The Anniston City Council voted Tuesday night to take back $562,278 in federal funds the city had given to the Anniston Housing Authority to build new public housing.
Citing concerns over a federal deadline, council members voted unanimously to reclaim the money. However, they remained in sharp disagreement over Councilman Ben Little’s request to set aside all the reclaimed money for repairs to private residences in the city.
“I walk the wards and I see the need,” Little said.
As of Tuesday, according to city documents, the Housing Authority held $965,274 in unspent funds assigned to it by the city through the Community Development Block Grant and HOME programs, two federal programs that pay for urban redevelopment projects.
The Housing Authority has been planning for years to tear down decades-old public housing projects and replace them with new buildings. Much of the federal money was set aside for those projects. But two of the rebuilding efforts — at the site of the now-demolished Cooper Homes and at Barber Terrace apartments — ran into delays after environmental surveys raised questions about industrial contamination on the sites.
City staff recommended the council take back more than a half-million dollars that the housing authority was likely to lose because it couldn’t be spent by a federal deadline. On recommendation of staff, the city is leaving $403,000 with the housing authority to help secure funding for Barber Terrace and to pay for a refurbished property on Claxton Avenue.
Little, long a critic of the Housing Authority, said the city should take all the federal money back. He recommended that the city spend the money on repairs to individual residents’ homes, something he has recommended in the past. In a work session before the council meeting, Little showed council members a video of Anniston homes with leaking roofs, rotting floors and ceilings sealed with duct tape.
“We need to inject money into programs so we can have contractors come in and do this work,” Little said.
Others on the council said the city shouldn’t commit the money entirely to home repairs. Councilwoman Millie Harris noted that the city ran into problems with CDBG-funded home repairs a decade ago, when substandard work by a contractor wound up costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars to correct.
Councilman Jay Jenkins said the city had already set aside more than half a million dollars for home repairs — money that has gone to nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity and the Right Place, though much of it has yet to be spent.
“We’ve got $585,000 in the bank that we can’t spend fast enough, obviously,” Jenkins said. “It’s still sitting there.”
The housing funds debate was the first conflict of a meeting that quickly grew more contentious. Council members voted 3-2 in favor of a resolution changing the city’s travel policy to limit council members’ travel spending to the amount set aside for each council member in the budget, and to require that city-funded travel be “limited to events where the city derives specific benefits.”
Little claimed the move was an attempt to punish the city’s two black councilmen, himself and Councilman David Reddick, “because we’re black and because we represent black people.”
“They don’t want to see poor people grow,” Little said.
The council has fallen into shouting matches over travel spending in the past. Little overspent his $5,000 travel limit in 2018 and Reddick overspent a $7,000 limit in 2017. No other council members overspent their travel budgets during that time.
“This is just evil,” Reddick said of the travel resolution.
That claim was met with an indignant reaction from the other three council members.
“It’s irresponsible and quite frankly shameful and I wish you would just stop,” Mayor Jack Draper told Reddick.
The council later voted 3-2 to approve an ordinance that would require licensing and tags for dogs and cats in the city. Council members at an earlier meeting seemed to be in agreement over the measure, designed to help the city deal with the cost of strays, but on Tuesday Little and Reddick voted against the measure.
Reddick said the $30 cost for annual registration was too high. Little said too much in the ordinance was left to the discretion of city officials.
Harris said the measure won’t solve the stray pet problem, but will help.
“It won’t happen overnight, but this is a start,” she said.
In other business, the council:
— Approved a liquor license for Happy Hour Comedy Club at 1201 U.S. 431 North.
— Approved a contract with newly hired city manager Steven Folks. Folks, a 24-year city employee before he became acting city manager, will make $130,000 per year under the contract.
— Heard public comment from several residents, including Ralph Bradford, who said he intended to run for the Ward 3 council seat now held by Little. Little has said he won’t seek re-election to the seat but is considering a mayoral run.