Mayor, council trade pleasantries, barbs

Published 2:22 pm Wednesday, January 23, 2019

For the first time in a couple of months, Selma Mayor Darrio Melton attended the City Council meeting Tuesday in what became a marathon session, with the council not even taking up scheduled business items until after the three-hour mark.

Among the 17 items the mayor brought before the council were his intention to acknowledge Dallas County Probate Judge Jimmy Nunn, who served as the city’s attorney for nearly two decades, and Larry Friday, who is slated to retire soon from his post as Director of Selma-Dallas County Environmental Services.

Wasting little time, Melton launched into a discussion regarding the need for a 5-cent increase in the city’s gas tax – the mayor did not call for the council to take up the initiative Tuesday, instead urging it to go before the Public Works Committee to be discussed.

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According to Melton, a statewide hike in the gas tax will be the first item on the state legislature’s agenda when it convenes in March – for that reason, the mayor is hoping that the council will vote on the local tax before the legislature is able to take up the statewide measure.

Fearing that the state’s legislation will prohibit municipalities from raising their own gas taxes, Melton would like for the local tax increase to pass to ensure that Selma receives its “fair share” of any revenue collected.

The revenue would be earmarked for infrastructure and would raise as much as $1.5 million annually for the city, according to Melton.

“We have to do something to make sure we get our fair share of the pie,” Melton said.

After a brief exchange with Councilwoman Miah Jackson, who advised that the city should correspond with the county before enacting a gas tax increase that would have Selma residents paying at least 15-cents in taxes after the state’s increase takes effect, on top of the 4-cent local tax already being paid by Selma drivers, Melton introduced the city’s new attorney, Woodruff Jones.

Jones was appointed by the mayor as a part-time employee of the city, receiving $200 an hour but no more than $69,000.

Jones stated that he would have preferred a contract, which would have allowed for the city to utilize his entire firm and require the council’s approval, thereby making the process seem less muddy, but Councilman John Leashore supported the part-time appointment.

Melton also brought forth the recommendation that the council review business license fees to bring it closer to the rates imposed by cities of a similar size and look into public building fees to consider if they should be raised.

The mayor also urged the council to consider raising cemetery fees, such as burial fees and plot costs, and floated the idea of selling excess city property to generate more revenue.

The mayor also updated the council on a number of ongoing projects, including the bidding process for the Dallas Academy building and plans to install new air conditioning units in the Smitherman building and a drainage project in Ward 2, slated to begin in March and be completed by June.

The meeting continued in this manner, with the mayor making recommendations to the council and council members briefly asking for details on specific efforts, until Councilman Sam Randolph broached the subject of tax revenues during Melton’s report on savings resulting from the November lay-offs.

According to Randolph, sales and ad valorem tax revenues amounted to more than $3 million, but the mayor said only $900,000 of that was reserved for the city. This prompted Randolph to accuse the mayor of attempting to hide details of the city’s financial situation and asking for Melton to provide the current status of the city’s bank account.

“I fully trust the people that work in the finance department,” Melton said. “I’m giving you everything I get from the finance department.”

Randolph asserted that Ronita Wade, the city treasurer currently on administrative leave, was the only person he trusted to provide the council with a full picture of the city’s financial situation.

Melton stated that even Wade had urged previous administrations to raise the city’s sales tax.

“This is nothing new,” Melton said. This didn’t happen overnight.”

When the mayor noted the ongoing investigation into Wade’s actions by the Alabama Attorney General, Randolph stated that the mayor’s “fake chief” had handed over information to the AG to prompt an investigation into Wade.

Eventually, the two agreed to have a conversation later in the week to discuss their differences.

“I’m a firm believer in working together,” said Jannie Thomas after the exchange. “If the city plans on moving forward…all of us should know about it.”

“I can do things better,” Melton said. “What we’ve been doing in the past isn’t working.”

Jackson then addressed the mayor again, noting that her request for updates on daily deposits had not been taken up and multiple emails she had sent to Melton regarding financial issues had not been responded to.

Jackson also noted that the council had voted to require all payments in excess of $5,000 to go through the council – when Melton said he never received an update on that decision, Jackson claimed that he was at the meeting in which the decision was made and had even made a comment that the council was tying his hands.

Melton and Jackson also had a heated exchange regarding the positions that the council had voted to defund – the mayor asked which positions and then asserted that the council “can’t touch” department heads beyond those laid out in the recent court case.

“It’s quite clear, based on the law, that we can defund any position based on budgetary concerns,” Jackson said.

Later in the meeting, when Jackson motioned to require the mayor to submit a list of all city employees and their titles and salaries, the mayor claimed he could not do so because the position of Human Resources Director had been defunded.

“Mayor, I think you’re being disingenuous and just don’t want to give us this information,” Jackson responded.

The issue of an earlier 5-cent sales tax was brought up and Melton asserted that the money had not be earmarked – Council President Corey Bowie disagreed, noting that the funds had been spent on equipment for the police department and other “capital improvement” efforts.

Melton also took the council to task over its proposed $17 million budget, which he claimed would not enter into the system because it was unbalanced.

“We were doing it just based on information that somebody could whisper to us,” Jackson said.

Jackson noted that the mayor’s own budget, which the council rejected, was drafted on the premise that there would be $22 million available.