HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - After lots of discussion and strife, the Huntsville City Council approved a budget and corresponding capital plan that included millions of dollars for roads, a cost of living adjustment for employees, and a boost for retirees.
"I think we got the priorities in the right area. We are still building roads, we are still building infrastructure, we are still able to take care of the things we promised in our development agreements for Blue Origin and Mazda Toyota, and everybody else," Mayor Tommy Battle said.
The Tough Decisions
The council changed a few things in the proposed budget that the mayor recommended.
First, council member Devyn Keith pushed through a bonus for retired city employees.
"I think if there is a value to saying we have skin in the game, this is the most immediate value to find it," he said.
Keith's motion, passed 3-1 with council president Mark Russell voting against, moved $729,394 from the 1990 Capital Improvement Plan for fiscal years 2019-2028 that was supposed to be used for resurfacing roads, to the general fund, to pay for the retiree bonus.
Russell said before the vote that he did not approve of taking money from a forward-looking capital plan and using it to pad shortfalls, so he would be voting against for that and other reasons.
"I've never understood why retirees get a bonus," he commented. "I understand if they need more money to live, or something like we promised them and we weren't keeping the promise. It's just a philosophy I never understood."
Keith also successfully gained support to fund a nonprofit that helps with cerebral palsy patients by an additional $10,000. He removed the $10,000 from the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra appropriation to find the balance.
But it wasn't as good a night for council member Bill Kling. Kling attempted to increase the budget's cost of living adjustment for employees from a 1% increase, to a 2%. He wanted to use $1.2 million from the Outside Professional Services budget to fund it.
"We are dealing with our best assets," Kling noted. "These are the people on the front lines who provide the services to the people in the community. I think we are talking about 'reasonable,' not anything that would be unreasonable."
Citizens came out to support the idea.
"I think it's safe to say that the employees of the city of Huntsville put the residents first when they're called upon. But the one time of year we are not first is budget time," one man said. "When the opportunity comes for the city to put us first, we are instead put last."
Another man said, "Without a sufficient COLA, our pay scale falls behind. I feel like it's behind now, I think a lot of other people do."
But Devyn Keith said this is one of those tough choices. While he sees the motivation to increase COLA, or cost of living adjustment, he did not like the impact it would have on the people he represents.
"The impact would not only be immediate, but it would be vast throughout not only my district, but the entire city of Huntsville," he said.
Keith noted that the Outside Professional Services budget mostly funds landscapers, janitors and others the city relies on. He feared what a cut there might mean for the people who work in that department and help the city run with what they do.
"It touches almost every department," he said. "Do I believe in an increase in COLA? Absolutely. We are working to do that. There are opportunities to do that in the future, but I think that Outside Professional Services has such an immediate impact."
"I think I'm going to regrettably sit this one out," Council member Will Culver said, "but it isn't because we don't think our City of Huntsville employees deserve it." He noted there is always next year to increase COLA.
In the end, Kling was the only vote for the 2% increase and it failed, meaning the COLA increase would remain at 1% in the approved budget.
The budget approved Thursday is balanced, and mostly includes what Battle wanted to see happen, he said.
"We got a budget through. It wasn't everything that we wanted, but that's part of government. You have to find a compromise area and be able to get a budget through. We got a good budget through."
Battle said moving the money out of the paving budget may affect some citizens who are constantly asking for road improvements. He was surprised to see the council do that.
"It's the thing you get calls about all the time, but we will refill that. And once we refill that, we will be in good shape."
Battle added that the COLA was a difficult subject to take on.
"There is never a time that you pay your employees enough," he said. "That is one of those hard things to do, but you have got to prioritize where you spend your money."
In the end, the approved budget included a lot of give and take, but Battle said the city is still doing well.
"The budget is a long process. We started back in May working on this budget and finally got it here today," he said. "This is what the council decided to do. We will live with it. I think we will find out that the city of Huntsville will do very well."