in the fiscal 2022 budget.
Jackson, in his seventh term on the council, consistently voted against chamber allocations in the past, particularly because it has a political action committee that has supported candidates in previous municipal elections.
Jackson said he opposed the Princess funding because previous theater leaders promised not to seek funding again in exchange for council support on a $1.2 million bond issue.
He stated that he thinks the city met its financial obligations to the Princess and E-Center.
Jackson said he opposes the Boys and Girls Club appropriation because it meets at Oak Park Middle School so it doesn’t need the funding for the financial overhead of running a facility.
Jackson also said the club has a $400,000 fund balance and “is one of the best funded” nonprofits in the city. He said the club’s program are a duplication of those already provided by Decatur Youth Services.
“If we wanted to add that money to our Youth Services Department, I think that would be more appropriate,” Jackson said. “They’re full and they have the funding to cover the activities they have.”
Ladner said he had similar concerns about the club and he understands Jackson’s points, but “we are getting good feedback from the school system” on the benefits of the Boys and Girls Club. He said the club is full, and club leaders want to add more programming.