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COVID-19 didn't dent Anniston revenue — but wait 'til next year

Lobby vs roof

Discussion during an Anniston City Council meeting Tuesday brought up the contrast between institutional fundraising for utilitarian goals vs aesthetic goals. Case in point, the Anniston Museum of Natural History, where its then-new lobby is shown in October 2018. Now the building needs a new roof.

Sales tax revenues for Anniston are up so far this year, despite the COVID-19 shutdown, thanks largely to increased business at big-box retailers, city officials said Tuesday.

There's still a lot of worry about 2021, though, because no one knows when the pandemic will end.

“We are more concerned about 2021 than we are about 2020,” City Manager Steven Folks said.

Folks and city financial officer Julie Borrelli presented the Anniston City Council with some of their plans for fiscal 2021 in the first of three planned budget hearings, held Tuesday at the Anniston City Meeting Center.

Early in the pandemic, city officials had warned of severe belt-tightening that might be necessary as COVID-19 slowed down the economy. The statewide stay-home order that was in place in April was devastating for some stores and restaurants, though forgivable federal loans may have blunted the blow. Less business, the theory went, would mean fewer sales to shore up the city's roughly $40 million budget.

Borrelli on Tuesday said the city is actually on track to see a 4 percent increase in revenue, compared to 2019. The city lost lodging tax and sales tax from small businesses, Borelli said, but the surge in business at big-box retailers such as Lowe's and Walmart made up for it.

The fiscal year begins in October, which means some of this year's revenue likely rolled in during pre-pandemic flush times. The council has until Sept. 27 to pass a budget for 2021.

That could be a tall order. The budget process always begins with an estimate of how much money the city expects to bring in next year. With COVID-19 now surging locally and the possibility of a future shutdown not entirely unthinkable, city staff are reluctant to make those projections.

Borrelli took what she described as a conservative path. The city plans to increase its spending in the rest of the year by just 1.5 percent, bringing total spending up to around $40.5 million. The proposed 2021 budget assumes the city will bring in about the same next year.

“It's hard to do anything else because you don't know what's going to happen,” Borrelli said. 

City Councilman David Reddick said the city should be ready for some of the big-box boost to go away. Some people used the shutdown to finish long-delayed home improvement projects, he said, increasing spending at Lowe's.

“Once COVID is over I can see Lowe's flattening for a while,” he said.

Borelli and Folks on Tuesday proposed spending some of the unexpected 2020 revenue to fix the roof on the Anniston Museum of Natural History. Museum director Alan Robison said the museum was last re-roofed about 25 years ago, with a roof that is normally expected to last about 20 years.

The museum, built around the bird collection of a 19th century naturalist, now contains animal specimens from around the world in dioramas, as well as Egyptian mummies, among other items.

“If we don't repair the roof, we stand the possibility of losing what's in the museum,” Folks said.

Robison said the project will likely cost about $500,000. Reddick said he was concerned that the city hadn't made plans in earlier years to set aside money for the repair. He asked how much the museum spent on its recent lobby renovation.

Robison said $350,000 to $400,000, though the money was from donors and not the city's general fund.

“It's like buying a new car when the roof is gone on your house,” Reddick said. He asked why the city couldn't raise money for a new roof.

“You can't get donations to get a roof,” replied Councilman Jay Jenkins. He said a new lobby was more appealing to donors.

Council members don't have to make a decision on the budget immediately. It won't come before them in a regular meeting until mid-August. Budget hearings will continue Wednesday and Thursday, however.

The Police Department is among the agencies up for discussion Wednesday. The city's airport will be among the topics discussed Thursday, Borrelli said. 

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.