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Who's afraid of Randall Woodfin?
At Birmingham's second public hearing on the mayor's proposed budget, silence spoke volumes
The silence was sometimes thick inside Boutwell Auditorium on Tuesday evening, but it often spoke volumes.
As more than a dozen citizens took their allotted three minutes to address the Birmingham City Council about Mayor Randall Woodfin’s proposed 2024 budget, the members of the body sat silently, occasionally taking notes, but never responding to residents’ questions and concerns.
It was a stark change from the city’s previous public hearing on the issue earlier this month — one in which members, particularly Councilor Crystal Smitherman, chair of the budget and finance committee, had often chimed in after comments from the public.
In both public hearings on the proposed budget — the largest in the city’s history — one person was conspicuously absent — the mayor who’d proposed the financial plan.
Under the current system, the public hearings present the only mandated opportunity for Birmingham residents to participate directly in the city’s budget planning, a process controlled almost entirely by the mayor, save for a final up-or-down vote by the council. That limitation on the council’s power stems from a 2016 change to state law that nixed the ability of councilors to amend the financial document directly. Instead, councilors must now obtain written permission to make any edits.
Since those changes, which were spearheaded by a legislator-turned-felon, took effect, councilors have become increasingly reticent to criticize the mayor’s budget or even publicly suggest changes.
“We could all vote against the ordinance, and we could have a bad relationship with our mayor,” Councilor Valerie Abbott said of Woodfin and his budget at a 2022 public hearing. “But I don’t think that’s the route most of us want to go down. But we’ll see. There’s still time.”
Abbott and fellow councilor J.T. Moore were absent from Wednesday’s public hearing, and only two councilors — President Wardine Alexander and President Pro Tempore Crystal Smitherman — were present in time for roll call.
The new, mayor-centered budgeting process has led to a question from some Birmingham residents — who’s afraid of Randall Woodfin?
“They don’t feel heard”
“These councilors are genuinely unwilling to push back,” said Gabriel Caban Cubero. They serve as Campaign Director for People’s Budget Birmingham, a grassroots organization focused on increasing civic participation in the budget process.
“They call it ‘a relationship,’ they call it ‘working together,’ but it’s evident that people don’t feel that’s the case. They don’t feel heard,” Cubero explained.
Cubero said People’s Budget Birmingham surveyed hundreds of residents to ask about their budget concerns and that those responses helped guide the group’s feedback to councilors.
Speakers at Tuesday’s public hearing addressed a range of issues, asking for increased funding for youth programming, park upkeep, libraries, violence reduction programs, and much more.
Faith Abraham, for example, a longtime resident of the North Pratt community, said she’d like to see the city make parks more usable for citizens.
“We would like to see — and we’ve been asking for five years — for toileting facilities at One Pratt Park,” Abraham told councilors. “It almost seems like the park was put there for the city when it has events or people who can pay the $400 plus to use it. But people who are actually in the community are not able to use it.”
“How do we get — as citizens — our issues in the budget?”
Susan Palmer, President of the Central Park Neighborhood Association, began by telling councilors she thought the most important page of the mayor’s proposed budget was the organizational chart it contained, “citizens of Birmingham” listed at its head.
Palmer listed multiple streets in her neighborhood that she said needed repaving: 52nd Terrace, Avenue O, Quincy Avenue, and Bessemer Super Highway.
“How do we get — as citizens — our issues in the budget?” Palmer asked.
No councilors answered.
Speakers on Tuesday evening also harkened back to the city’s first public hearing on the proposed budget during which they’d been told that actual budget suggestions would be difficult to accommodate.
“I would encourage you all to come back in January and talk with us,” Smitherman told one resident, a member of People’s Budget Birmingham, in that June 5 meeting. “Maybe get some more survey results, meet with the mayor’s office. Because as of right now, we’re in the middle of the budget process.”
Another throwback came when a speaker brought up Councilor Hunter Williams’ repeated cell phone use during the previous meeting — cell phone use through 16 minutes of a 33-minute hearing. The speaker, Camilla Thompson, outlined her concerns for just over a minute and then chose to use her remaining time to “play on her phone.”
“Unless y’all want to engage with me about my concerns, I’m going to take my remaining minute and forty-three to play on my phone,” she said.
No councilor took her up on the offer.
“It takes a piece of you”
Jimmy DeBruce and Deborah Faddis didn’t know about the public hearing on the mayor’s proposed budget, but the pair were glad organizers from People’s Budget Birmingham had distributed food in Linn Park ahead of the meeting and asked for their thoughts on what the city’s spending should look like.
DeBruce and Faddis are experiencing homelessness in Birmingham, they said, having had difficulty in securing stable housing.
Faddis said that for her, a limited social security income has made it difficult for her to make ends meet as rent prices have continues to skyrocket in the Magic City.
“Then you’ve still got to buy food, pay bills,” Faddis said. “By the end of the month, you’re going to have to miss out on something.”
DeBruce said he thinks Birmingham should be spending significant tax dollars on funding programs for those experiencing homelessness instead of funding financial incentives for large companies.
Woodfin’s proposed 2024 budget outlines only federal funding for specific housing and homelessness programs — programs exclusively paid for through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Grant Program, not through city funding.
Woodfin’s budget provides for only $50,000 — a single line item for UAB Hospital — in city-taxpayer funding for housing or homelessness services of any kind.
Meanwhile, nearly $7 million of Birmingham taxpayer’s money has been proposed to fund incentives for companies like Applebee’s ($91,172), Shipt ($500,000), and Landing ($1 million), a luxury rental company that laid off dozens of employees in Birmingham just before Christmas last year.
That contrast — between the city’s investment in its most vulnerable and its most affluent — hurts, DeBruce told Tread on Tuesday.
“It takes a piece of you,” DeBruce said. “This is our city. And a lot of us do cry. But when we go to get help, it feel like the doors be shut.”
Jimmekka Walker found herself experiencing homelessness for the first time once the pandemic hit. She’d worked at UAB doing intake, and her job was quickly cut when COVID-19 cases began to rise. She found herself in a local shelter, unable to secure housing. It was there, Walker said, that she realized how few resources actually exist for folks facing homelessness in Birmingham.
She used winter shelters as an example.
“Before I was homeless, I would see people on TV handing out coats, and so I thought that kind of thing was taken care of. I would see that the Boutwell would be open when it got cold,” she explained. “But once I was homeless, I realized how unhelpful that was. You have housing for one night — then what?”
Walker said it was only the persistent help of Cat Cruz, an anti-homelessness advocate who also works with People’s Budget Birmingham, that helped get her off the street, not guidance from any program or institution.
Walker said the city’s single $50,000 line item for housing of the vulnerable is upsetting.
“It pisses me off, if I can say that,” Walker told Tread. “The mayor can see the need. He knows there are people sleeping in Linn Park and in Kelly Ingram and under these bridges. So what are you thinking?”
Gabriel Caban Cubero of People’s Budget Birmingham said he believes the mayor should have attended the public hearings.
“Of course, he should’ve come,” Cubero said. “He’s the one with all the power, right?”
Jimmy DeBruce said that anytime Woodfin wants to hear from someone experiencing life on the streets of Birmingham, he’s only a short walk away.
DeBruce looked up at City Hall as he spoke.
“The power is up there, and I know it,” he said. “And all it takes is for the right person to be heard.”
UPDATE: In a statement sent after this article’s initial publication, Councilor Valerie Abbott explained her absence at Tuesday’s hearing, expressed her views on the proposed budget, and emphasized that little can be done to change the financial document without a majority vote of the council.
“Unfortunately, the City Council’s second Budget Hearing was scheduled at the same time as the Birmingham Planning Commission’s Public Hearing on the Administration’s proposed changes to the Parking section of the Zoning Ordinance. At our last meeting, we couldn’t hold the PH due to lack of a quorum - very embarrassing, so making the quorum was critical.
As far as the 2023 budget is concerned, I have two major concerns. Of all the complaints we receive from residents, the two biggest are enforcement of every kind and public works issues of every kind. Trash and brush pick up, which used to occur every two weeks, has now been changed to once a month and that is unacceptable. This policy change by this Administration makes our neighborhoods look trashy 100% of the time, because as soon as the truck makes a pick up, people start their piles all over again, putting out every imaginable thing - mattresses, sofas, construction materials, you name it, and it’s piled out there for everyone to see. So, the changes I would like to see in the 2024 Operating Budget are more code enforcement personnel and more police officers doing enforcement of our ordinances and more Public Works personnel for improved appearance of our neighborhoods.
Thanks for asking for my opinion about the budget, but unless at least five City Councilors agree that these are important issues and won’t improve the budget without them, nothing will change.” - Councilor Valerie Abbott
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