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Flint, MI– Popcorn popper: $7,200. Caramel cooker: $5,500. Pineapple corer: $680.
Those are just a few of the expenses listed in the North Flint Food Market’s $850,000 budget for equipment that Flint City Council members questioned during their finance committee meeting on March 9.
“Look, I’m not saying that people in the north end don’t deserve a Grand Blanc quality food market. … But some of these things I find a little high,” said Councilwoman Judy Priestley.
For two weeks, the council has been considering a resolution created by Council President Eric Mays to allocate $600,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to the food market to “alleviate major cost increases to the overall grocery store budget due to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated supply chain issues.”
Last year, the city learned that it would be receiving $94.7 million in ARPA funding as part of a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package intended to aid the country in recovering from the pandemic.
During their meeting on March 9, the council voted to postpone the resolution to the next committee meeting in two weeks.
Part of the reason for that delay is that some members don’t want to approve funds to an organization without an application process and an overall budget in place for the ARPA funds.
“I think it would open the city up for litigation if we just start bringing in resolutions on our own without having a proper process in place,” said Councilwoman Eva Worthing. “It’s just not fair to other businesses and nonprofits who want to apply.”
But some members are also questioning some of the items in the food market’s proposed budget. Priestley said she identified more than $200,000 “that may or may not be appropriate for this market.”
“Hey, you know what? The north end deserves good quality food. … But this is public money,” Priestley said. “This is public funds. We have a right to question some of these.”
Councilman Quincy Murphy, who has been a supporter of the resolution in recent weeks, began to question some of the expenses too.
“That is a lot of money,” he said. “When she got to breaking it down … I’m thinking that is a lot of money. It is.”
Arlene Wilborn, the general manager of the food market, came to the council meeting after hearing the discussion online.
“I know some of these people probably don’t understand certain things that should go in the store. But I ran a store,” she said, and proceeded to address some of the specific expenses council members had pointed out.
The budget includes money for two ice flakers–one for the produce section for $9,500 and one for the meat section for $3,800. Priestley said she had never heard of a grocery store having an ice flaker in their produce section, but Wilborn said it was necessary.
“Yes, we need the ice machine because … the produce has to be refrigerated. So you need ice,” Wilborn said. “Now granted, there are stores in our area that don’t have those types of things in their store. But we want more for the residents on the north side.”
As far as the popcorn popper, Wilborn said, “Kids like popcorn.”
“There’s nothing wrong with having a popcorn maker that can make popcorn. Because guess what, guys? We’re trying to make money in this store,” Wilborn said. “This is not a Save-A-Lot.”
Wilborn said the market would be cooking and selling food, so expenses like a rotisserie oven for $10,800, a pizza conveyor oven for $6,500, and a “combi oven” for $23,500 were necessary.
“We have studied this. This is what we need to make a profit in this store,” she said. “It’s not a flea market that we’re opening on the north side of Flint. It is a fully operational grocery store.”
Mays compared the “scrutiny” his colleagues gave to the food market to how they treated the recently approved $1.8 million resolution to replace the water main on Miller Road using ARPA funds.
“Now, we just did a $1.8 million project sponsored by Mr. Pfeiffer. Maybe he looked different from me. I’m sure his voice is different from mine,” Mays said. “But $1.8 million didn’t get the scrutiny of $600,000 for a project for Black folk.”
The council members questioning aspects of the budget said it wasn’t an issue of race.
“We have the right, as fiduciaries in the city, to say, ‘Where do we want to put our dollars?’… It’s not a Black and white issue,” Worthing said. “It is a city issue. It is our duty to ask questions.”
Priestley said she felt she was being a “good public servant” by reviewing the market’s budget.
“I’m watching the pennies. I’m watching the big dollars. Did I say that I wasn’t going to fund this project ever? No,” she said. “Because if the money is available, and they go through the process that is to be determined at a later date, I will probably vote for it. But as of right now, I’m not.”
The council voted 6-3 to send the resolution back to their next finance committee meeting on March 23. Mays, Murphy, Councilwoman Ladel Lewis, Councilwoman Jerri Winfrey-Carter, Councilwoman Tonya Burns, and Councilman Dennis Pfeiffer voted to yes to send the resolution to committee. Priestley, Worthing, and Councilwoman Allie Herkenroder voted no.