By Cady Inabinett
Debate has erupted in recent Montevallo City Council meetings over a Montevallo Development Cooperative District project funding the renovation of the historic Sims House located on Montevallo’s campus.
Both citizens and council members speaking against the project.
The debate has also led to discussions about how the MDCD approves projects, as well as leading to the resignation of city representative of MDCD, Denise Woodham.
The Sims House project was approved by MDCD in February of 2020 with a budget of $125,000 for renovations.
These renovations will allow the University to house the Community Counseling Clinic in the building located on Middle Street.
The clinic, which is run by the Graduate Counseling Department, “provides free mental health care to those in the surrounding communities who cannot afford it.”
The clinic also acts as, “a training ground where counseling students, under the supervision of counseling faculty, gain valuable experience working with clients.” The clinic currently operates for only two afternoons a week and is housed in a shared space in the Wallace Speech and Hearing Center.
Relocating to the Sims House would allow the clinic to expand its services to four days a week, as well as house new facilities such as spaces for individual and group counseling and child-play therapy, in addition to, “instructional space and premier technologies for telehealth counseling services in rural communities.”
Clientele is also expected to increase, and enrollment in the counseling master’s program will expand “from 95 to 120 students.”
MDCD cites rising concerns “regarding mental health and wellness” as one of the main factors driving this project, saying, “We are seeing an intensification in these concerns given the challenges associated with COVID-19, including social isolation, depression, and anxiety.”
MCDD’s project proposal went on to say that, “The renovation of the Sims House is a durable solution to serving the citizens of Montevallo and surrounding communities who are in crisis, but may lack the funds to seek privatized care,” as well as saying that the partnership between the University and the city “has the potential to serve as a durable model for sustained social services in that they are offered in the context of academic and clinical preparation at no additional cost to the city.”
However, some believe that offering free counseling services would hurt the business of licensed counselors in the area.
These concerns were brought up by Robert Hurt at a city council meeting on March 8, with Hurt saying that going forward with the Sims House project would “hurt me and many other people, colleagues of mine,” as well as saying, “those of us who have professional licenses in this town and the surrounding area do not want to have to compete against Montevallo.”
No information about Hurt’s practice has been able to be found, and The Alabamian has been unable to contact him for comment.
Later at the March 8 council meeting, council member Martha Eisenberg spoke against funding the project as well, saying “the city of Montevallo needs to concentrate on getting our house in order” before providing funding for a project on the University’s campus.
Eisenberg’s argument mostly focused on the fact that the city would receive “no tax revenue from this venture,” as the city does not currently receive funds from the University.
These two objections to the funding of the Sims House project led to a larger discussion at the March 8 meeting about how MDCD approves funding for projects, with Mayor Rusty Nix saying at the meeting that MDCD does not have to seek approval from the council in order to enter a project.
Nix suggested that the council could “get with our legal counsel” to determine how to change the approval project for MDCD projects.
Several other council members spoke in favor of changing the approval process, with member Sonya Swords saying she believes there should be “there should be some checks and balances put in place,” and member David King saying he believes that the council should “have some influence on how that tax revenue is spent.”
Changing the approval process would not stop the Sims House project from moving forward.
Following comments made at this meeting, City Representative to MDCD, Denise Woodham resigned.
In a letter to the city council, Woodham said that the council “made many incorrect statements” about MDCD and that she was “offended both by the tone and what felt to be a personal attack on me.”
Woodham also went on to say that she “reached out to the Mayor and each council member, repeatedly, regarding all of the operations of MDCD, most recently regarding the funding of the Sims House,” but, “never had the courtesy of a single reply, with the exception of Kenny Dukes.”
At the March 22 council meeting, the council appointed council member Swords to replace Woodham as the city representative to MDCD.
When asked to comment on the current relationship between the city council and MDCD, Swords said, “I feel that the MDCD is a great organization who have assisted with and completed a number of important projects throughout the City of Montevallo. They have been instrumental in forming relationships across the city, county and university to complete projects together.”
She added that, “While the MDCD members have always worked well with city representatives it seems that council approval should be added to the mix. We hope to continue with the positive momentum that has already been created.”