Our view: Budget restraint: Talk is cheap

August 2, 2013 10:08:45 AM



The mayor and city council held their first budget workshop Thursday and while it would be premature to reach any conclusions based on what is essentially a preliminary plan, the discussions do provide some insight into how Mayor Robert Smith and the council view the fiscal health of the city. 


What readers will quickly note is that the disparity between what city officials believe they absolutely have to have and what they would like to have. While it is unlikely that even city officials expect to get everything on that latter list, it will be interesting to see how far they push for items beyond what is considered to be basic needs. 


The budget that covers only the basic needs would come in about $1.2 million under projected revenues. The "wish list" would put the city $470,670 over next year's projecvted revenues. 


If the city is to maintain its current millage rate of 40.13 -- which is roughly twice as high as the rate in Starkville, which has a comparable population -- the city will have to cut about a half-million bucks off its wish list. We would not object to cutting more than that, although asking city leaders to save money is like asking a crack addict to save some dope for next week. It ain't gonna happen. 


Given that, we strongly suggest that the city at least trim their wish list down by the requisite $500,000. 


It could start with the mayor's $45,000 request for a new truck. 


Currently, Smith drives a 2001 Escalade that was seized in a drug bust, so it is not unreasonable to suggest the mayor will someday need to replace the 12-year-old vehicle. Even so, Smith would do well to try to squeeze another year or two out of that Escalade in the spirit of fiscal restraint. Certainly, he isn't the only Columbus resident out there riding around in a 12-year-old vehicle. There are a lot of taxpayers who are driving 2001 models that are decidedly less comfortable than the mayor's Escalade, after all.  


But even if the mayor insists on a new ride, it seems likely that a serviceable vehicle could be found for far less than $45,000. Maybe it's time to down-size.  


Of course, an even better option would be to find a drug dealer with really good taste in automobiles. That would be a win-win for the city. 


Certainly, the mayor's city-funded transportation is not the only item on the budget that warrants closer scrutiny.  


Another item of note from the budget talks was a plan to reduce the budget for engineer services from $150,000 to $60,000, a move that came in the wake of the city's decision to create the new position of Project Manager. In making the case for the new position, which went to the J5 Broaddus firm operated by Jabari Edwards, the mayor's campaign manager, the council argued that the project manager would oversee the city's projects, making sure that the city's projects were done efficiently and within budget. 


The budget shows the math behind that addition. The $90,000 annual pay provided to J5 Broaddus would be deducted from the original $150,000 budget, which is where you come up with the $60,000 budget for engineering services. It's not quite as tidy as that, however, since J5 Broaddus will receive six percent of the project costs, along with unspecified expenses. 


You have to wonder at the wisdom of the plan, though. Since J5 Broaddus, by its own admission, is not an engineering firm, the city is spending 60 percent of its previous engineering budget on what is, essentially, administrative costs. That would be considered scandalous in almost any business scenario. 


City officials are quick to say they favor fiscal restraint and want government to be run with great efficiency. 


Often, however, their posture during budget talks suggests something far different. 


Residents generally understand that it requires money to provide the services we need and are willing to pay taxes to provide those funds. 


But it is less agreeable for residents to pay the tab when there is some reason to believe that a lot of those tax dollars are going to support a bloated bureaucracy or equip officials with all the bells and whistles. 


After all, taxpayers have a wish list, too.