Anniston received good news about its struggling police and fire pension plan Thursday, city budget officer Cory Salley said.
Speaking to a crowd of Ward 4 residents in a meeting at the Norwood Hodges Community Center Thursday night, Salley said city officials learned earlier in the day that the unfunded liability on the pension plan dropped from nearly $80 million in 2018 to $45 million today.
“Forty-five million is still a large liability out there, but it keeps coming down,” Salley said.
Even multi-million-dollar sums aren’t typically enough to make pension talk interesting to most audiences, but the ward meeting — part of a series of ward-by-ward town halls held by city officials — wasn’t your typical meet-and-greet.
The city in recent weeks has hotly debated a proposal to allow Ward 4 and surrounding neighborhoods to secede from the city. Critics described the proposal as racially divisive — Anniston is majority-black and Ward 4 is majority-white — and said it would in effect cut the city in half. Hundreds turned out for public hearings on the deannexation proposal last week; most spoke against it. By Monday, the secession move seemed stalled, with key backers of the deannexation in disagreement about whether to move forward.
The city’s pension plan became a battlefield in that debate. Opponents of deannexation said Ward 4’s departure would cause the pension plan to go broke. Proponents said the pension was destined for trouble anyway. The city fell behind in funding the plan with the stock market crash of 2008, and has been playing catch-up ever since.
At Thursday’s meeting, Salley said the city has reduced benefits, asked police and firefighters to pay more, and has increased its own contribution to the plan, which he said now takes up about 10 percent of the city’s general fund.
The big drop in unfunded liability came, he said, because the city has been on that track long enough that the city’s actuaries were able to recalculate what’s owed.
“As long as the mayor and the council remain to pay that contribution, the fund is safe,” he said.
Salley spoke to an audience of about 35 people — a far smaller crowd than the standing-room-only group at last week’s deannexation hearing. No one in the crowd challenged Salley’s numbers, and none mentioned deannexation. Leaf and brush collection seemed to be the most uncomfortable subject at the meeting.
“I’m the leaf guy,” public works director David Arnett said sheepishly, introducing himself to the crowd. Arnett explained the schedule for pickup, explaining that if the city picks up brush on one side of a residential road, workers will return in two weeks to get the other side. He and other city officials alluded to leaves as a major source of public complaints.
But no one at the meeting actually complained about that.
“I’ve lived in a lot of places, and this is the first place I’ve lived where they came around and conscientiously picked up the leaves and the brush,” Ward 4 resident Jim Williams told the crowd.
One audience member said she believed Noble Street should be reworked, to do away with the downtown medians that, in her words, turn Noble into a pair of one-way streets. City Manager Steven Folks said the city was working on changes to the downtown medians, changes he said were driven by safety concerns.
Ward 4 is the third ward to have a meeting of this sort this year, and city officials have said they want to make the meetings regular practice. One reason for the meetings, he said, is counteract negative and false stories on social media. He said the best option for people with complaints is to contact the city directly. City officials, he said, often can’t address complaints from social media commenters because they can’t locate them.
“If you’re just ‘P.R. from Alabama,’ I don’t know who that is,” Folks said.
Ward 4 Councilwoman Millie Harris asked city officials to address a question she’d seen making the social media rounds in the past week. The City Council this week considered accepting a donated building on Leighton Avenue for use as a homeless shelter, a move some of the proposed shelter’s neighbors proposed.
“I keep hearing people say, Well, why don’t they just use one of those buildings on empty buildings on McClellan for the homeless?” Harris said. She invited Julie Moss, director of the McClellan Development Authority, to answer.
Moss said all of those buildings — even ones that seem to be unused — are in the hands of new owners or renters.
“All those buildings are leased or have already been sold,” she said.