By Sam Prickett
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the finances of many cities across the country – but not Mountain Brook.
“The city is in great shape despite the craziest year in its history,” Mayor Stewart Welch said during his State of the City address Feb. 19. “Mountain Brook remains literally the number-one city in the state in terms of its finances. We’re in good shape now, we’re in good shape going forward.”
That wasn’t always a given, he said.
“When COVID hit, our first estimates were that we may end up with a deficit of $1 million or more. As it turns out, instead of a deficit, we actually ended up with a surplus of about $700,000.”
Welch said the city kept operating “in near-flawless fashion” during the pandemic, which he attributed to the work of city department heads and the “unwavering leadership” of the City Council.
“We didn’t always agree 100%, but everybody backed everybody up, came to a consensus, made the very best decisions we could, and I think in the end those decisions were the right decisions,” he said.
He also thanked City Manager Sam Gaston and Assistant City Manager Steve Boone, who also serves as the city’s finance director.
“They have steered this ship in what has been incredibly turbulent waters,” he said.
Welch said he expects Mountain Brook to end 2021 with a surplus, as well.
He added that he’s no longer worried about the city’s $30 million unfunded pension liability, which had been a major concern for his administration.
“During 2020, we did a deep dive and hired a third-party consultant to take a closer look at this,” he said. “After working with them, we are now convinced that this problem will resolve itself over the next 20 or 30 years,” Welch said.
Despite this rosy financial outlook, the city does plan to borrow some money this year.
“This is the first time in a long time,” that the city has borrowed money, Welch said. The loan could be between $3 million and $5 million and would go toward upgrading athletic facilities for Mountain Brook City Schools.
“That’s something that’s long been needed and something that all of us are very interested in being involved with,” Welch said.
Status of City Projects
Welch was joined at the meeting by members of the City Council, who provided updates on other capital projects in the city.
The planned traffic roundabouts in Mountain Brook Village have been delayed, but not because of COVID, said Councilor Virginia Smith. Work on the Jefferson County sewer system, expected to start next year and extend through 2023, has pushed the project back.
The roundabouts have been in the works since 2013, Smith said. Once the project finally starts, it should take a total of 18 months to complete.
She added that the survey of the property involved did not reveal any unmarked graves, which had been a concern for developers; a large, unmarked cemetery lies under the nearby Birmingham Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
“If they found any (bodies), that would have set us back even more, regardless of the sewer problem,” Smith said. “Luckily, they did not find any unmarked graves in the area. All the anomalies were just roots and unmarked debris.”
Work on the nearby Lane Parke, the city’s luxury mixed-use development, is moving much more quickly, despite some COVID-related delays.
“There’s good news to report,” said Councilor Billy Pritchard. “A year ago at this time, phase two of this project was set to begin sometime in May. Of course, we all know what happened in March … . Everything came to an abrupt stop and complete shutdown.”
Now, he said, construction is geared to start in March.
“Hopefully, nothing will slow us down at this point,” Pritchard said. “It’s been a long and arduous project for us to get here due to circumstances beyond anybody’s control.”
Phase two of Lane Parke will add more space for retail and restaurants, as well as a small park. Construction should be completed by late spring of next year.