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Birmingham Councilor Feels ‘Bamboozled’ by City’s $53.1M Spending Proposal

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City Councilor Hunter Williams, of District 2, said he was surprised by what he heard during Tuesday’s meeting. (FILE)

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

A proposal “submitted and recommended” by Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin to use $53.1 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) COVID-19 relief funds for neighborhood revitalization, transportation and public safety and other areas was derailed Tuesday when city councilors said they were caught off guard by the mayor’s plan.

It also led the mayor’s office to cancel a press conference scheduled to discuss the item and raised questions about timing with city elections four weeks away.

Kelvin Datcher, the city’s director of intergovernmental affairs, told the council that the money would be in “buckets,” the term used for different categories of spending, such as $3 million for “community based public safety initiatives” and $2 million per district for “neighborhood revitalization projects.”

However, Councilor Hunter Williams, of District 2, said he met with Datcher to talk about the plan within the last week, but was surprised by what he heard during Tuesday’s meeting.

“We [met] only a matter of days ago and there’s about $20 million that wasn’t discussed …We didn’t talk about that so I don’t know what it’s going toward . . . I feel like I’ve been bamboozled a little bit,” Williams said.

Williams said he was disappointed that he was not informed of “one third” of the money that showed up in the final version of the item before city council.

Datcher reiterated that the item only sets up “bucket” categories of money and said he can personally vouch for the integrity of the plan.

“I am open and ready to stand any scrutiny from the honorable representative of District 2 [Williams] at his convenience,” Datcher said.

Councilor Steven Hoyt also said the proposal was vague. “I don’t think this is good planning, being a former student of planning. You just don’t decide you’re going to spend this kind of money, and it’s just ‘bucket,’” Hoyt said. “We know that once we pass it, it’s not dictated on the council. It’s dictated on the mayor recommending.”

Councilor Valerie Abbott said she also had questions. “I want to know how these figures were arrived at,” she said. “Clearly, there is someone who looked at these issues and said, ‘we’re going to need about this much for this and about this much for this’…I want to know what these figures were based upon and what we can do with the money in these categories. I know that these figures were not just pulled out of the sky.”

Mayor Randall Woodfin said there was a reason his administration didn’t have specifics.

“There is no detail to provide to you because we have to actually vet what was submitted in totality, and we actually have to assess and detail all the things you all have recommended,” a visibly frustrated Woodfin told the council. “What you all are voting on is not trees, it’s literally forest . . . None of these other buckets have any detail because they’re just buckets,” he said.

Two sources at City Hall said the mayor was visibly upset because Council President William Parker privately pushed the item and assured the mayor that he, Parker, had the votes to get the item passed.

Efforts to reach Parker for comment Tuesday night were unsuccessful. Asked whether the mayor had a comment, Rick Journey, the mayor’s spokesman said, “nothing more than what was already discussed in council today.”

The item was moved to a committee of the whole where it may sit until after the August 24 municipal elections.

Here’s a breakdown of the $53.1 million in the “buckets:

  • $18.75 million – Public Transportation
  • $18 million – Neighborhood Revitalization Projects ($2 million per district)
  • $4.75 million – Tourism
  • $4.5 million – Small Business Support
  • $3 million – Community Based Public Safety Initiatives
  • $1.5 million – COVID-19 Responses
  • $1.5 million – Grant Writing/Professional Services Support
  • $1.1 million – Employee Vacation Buyout