ALBANY — The Albany City Commission gave final approval on Thursday to a Fiscal Year 2021-2022 budget at a called meeting that featured a brief flareup between two commission members over the presentation of a video during closing remarks.
The commission approved the $291 spending package by a 5-2 vote, the same margin as a preliminary vote on Tuesday.
A group of residents opposed to the spending of federal COVID-19 relief funds on a sewage project were mostly silent and held up signs during the session, unlike a Tuesday protest that included chants outside the council chambers for a lengthy amount of time.
The group was asking the commission to divert some of the $20 million in anticipated federal funds to be used for community programs to help communities still recovering from the pandemic.
The intent of the money was to fund such efforts, said Michael Harper, who occasionally beat on a drum as he sat in the shade outside the Government Center building on Thursday. That intent was stated by President Biden, said Harper, who also was outside with his drum during the Tuesday meeting.
The American Rescue Plan approved earlier this year is a one-time shot at providing COVID relief to residents in the city that at one time had one of the highest rates of infection and deaths in the world, the lifetime Albany resident said during an interview after the meeting. Poverty and teen pregnancy, as well as the impact of the pandemic that saw some people lose their homes when a family member died, are problems he identified in the community.
The budget includes $10 million, the first installment from the legislation, to pay for part of the stormwater/sewage separation project for the budget year beginning July 1. The first year of the more than $200 million project will cost about $16 million, and the balance budgeted will come from state funding and special-purpose local-option sales tax funds.
“There is not going to be another $20 million coming to Albany ever for COVID relief,” Harper said. “There’s going to always be money coming down for the sewer.
“What is sad, you’ve got $20 million coming down here and they’re not going to spend one cent (on COVID relief). They are spending zero on non-sewage stuff. They decided zero; we’re spending no money helping the people who have been suffering for so long.”
Harper said Tuesday’s reaction by the group protesting the decision was one of frustration, as commissioners did not respond to their pleas made during previous budget meetings and work sessions.
“We were just a small voice,” he said. “We were a peaceful group.”
Protesters at times banged on the windows outside and chanted for the removal of Commissioners Matt Fuller, B.J. Fletcher, Bob Langstaff and Chad Warbington and Mayor Bo Dorough. The chants made it difficult for those inside to hear speakers for the remaining 20 minutes or so of the meeting.
The group protested legally, with no arrests or property damage, Harper said of the Tuesday disturbance, and before leaving they cleaned up the area where they had gathered.
Inside, Commissioner Demetrius Young and Warbington clashed over whether Young should be allowed to present a video during his speaking time on the budget.
The two argued over the issue, with both speaking at once into their microphones until Dorough banged his gavel to restore order. After hearing from Young that the video was about two minutes in length, the mayor allowed it to be shown.
“I don’t care if it’s 30 seconds,” said Warbington, who argued that commissioners’ presentations should be limited to their speech and not include media presentations.
Not allowing the presentation would have amounted to “(making) up the rules as you go along,” responded Young, who had requested on Tuesday that 20 residents be allowed to speak for two minutes each prior to the vote. “That’s why we’re stuck in this mode. You don’t want to hear other people. You don’t want to hear from the citizens.”
Young and Commissioner Jon Howard again voted against approving the budget, as they had on Tuesday.
The video, which ran about seven minutes, consisted of comments from a spokesman for recently elected U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. In it, the spokesman urged leaders to carefully consider how they spend COVID relief funds and to take time making decisions on their use.