It’s not every day that a reference to “Blazing Saddles” works its way into Mobile City Council discussions, but it happened Tuesday morning as talks over the city’s 2018 budget began to focus on a few points of contention.
The immediate upshot is that the council has set a meeting of its finance committee for Monday afternoon, in an attempt to resolve outstanding issues. It will be the third finance committee meeting on the budget proposed by Mayor Sandy Stimpson.
The likelihood that it might lead to swift passage of the budget at the council’s meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19, wasn’t taken for granted. “If we’re not ready to vote on the 19th, fine,” Council President Gina Gregory said during the council’s discussion Tuesday morning. “We have another week to discuss more, ask more questions, have another meeting if we need to before we, hopefully, will vote on the 29th.”
The city’s fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.
Questions came up about several topics, including a reduced baseline allocation for the Downtown Mobile Business Improvement District, a possible midyear longevity raise for Mobile Fire Rescue Department personnel and the desirability of finding some money for an increase for retirees.
But the real snag turned out to be an ongoing dispute between the city and the county over the amount of rent that the city pays Mobile County for its space in Government Plaza. A county tax collection arrangement that used to cover the city’s rent has tapered off dramatically in recent years, and the city has taken the position that its rent should fall accordingly.
The backstory is complicated, but the bottom line is that the city hasn’t paid rent since early this year – and Stimpson’s proposed budget doesn’t allocate any money for rent going forward.
The dispute surged into public view last month, when County Commissioner Connie Hudson said it was jeopardizing the county’s ability to plan its own 2018 budget. And Tuesday morning, some council members said the situation didn’t sit well with them.
Councilwoman Bess Rich criticized the administration approach of not paying rent and simultaneously bragging about building the city’s reserve funds. “I would love not to pay my mortgage and put it in my savings account,” she said.
That led Councilman Joel Daves to retort that he was against using city reserve funds for any kind of operational expense. The impact of two major hurricanes to the west and east served to show that city reserves should be bigger, not smaller, he said.
Rich also said that if the city is going to pay any rent, it needs to be budgeted. Otherwise any eventual payments will mean cuts elsewhere in the budget. As for the contract that governs rent, she said, “there is a mechanism” to resolve disputes.
As the council grappled with the question of whether to wade into the rent dispute or trust the administration to work it out, City Attorney Ricardo Woods invoked a scene from Mel Brooks’ transgressively funny western.
“I’m reminded of the movie ‘Blazing Saddles’ where Cleavon Little is holding the gun to his own head,” said Woods. “I’m asking you all not to do that at this point … and just let us sit down, [and] discuss it.” Woods said talks between various parties including himself and County Attorney Jim Rossler were ongoing.
In the scene in question, actor Cleavon Little plays an unpopular sheriff surrounded by angry townsfolk. To throw them off, he holds a gun to his own head and begins acting out a hostage situation, which leads them to back away and try to rescue him from himself.
This being “Blazing Saddles,” the scene is drenched in envelope-pushing racial satire. If anybody on the council picked up on that, they were sagacious enough not to go there.
While Rich was not alone in believing it was only right for the city to pay rent at some level – and therefore to budget it, others were leery of intervening without all the facts.
“I think the administration has heard there are some concerns,” said Councilman John Williams. “And I think you’ve got two options as the mayor, and the administration. That’s to let the council go off recklessly, or work together as a team to resolve these issues. And just to grab money here and there – we’ve proven that we can act recklessly in the past. [We’ve got] Years and years of examples that didn’t work so well, because we didn’t exactly know the effect of our actions.”
The remark reflected Williams’ oft-stated belief that the current council lineup has distinguished itself by working productively where previous versions squabbled and conducted business more responsibly as well. But whether he intended or not, it also could be interpreted as carrying much the same message for Stimpson – who wasn’t present — as Sheriff Bart’s one-man hostage shtick did for those irate townsfolk in “Blazing Saddles:” Careful, you don’t want to make us do something crazy here.
For the moment, at least, the council seemed to accept Woods’ assertion that city-county negotiations were under way and might bear fruit before the budget comes up for a vote.
Hudson, contacted after the meeting, wasn’t so sure.
“There have been several meetings and discussions, which have so far failed to be fruitful,” she said. Stimpson has requested nonbinding mediation, she said, but “whether that will be fruitful is a whole different question.”
Hudson, a former City Council member, said the council has reason not to let it slide too long: From the time the budget is proposed to the time it is approved is “the only time the council has any control over that budget and can amend it,” she said.
Hudson said the county is proceeding with its budget as if the city will be paying rent. “We have a contract,” she said. “The only thing we can do is budget that money.”
She said that at more than $100,000 per month, the city’s unpaid rent is adding up to a substantial issue in its own right, regardless of what the county might pay under a revised agreement.
“By the end of September, they will owe nearly $800,000,” she said.