As the Tuscaloosa City Council weighs the recommendations in the mayor’s fiscal 2020 budget proposal, some allocations are bound to change.
But one that likely will not be altered is the first allocation of discretionary dollars for each council district.
Mayor Walt Maddox set aside a total of $70,000 — $10,000 for each of the council’s seven districts — for council members to disburse as they see fit.
There are rules for their use, though.
The mayor said that any commitment of these funds must face the scrutiny of the full City Council, which will have a final vote on how they are applied, and the usage of these dollars will be subject to all budget, accounting and auditing standards of the city.
They also cannot be for operational uses in order to avoid re-occurring expenses, he said, and must be for the public good.
“All expenditures must meet the public purpose doctrine,” Maddox said.
The city's fiscal 2020 budget must be approved by the City Council by Oct. 1 and the council could choose to direct these dollars elsewhere before it gives its final approval
Doing so would remove what are essentially council district discretionary funds that Maddox added for the first time since taking office as mayor in 2005.
Maddox said he made the move for fiscal 2020 in response to recent heavy debate among council members over district-specific issues, such as the commitment of public dollars toward Christmas decorations.
In December 2017, District 7 Councilwoman Sonya McKinstry questioned why $9,395 in leftover funds was being allocated for Christmas decorations at The Gateway digital library and new Alberta Park while a bus route she wanted for Jug Factory Road was going unfunded.
The bus route has since been paid for and activated, but McKinstry herself was questioned when she requested in November 2018 the commitment of $14,000 of city reserve funds toward Christmas decorations for City Hall and utility poles at intersections within District 7.
“Understandably, council members want to provide for their constituents,” Maddox said, “and there are often small public purpose projects or initiatives that get trapped in the overall budgeting process.
“In some cases this causes delay, and in other instances, it provides a lack of oversight.”
While these dollars are meant to counter these delays, City Attorney Glenda Webb cautioned the council on how they can be applied.
Council members don’t have to spend the dollars and, in fact, can roll them over to the following fiscal year in order to build up enough money to pay for larger initiatives.
But Webb wants to avoid any ethical dilemmas — hence the program being called “district improvement funds” and not discretionary funds — and said the city attorney’s office will work with council members to ensure the proceeds are used legally.
“We would steer clear of potential ethics issues that way,” she said.
Tuscaloosa isn’t the first local government to create such funds for its elected leaders to use.
The Tuscaloosa County Commission has had designated discretionary funds for the four county commissioners since 2013, said county Chief Financial Officer Bill Lamb.
That year, it was $1 million — or $250,000 per district — but this dipped to $400,000 total, or $100,000 per district, the next year.
This total returned to $1 million in fiscal 2015 after the County Commission amended then-Commission Chairman Hardy McCollum’s budgeted allocation of $400,000, or $100,000 each.
For fiscal 2020, the allocation is expected to drop to $25,000 for each commissioner, for a total of $100,000, Lamb said.
Like the City Council’s rules, the full County Commission has to approve their usage. In the past, these dollars have been used to fund projects like storm shelters, restroom renovations at county schools, park upgrades and digital signs.
Council President Cynthia Almond said she welcomed the addition of the council improvement funds, especially if it speeds along the council’s weekly business of managing the city.
“If it can keep us from very district-specific discussions, then that would be a good thing, I think,” Almond said.
Reach Jason Morton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0200.