Mobile City Council members want more money to spend at their discretion

MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Our investigative team has been poring through the proposed budget for the past few weeks and one line item stood out. The “Discretionary Fund”, as it’s called, could see a 60 percent jump next year.

Discretionary money was cut from the budget in 2009 because of the poor economy. Last year, it returned and now some council members say they need more. Mobile’s City Council members each received $25,000 in discretionary money in the 2013 budget. This time around, that piece of the budget pie could jump to $40,000.

What is the money for?

“Discretionary money can be used for anything within your district,” Council President Gina Gregory said.

Gregory said the council members may differ on how they choose to spend that money.

“Entrance ways, speed bumps, traffic lights, fixing a small section of sideway. Even, I have an ice maker at a concession stand at one of my parks that doesn’t work,” Gregory explained.

Levon Manzie’s biggest commitment this year is $4,000 to the Mobile County Training School Alumni Association. Bess Rich is pooling her money for renovations at major intersections in District 6, including the one at Airport and Hillcrest.

“Discretionary money can be used for anything within your district…”- Gina Gregory, Mobile City Council President

“I’ve allocated money towards capital only,” Rich said.

“It is funds that’s placed there for our discretion. It’s our call,” council member Fred Richardson said. “We went back to the air shows and we got Airbus. It’s not but four final assembly lines in the world, and one of them is in the city of Mobile.”

Most of Richardson’s discretionary expenses went to travel. A total of five trips in the United States and abroad. He says the travel pays off for the city.

2015 Budget proposes increase in funds; Williams opposes

The proposed budget includes an increase in discretionary money, in part because the council members will have to start paying their postage and other mailing expenses.

“The amount we had in line item for that last year was just over $53,000 was not enough. So, this year we decided to put all of the printing and reproduction, that means the post cards, the letters, anything we send out in the mail. We decided to put that, or charge that to our discretionary funds. Therefore, we increased our discretionary funds this year to $40,000,” Gregory said.

“It is a very expensive process to write to everybody four times a year. It is thousands of dollars. Again, to me it’s a tool to make sure that everyone knows who their representative is. It’s very important to me,” council member Rich said.

“In the last year we had about $25,000, and I believe that that’s enough,” council member John Williams said.

“We really needed the money…”Makada Nichols

Williams is against the increase. He thinks the spending guidelines should be narrowed to include only capital spending, and capped at $20,000-25,000. A proposed extended sidewalk project in Skyland Park received $5,000 from Williams discretionary money. Another $5,000 went to the Southern Corridor Beautification project, to help spruce up the intersection at Government Blvd and Azalea Road.

Community member in favor of the funding

Makada Nichols said the project couldn’t happen without help from the city council member.

“We didn’t have the funds to plant the flowers. We really needed the money. We’re a group that’s just starting out and we just got our 501 accreditation,” Nichols said. “We want to start doing some fundraising. But John, and that money has really helped us to get started.”

Williams, who allocated all of his discretionary money to projects and organizations in District Four, said travel is also important for council members but he said those who do take trips should be accountable.

“We should require those that travel to provide a detailed trip report on what the expectation was and what was accomplished during that time away from home,” Williams said.

Richardson has an answer for critics who think he should leave the travel to other city leaders, like the mayor.

“Fred Richardson is as important in the city as any other elected official , be it the mayor or any other council member. Nobody is more important than Fred Richardson. You can tell the world that, and I approve this message,” Richardson said with laughter.

Interestingly, the council members who say they need more money next year, had not spent most of their discretionary money as of July 22. Five council members had balances ranging from $10,000 to $18,000.

Discretionary money that is not spent during the fiscal year goes back into the General Fund budget. But, that’s not likely to happen. The council members still have about four weeks to spend the money, or roll it into special capital accounts for their district. Mayor Sandy Stimpson also receives discretionary money. He is not requesting an increase in the new budget. By law, the city council must approve a new budget before the start of the fiscal year which begins October 1.

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