August 15, 2013 10:45:54 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
A millage increase is not likely in Columbus next year as city leadership and department heads turned an $860,836.75 deficit into a $34,817.53 surplus after a budget workshop Wednesday.
Cuts in various departments combined with a reduction in debt financing, along with a projected increase in traffic fine revenue because of two new motorcycles being added to the police department's fleet, were what led to the projected surplus in the 2014 budget. However, the surplus may level out with a probable increase in health insurance costs for city employees, Milton Rawle, the city's chief financial officer, said.
Still, city leaders do not forecast a millage increase.
The mill rate is based on "mills"; as each mill is one-thousandth of a currency unit, one mill is equivalent to one-tenth of a cent or $0.001. Property tax in dollar terms is calculated by multiplying the assessed property value and the mill rate and dividing by 1,000. As a property may be subject to tax by a number of different authorities, mill rates are set by each taxing authority so as to meet the revenue projections in their budgets.
During the city's third budget workshop Wednesday, overall expenditures and revenues were also adjusted.
Projected expenditure amounts decreased from $24,468,538.33 at the beginning of the second budget session to $22,889,634.05. Revenues were forecasted at $23,607,701.58 previously. That amount changed to $22,924,451.58.
The largest budget cut went to the Columbus Fire Department. Capital expenditures, including $800,000 to replace Station No. 4, were cut by $865,500, with an additional $40,000 in supplies and contractual services also being removed. That trimmed a $5,581,263.61 operational budget down to $4,676,245.19.
Councilmen voted 4-2 to approve the city's entire financial equipment request rather than vote on each line item. Councilmen Kabir Karriem and Joseph Mickens were in opposition on the vote. The approved requests included a pickup truck and Chevrolet Tahoe for the fire department; five lawnmowers and a combination machine for public works; a drug analysis machine for the crime lab; five Dodge Chargers and two motorcycles for the police department; and a 2013 Tahoe for Mayor Robert Smith.
The total cost of capitalized equipment is $517,570.
Before voting on the financial request, Smith noted that he had put his request for a new vehicle back on the list. He had removed it at the previous budget workshop. He explained that he had been the first mayor since 1961 not to receive a new vehicle when he took office in 2006.
"I just decided then because there was a hardship and the city was in a deficit, they had a 2002 Escalade, and I asked the council instead of purchasing a car...that I would ask the council to put the Escalade as a surplus and I start driving it."
Ward 6 councilman Bill Gavin, who requested the vehicle be removed from the list of equipment purchases in the second session, said he defended Smith and understood he needed a new vehicle. But Gavin said the Tahoe's price tag seemed extravagant.
"I don't disagree at all that you need a vehicle. I guess my big question is why do we need a $45,000 vehicle?" Gavin said. "That's a purchase on the verge of being pretty much a luxury vehicle. Do you actually need all that?"
"I represent the city, right? If you take that 2002 Escalade as a surplus, the Blue Book value ... is between $10,000 and $10,500, so actually we would be paying $35,000," Smith replied. "If I asked for one for $22,000, you'd have a problem with it."
"I'm just saying we're getting a luxury vehicle rather than a common vehicle," Gavin said.
Councilman Marty Turner then made a motion to accept Smith's request.
"I feel like he deserves the vehicle," Turner said. "If he's going to represent the city and council and day-to-day operation, he needs it."
Had there still been a six-figure deficit to work through, councilman Charlie Box said he would have opposed the request as well, but the work done to get the city in the black for 2014 was impressive enough for him to be swayed.
"We've been balancing this budget out of cash every year since I've been here to the tune of $250,000-$300,000," Box said. "It tickles the stew out of me to be able to balance the budget with this $34,000."
The motion passed 5-1, with Gavin representing the only "nay" vote.
The mayor said that in discussions with police chief Selvain McQueen, it was a reasonable goal to increase fines and forfeitures by $190,000 by writing more tickets.
Karriem questioned how the purchase of two motorcycles would directly affect revenue.
"We're basing this on ... hoping (the police department) brings this in," councilman Joseph Mickens added.
"Nothing on this budget is guaranteed," Rawle said. "My personal opinion since I've only been here five months is I have to go with what (McQueen) says right now. He's been here longer than me."
Smith said working a budget up is a "projection number."
"You don't know exactly what you're going to get in the budget," the mayor said.
"What we also have to remember is that's projected of what's going to be written, but what about what's going to be collected?" Karriem said. "You're basing this budget off of projected revenues that we really have no basis of where we get the findings from."
"We've got one officer...who has written $174,000 in tickets. What he's collected, I don't know," chief operations officer David Armstrong said. "We think the sales tax, we probably underbudgeted. I hope we come in a little bit more this year. It's our best estimate. We didn't just pull that out of the air."
Armstrong told councilmen he was pleased with how Rawle was able to adjust the projected budget to keep the city from operating at a deficit without a millage increase.
"For a guy to come in certainly who has a strong financial background coming from the casino industry, but honest to goodness, Milton has picked this up," Armstrong said. "He hit the ground running. He got a hold of this. I'm really impressed with what he's done."
The council will continue with budget hearings Tuesday. At that point representatives of organizations the city appropriates funding to can make their cases for more funding. Projected appropriations for the '14 budget are identical to this year's budget amounts: $1,313,757.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.