Council at odds over spending on projects

Disagreements about money can create tension in the best of partnerships, so it’s not surprising that members of the Fort Payne City Council experienced a strong difference of opinion at Tuesday’s meeting while discussing projects.

The Council agreed on designating an already-earmarked sewer construction project to receive American Rescue Plan Act funds. Mayor Brian Baine said he met with U.S. Tommy Tuberville on Tuesday and was told this is recommended. The move will have the effect of freeing up millions that had been committed to a sewer project from bond money the city borrowed.

City Clerk Andy Parker pointed out that $2.9 million remains from the initial $20 million generated from a June 2018 bond issue once factoring in a projected $7 million price tag for the new athletic complex. The bond issue for general obligation projects was made possible because of a 1 percent sales tax increase passed in August 2017. Millions are committed to a sewer project connecting the pump station on Airport Road to a pump station near the WZOB radio station.

“No matter how other numbers are juggled, that $2.9 million is what’s left if the sewer project that’s yet to be done comes in at $10 million [and] we spend no more than $7 million on the complex. We have $3.5 million to pay for capital items. Any increase in those others is going to decrease that $2.9 million. When we go to bid on the southern leg of the sewer project, we don’t know what it’s going to come in at,” Parker warned.

Council President Walter Watson urged restraint on spending because “that bond money is going to run out soon and then we’ll either have to borrow again or raise taxes to come up with the money to get these projects done. Let’s be really careful with what we spend and nail down what this is going to cost. Let’s see what we have left and not go over that. We have a budget we have to stay within to finish these projects.”

Council President Pro Tem Lynn Brewer took offense to a resolution appearing on the agenda to set a budget for the athletic complex that would have capped spending at $7 million. Once the cost of the project threatened to exceed that amount, the Council would have to make tough choices on where to scale back or whether to spend more.

“We’ve never done this on any other project [so] it seems like a matter of trust and all of the sudden there’s some untrust between somebody,” she said. “If we want to reconsider the budget, we can sit down and talk about that without the need for a resolution to put a cap on this. If you really feel strongly about it, maybe we need to lower our expectations of what we’re doing at the soccer complex as a whole. Maybe cut back.”

Watson stepped down from the chair to vote for the resolution, joined by Council member Johnny Eberhart, but it was voted down by Brewer and Council members Phillip Smith and John Smith.

In a previous work session, the Council discussed a range of estimates on the sports complex with the cost of materials being unpredictable in the current construction market. At Wednesday’s meeting, John Smith said there was too many unknowns to set a budget ceiling.

Baine said he and Public Works Director Tim Williams would come before the Council to determine the wishes if costs threatened to exceed that budget.

City Attorney Rocky Watson told Council members they were “arguing about nothing. Until you approve the specifics of the project and you have the design and you bid it, you don’t have anything you’re committed to. All you’re talking about today is informing [Baine and Public Works Director Tim Williams] that you want to get it done for $7.5 million. And if it can’t be done for that, you all come back and decide if you want to take from that last $2.9 million to build a million-dollar concession stand.”

“The elephant in the room is that if we build a $1 million concession building, we go over budget,” said City Treasurer Tricia Dunn.

They agreed to discuss the issue at another work session.

At Wednesday’s meeting, John Smith motioned to increase the amount of the one-time holiday bonus from $650 to $1,000 for full-time employees and from $325 to $500 for probationary full-time staff. Earlier in the year, he proposed allocating money from the American Rescue Plan to give a one-time bonus to police and fire personnel, but it was unclear if the money could be used for this purpose. He criticized some of the purchasing decisions the Council had made for items like decorative street lights, arguing that “if we can’t take care of the employees, we don’t need to be up here spending money for anything else.”

The bonus hike, which was approved, requires a budget adjustment of about $100,000 on top of what was already budgeted for the holiday bonus, Dunn said. After commenting on the pace of spending, she clarified that they remained within their budget as of Wednesday.

“We’ve got a million projects on the table,” Dunn said. “You guys have got to decide what you’re doing and what you’re spending because we only have so many dollars.”

Walter Watson stepped down from the chair again to vote against the increase, explaining “it’s nothing against the employees, but when we had that discussion six months ago about giving a bonus [from the federal money], we hadn’t factored in giving them a substantial raise. If we aren’t careful, we’ll be talking about taking something from the employees.”

Brewer voted for the increase. She said, “Our employees are our greatest assets, but we do have to keep [bonuses] within an amount we can afford.”

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