Huntsville Councilmen Talk Roads, City Hall Improvements

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – Huntsville changes by the day, and these two men see it from a different perspective than many of us. Bill Kling and Will Culver both serve on the Huntsville City Council.

Kling represents District 4, and has been on the council for 26 years.  Culver is much newer to city government, having been elected as District 5′s representative in 2008.

They said one of the biggest projects Huntsville has at the moment is road work.  the council recently passed a sales tax increase to fund road improvements, finding itself short on money because the State of Alabama backed out on major funding.

“There was a big disappointment because originally, the State of Alabama highway department had made a $450 million commitment to us for improvements of state roads – Governors Drive, University Drive East, University Drive West, Parkway overpasses, and then they backed out of that,” said Kling.

Instead, Mayor Tommy Battle negotiated a deal with Governor Bentley where the city will put up $125 million over a five-year period and state DOT will match that.

Not all of the money will go to roads, though.  Some councilmen agree with that decision and some don’t.

“I would have preferred that all of the money from the sales tax be earmarked for the roads, but sometimes I’m in the majority and sometimes I’m in the minority,” said Kling.  “But Huntsville is growing and anyone who sees traffic gridlock in the morning – we have got to stay ahead of the curve in our transportation needs.”

Not everyone supported the sales tax increase.  We asked Councilmen Culver what kind of input his constituents gave him. Did people urge him to vote against it?

“Oh, absolutely. Sometimes you have to look at the overall picture. In the district I represent, which is west Huntsville, you can’t come in to Huntsville in the mornings without a gridlock, whether it’s I-565, or Highway 72, or whether it’s Old Monrovia,” said Culver. “All of those roads are just at a gridlock, and the same way in the evenings. It was a decision that I made because it was a great opportunity. I share Councilman Kling’s view that if the Governor of this state had granted us that money, or we had gotten a larger percentage of our highway, or gasoline tax dollars, then we wouldn’t have had to do that, but since that didn’t happen, $125 million with a $125 million match is just an awesome thing.”

What should the first road project be, we asked?

“There are several. Highway 72 East – that interchange at Maysville Road needs to be worked on,” said Culver. “72 West is a major artery – it needs to be worked on. Of course, Memorial Parkway, both north and south – those are both major corridors into our city. So, I think we have our priorities in order in terms of how we have prioritized those for construction.”

Kling had input, too.

“We take a city-wide approach. I think Byrd Spring’s overpass (on South Parkway) – that’s one of the first things that is underway,” Kling added. “I think Mayor Battle, and the State Department of Transportation, the city transportation issues – they’re coming out and saying we’re going to get these things underway as soon as possible.”

Not all of the money will go to roads.  Will some be used for capital projects – and if so, which ones?

“This will be one of the issues Councilman Culver and I will agree to disagree on,” said Kling. “I would like to see all of the money earmarked for roads, period. I think Councilman Russell and I were in the minority. We wanted to have a five-year sunset — at the end of five years, end the tax, and if there’s a future road package that comes up, then we can go to the public and say we ended the tax, there’s another road package coming up, we’re going to reactivate the tax and go from there. But the problem is, in a bigger picture, the City of Huntsville taxpayers are being hurt by Montgomery. Montgomery looks at us and says, well, Huntsville is taking care of themselves, they’re stepping up to the plate, so we can take money away from Huntsville and use it in other areas of the state.”

Kling cites the recent widening project of Governors Drive from the Parkway to California as an example of this.

“That’s a state road. The widening was basically paid for 100 percent by the City of Huntsville taxpayers,” said Kling. “We just ask that Montgomery treat us the same as they would other cities. Don’t penalize us because we’re putting money into our roads and our schools.”

“It is incumbent upon us – I know we’re part of the state, and we’d love to get our prorated share from the state, but Huntsville is an economic engine not only for the state, but for the United States,” said Culver.  “So with that in mind, people feel like we can take care of our own.  So to some degree, it is incumbent upon us to take care of our own. But I would love to see some of the leftover monies used for capital improvements to help us stimulate our economy.  Also, beyond five years, we’re going to have other road projects. This is going to be ongoing… these road projects are probably going to be ongoing for the next 15-20 years.”

Q: City Hall is not slated to get any of this money.  The building has serious aging problems – it was built in 1963 and parts of it are being held up so they don’t fall on people.  Watch WHNT News 19′s special report that aired in December 2013.  What do the councilmen make of this issue?

“The building – I’m surprised we’re able to get away with the ADA [Americans With Disability Act] requirements. We need a City Hall that is more reflective of our city – the high-tech city that we are,” said Culver. “Now, I will admit, that at some point in time we will move forward with that, but we don’t want to give an appearance that we’re taking taxpayers’ monies and building a commodious facility that all of us can enjoy. That’s not the purpose. But at some point in time we are going to have to step out and say ‘look, we’ve gotta construct a new facility and renovate the existing building that will be more conducive to our city government.’”

Kling doesn’t pull any punches with his answer.

“I’m a cheap skate. Instead of a Cadillac, I would be happy with a Chevrolet,” Kling said. “Take the existing City Hall that we have. It was renovated in 1989 — not that long ago. Yes, we have problems, I know there have been problems with the facade on the side of it. What I’d like to see would be more of a Chevrolet approach. Take down where you have the 2x4s – you can put up decorative columns, some of the aluminum columns you can get at home improvement stores – you can put a pitch roof on it, on that entrance area.. around it, where you have the old, ugly wood fence, take that down, spend some money, put a wrought iron fence around it that still surrounds the landscape barrier. Just make the protection look nicer, give it a tune up.”

“We want to put our money into streets. We want to put our money into neighborhoods. We don’t need a Taj Mahal City Hall,” said Kling.

One of the biggest topics in the news in recent months has been Huntsville’s new school rezoning plan and the effort to get out from a federal desegregation order.  Other elected officials, such as Huntsville City Councilman Richard Showers, have been critical of the Huntsville Board of Education.

We asked Kling and Culver where they stand on this, in regards to the school board.

“As a former school board member from the 1980s, I respect the school board,” said Kling. “They have legislative authority, that in the eyes of the Alabama Constitution – they have absolute power, control, they run the school system – not the City Council. We don’t have an appointed school board. The school board member in my district is every bit as much of an important elected official as I am. I don’t agree with everything that they’re doing, and you have six elected officials at City Hall, we all have opinions and concerns and we’re going to raise those issues.”

Kling says with the rezoning plan, the Lowe Mill neighborhood gets split into three elementary school districts.

“That’s not a good thing for a neighborhood to have happen,” Kling said.

Kling said he has invited Dr. Casey Wardynski, Superintendent of Huntsville City Schools, to attend an upcoming neighborhood meeting.

“Do I agree with what the school board is doing? I have concerns from my vantage as a city council member, but again, they run the school system, not us, it’s their responsibility, and we’ll see what happens from there.”

Culver said he is also keeping the lines of communication open.

“I have worked very closely with Dr. Wardynski as it relates to input that I’ve been getting from my constituents. As we know, the lawsuit that was filed by Dr. Sonnie Hereford was very on-point, very appropriate, back in 1963, and I do believe the school system is working towards trying to integrate the schools,” said Culver. “But let’s be real about it — north and west Huntsville is predominantly African-American.  So, we can’t create some elongated path over into south Huntsville — it would be unconscionable to do that.”