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The belt tightens

City of Anniston could lose 10 percent of revenue to COVID-19

Anniston’s city government could lose up to 10 percent of its expected revenue this year due to coronavirus, finance director Julie Borrelli said Tuesday.

Closure of local businesses is driving sales tax revenue down, Borrelli told members of the Anniston City Council at the City Meeting Center. 

“Two months of closure, where we are now, is going to cost us $1.25 million a month,” Borrelli said. 

The council held its regular meeting Tuesday, albeit with signs of the coronavirus pandemic everywhere. Council members sat widely spaced on the dais in the meeting center’s main hall, rather than in side rooms before a crowd of dozens. A handful of city staff and a single reporter were in attendance.

Concerns about spread of the virus has shuttered or slowed nearly every business in town, and Borrelli said the slowdown is likely to take a large bite out of the city’s typical $39 million in annual revenue. Much of the city’s money comes from sales taxes. 

Museums and community centers are losing business at a peak time for school tours and event reservations, she said. 

The few commercial bright spots come from Walmart and from Lowe’s hardware store, where business seems to have picked up during the crisis, Borrelli said. 

The crisis has increased the city’s operating costs, Borrelli said. Fire  and police departments are spending tens of thousands of dollars more than usual on personal protective equipment. Overtime for those departments is up, she said. Even the public works department expects to see an increase, as people stuck at home generate more garbage in need of collection. 

City staff have discussed layoffs of part-time city workers, cuts to training and travel and postponement of projects as cost-cutting measures, Borrelli said. 

Council members didn’t debate potential cuts on Tuesday. In fact, much of the talk was about how to spend city money to help local businesses survive the crisis. 

“We’re going to have to look outside the box,” Mayor Jack Draper said. He noted that last month Birmingham set aside $1 million from its general fund for small business loans, and he said the council may want to consider a similar solution.

On Tuesday, though, the council rejected all the largest spending items on a short meeting agenda. Council members voted 3-2 to table a proposal by Councilman Ben Little to give $50,000 in new revenue from the gas company Spire to schools, with half going to Anniston’s city system and half to be split between the three private schools in the city. 

“I believe that this is a great idea,” said Councilwoman Millie Harris. “But I believe that at this time we do not need to spend money that is not absolutely necessary.”

Draper said he wasn’t sure the city could legally give money to the private schools. 

Little countered that schools need money precisely because of the economic downturn. 

“Businesses will be getting extra funds from us,” he noted, saying schools should be treated the same way. 

The council also voted down a proposal to give $266,000 in federal HOME grant funds to the firm Thomas May and Associates for a proposed housing development on 19th Street and Cooper Avenue. Opponents of the proposal said the firm’s plans didn’t contain enough detail about how the project would be done. 

“The design drawings they’ve submitted do not match the site,” Councilman Jay Jenkins said. 

Councilman David Reddick said the council had as much information about the Cooper project as they had about a project in Alexandria the council approved earlier this year. The developers later backed out of that project. 

“This is an opportunity to do something in my district,” Reddick said.

In other business, the council:

— Tabled a motion to reappoint Jenkins and George Crawford to the city’s Health Care Authority board. Little called for the council to consider new nominations because of a lack of Ward 3 residents on the board. The council has until May 31 to make appointments to the board. 

— Approved the nomination of Timothy Kerper and Patrick Wigley to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. 

— Canceled a public hearing on nuisance properties that was initially on the council’s agenda. Draper said public hearings are postponed for the duration of the council’s state of emergency due to coronavirus. 

 

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