By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
It will be a happy holiday season for a number of Birmingham City employees.
On Tuesday, the Birmingham City Council unanimously approved borrowing $4.58 million from the city’s general fund reserve to bring back 132 full-time employees who have been on furlough since September.
The employees return to work on Tuesday, December 7 just as their health insurance was set to expire on Friday, December. 4.
“I [am] happy to be in a position to bring people back but it is with mixed emotions, I’m very disappointed still we had to furlough them in the first place,” said Councilor Clinton Woods. “Over the last couple of months, I’ve made a point each week to have conversation with people who have been furloughed and that’s a sobering thing to hear [their] stories… I know they are excited about coming back, just highlighting the human cost of some of our decisions.”
Last month, Mayor Randall Woodfin proposed pulling $7 million from reserves to bring back mostly library and parks and recreation employees, saying the money would be reimbursed by more than $9 million federal CARES Act funding from the U.S. government’s coronavirus relief funding for states.
However, some council members balked at taking the $7 million which they said could possibly endanger the city’s credit rating, by lowering reserves below a city policy which calls for two months’ worth of operating expenses to be kept in reserves — approximately $70 million. Woodfin’s plan would have reserves at $66 million while the compromise agreement of $4.58 million would leave the city at about $69 million.
Councilor Crystal Smitherman, who was one of three councilors to vote against the mayor’s budget said her biggest fear is that using reserves to bring back workers is a “short term solution” because the council could be back in the same position n a few months. “The real questions is, ‘how are we going to sustain this,’” she said. “We’re going into a third wave [of this pandemic] and once we take out this $4.5 million, that’s it. We can’t go back into the savings … we will probably need a plan to see how we can build back up this fund balance.”
Councilor Steven Hoyt, who has vocally opposed the furloughs, said bringing back workers is just a first step, and the matter could have been handled better.
“I personally don’t think that there is anything that has changed with the city’s finances in terms of where we are today versus where we were two months ago [when the furloughs began] and I think to interrupt these persons lives and livelihoods was unnecessary because if we can bring them back now, chances are we didn’t have to lay them off in the beginning…” Hoyt said. “I think that those department heads who were told to give 10 percent of their salaries, if we’re going to make the furloughs right then I think you need to make those department heads right.”
Now, that the employees are returning to work, Council President William Parker said it’s time to restore holiday pay after nine of 12 paid city holidays in the budget were suspended due to the revenue shortfall the city is facing because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re going to continue to work, continue to roll up our sleeves and have more conversations with the mayor and the finance director and other city departments to make sure we can address phase two, which is city holidays,” Parker said.
In September, the council approved Woodfin’s $412 million fiscal 2021 budget, which went into effect October 1, and contained deep pay cuts and furloughs.
The city’s FY21 budget had been delayed in May after the COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread shutdowns in March. The fiscal year in Birmingham begins July 1 but was delayed for three months.
During the budget process, a number of cost-cutting measures were announced including 158 furloughs from the Birmingham Public Library system and 84 from culture and recreation facilities which led some workers to retire or find work elsewhere.
The downtown Central Library branch is currently closed to in-person visits through Dec.7, although curbside service is available. Parks and recreation centers have remained open with limited hours and staff.