Photo: Councilman Stephen Hoyt discussing the ordinance to restore furloughed employees, taken from livestream
The decision to restore the 132 furloughed library employees was necessary, yet difficult during the coronavirus pandemic, said Birmingham city council members, as they unanimously passed the ordinance, Tuesday.
With virus infection rates rising, the timing of the ordinance is crucial for state employees and their families, as the December 4 deadline for state health insurance coverage approaches, said Councilman Hunter Williams. Originally a proposed $7 million package, the substituted $4.5 million package will be used to reinstate furloughed employees, unpaid holidays, and unprecedented salary reductions, said Councilman Steven Hoyt.
Hoyt said he voted “yes” for the proposed $4.5 million ordinance but disagreed with the consensus to not stand by the original $7 million plan, since it does not account for the salaries of head staff and other members.
“To have interrupted these peoples’ livelihoods was unnecessary, period,” Hoyt said. “Those heads were told to give up 10% of their salaries. They had no choice. We should honor that $7 million pay and correct what we shouldn’t have done.”
Hoyt requested a report of all the proposed staff to be restored on behalf of the council to ensure that the money was being distributed as discussed.
Suffering since the pandemic lay-offs at the end of August, former library staff have struggled with the council’s budgeting agenda, according to Councilman Clinton Woods, who supported the council’s resolution.
“I have made a point to have conversations with those who have been furloughed,” Woods said. “The human cost for our decisions is troubling. We need to pause and think about those families that might be affected by our decisions in these next several months.”
Abiding by the city’s fund balance policy to maintain its reserves remains a priority, said Councilwoman Valerie Abbot, addressing the city’s credit being downgraded by the bond rating agencies.
“If our meeting with the rating agencies doesn’t go well, and they think we are nuts to restore these people, we need to re-assess what we are doing,” Abbot said. “Two months ago, we had this austere budget approved, which rationalized furloughing employees. Two months later, I don’t believe that everything with our budget is fine.”
The city’s budget might take another big hit soon, as the pandemic is predicted to hit a holiday surge within the next ten days, Councilman John Hilliard said.
“We are on the verge of losing another $65-70 million,” Hilliard said. “We may be put in this position again. I don’t want to see folks without insurance and their livelihood. We need to find long-term solutions.”
As long as the city’s fund balance is maintained, the credit rating will be in good shape, according to Councilman Hunter Williams.
“I’m happy that we have changed what we are asking for in the Cares Act funding from Jefferson county since the guidance has been set to get 100% of public safety payroll reimbursed,” Williams said. “Reallocating $9 million to the city brings us back to a level of funding that [makes us] very secure in terms of our rating.”
The city council needs to focus on long-term solutions for the budget as the third wave of the pandemic is upon us, said Councilwoman Crystal Smitherman.
“We need to remember how the library employees felt when we consider the June 2021 fiscal budget,” Smitherman said. “We will not be able to pull funds from our savings again. I hope that this will give people hope for their livelihood because the unemployment rate is going up every day.”
The city’s fiscal 2020 audit will be discussed at an upcoming committee of the whole meeting, which will be set for some time before Christmas, according to Councilman William Parker.
The next city council meeting will be held at City Hall on Dec. 8 at 9 a.m. and can be attended in person with the observance of social distancing guidelines, or online, at the Birmingham City Council’s Facebook page.