Fairhope mayor presents 2017 budget highlights

By Cliff McCollum
Posted 3/14/17

During last week’s Fairhope City Council work session, Mayor Karin Wilson shared some highlights from her long-awaited 2017 budget for the city.

Wilson said the process of combing through the …

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Fairhope mayor presents 2017 budget highlights

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During last week’s Fairhope City Council work session, Mayor Karin Wilson shared some highlights from her long-awaited 2017 budget for the city.

Wilson said the process of combing through the city’s previous years’ budgets was a difficult one that had taken some time and effort.

“This version is going to be a lot easier to read because we’ve broken things down further and arranged spending my department in a more easy to understand fashion,” Wilson said. “Before in the old budget book, you had the utilities broken out and the general fund all lumped together. You could see the different departments, but it wasn’t reported in a way that showed income or expense.”

Wilson said despite the changes she wanted to make, the difference between her proposed budget and the one the city has been working under was only about $5,000.

Wilson said one area the city did need to be proactive about addressing was the usage and extension of city services. She threw up a map of the city’s limits, police jurisdiction and planning jurisdiction to illustrate her point that a majority of people who are enjoying city services aren’t actually within the city’s physical limits.

“What you can see when you look at this is that our actual city limits only make up one-third of our geographic area,” Wilson said. “What I’m trying to demonstrate here is that we are at a tipping point. We’ve got a small area that’s paying for the operation of the city, but a larger surrounding area that is enjoying those benefits without all of those costs.”

Wilson posted statistics she said showed the city had been running a deficit budget in its general fund for the last several years: a $4.218 million loss in 2013, a $4.396 million loss in 2014, a $2.078 million loss in 2015 and a $4.222 million loss in 2016.

Wilson said while those deficits were propped up by funding from the city’s utilities, she felt it wasn’t a sustainable thing she felt the city should continue to do.

“We have to see where we’re going to make changes,” Wilson said. “Utility profits need to be invested in utility infrastructure and, right now, these funds are not being put into the capital improvement funds we need them in.”

Wilson said one such investment she’d like to see would be consolidating some of the city’s electric infrastructure into four new substations.

She said she also hoped to find savings in better maintenance and tracking of city-owned vehicles and by keeping a closer eye on overtime spending.

Wilson also mentioned bringing the city’s library back under the umbrella of the city as a city department, a move that Councilman Jimmy Conyers told her was not supported by the library board.

“They have told me they would not be in favor of that at all,” Conyers said.

If the library ceased to function independently, it could lose out on the ability to apply for and win several state grants.

Wilson informed the council there were currently 43 open positions within the city that were waiting to be filled, and she took aim at the council’s recent 60-day hiring freeze, accusing them of wanting to gain more power.

“This looks like something you did in a rush,” Wilson said. “You’re constantly telling me to stop moving so fast, but you did this pretty fast without talking to me. I don’t think you’re fully understanding the consequences of this. If you’re using this time to see how you can gain more power, why are we doing this to the city?”

Councilman Kevin Boone said he felt the freeze was necessary because the council members were concerned about hirings given the fact they still had yet to see a budget.

“At this time, I think it is very good for the city,” Boone said. “We have no idea what we’ve been spending on.”

Wilson also questioned the legality of the freeze, saying she had confirmed with several attorneys that it was a violation of state law.

Council President Jack Burrell countered that the city’s own attorneys had agreed the freeze was not an unlawful one.

“We are not taking your ability from you,” Burrell said. “We’re not hiring for you and we’re not firing for you. We’re not stymieing the government.”

Burrell said the council had seen a figure stating a potential $600,000 increase for salaries in the budget that gave them pause, which was a reason behind the hiring freeze.

“I think that we do need to communicate,” Burrell said. “We haven’t been asked what we want to see in the budget, so there may be changes the council wants to make and we do have the authority to control the finances.”