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City faces $500K budget shortfall


Nathan Gregory



The city will likely have to dip into its reserve fund to balance next year's budget. 


City councilmen held a special meeting for the second time in as many weeks Wednesday to discuss and revise the budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year.  


Last week, councilmen were presented with a budget that had $25,696,975 in expenditures and $23,677,947 in revenues -- a projected deficit of more than $2 million. That proposed budget included a 3-percent raise for all city employees while raising the entry-level pay to $10 per hour. The budget also cut seven positions from the police department and three positions from the fire department, along with other cost reductions to get the projected budget shortfall down to $410,581. 


Between then and Wednesday, department heads had one more chance to meet with city officials to request more employee raises, most of which were approved either by a majority of councilmen or Mayor Robert Smith breaking ties in favor of the department heads' requests during Wednesday's meeting. How much those increases will affect the projected deficit for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, will be clearer the next time the council holds a special meeting to further refine the budget. A date for that meeting has not been announced. 


More time was spent, however, on discussing the grim financial outlook the city is facing. 




'Not a good situation'  


City chief operations officer David Armstrong noted that the city's declining property values, exacerbated by the recent exodus of industries including Sanderson Plumbing and Omnova, have meant less money in the city's coffers each year.  


"It's not a good situation," Armstrong said. "Since the 2009-10 budget, the city has lost $12,000 in the value of a mill. That's the reality we're in. When I came here eight years ago, we didn't have any reserve and we worked to build that up. I think more than a spending problem, we have a revenue problem. We just don't have the revenue to do what a progressive city has to do. We've got to give raises. We've got to buy new equipment. There are things we have to do. If we continue on this trend, in three to five years, it's not going to be a pretty picture." 


Armstrong noted that, while it would not be a popular decision among residents, a millage increase would be needed to make up the shortfall and keep the city from heading toward a path of deficit spending.  


"If we raise two mills, that would give us $334,000 this year," Armstrong said. "We should have raised mills in my time here at least twice, but we haven't done it. Nobody wants to pay more taxes and I don't either, but we've got to function. If we're in a declining economy, which we're in, there just are not a whole lot of options out there." 


Councilman Bill Gavin noted that the 3-percent cost of living increase for all employees was permanent, meaning the council would be facing the same problem next year of balancing the budget if the city continues to operate with the revenue it receives now.  


"I would love to give every employee in this city a raise because they darn well deserve it ... but you're taking about $400,000 out of your checkbook right now," Gavin said. "What about next year? Where does the money come from next year? What if we apply for grants and they have a 20 percent match to them? Where does the money come to fund those grants?" 


Armstrong noted that in recent years, the city goes over its budget because it cuts department budgets for police, fire, public works and other services so much that they inevitably spend more than what was given them. 


"If we're showing the citizens of this city that we're trying to be frugal and conservative with their money, then maybe a tax increase or millage increase is appropriate," Gavin said. 


Chief financial officer Milton Rawle added that in his previous experience in private industry, the first option considered in balancing a complex budget was to evaluate personnel numbers. 


"Next year, if things don't get better, we're going to be right back in this boat and maybe even worse," Rawle said. "In my experience, current personnel would have been the first ones to get cut to get this down, and here, that wasn't an option. In private industry, we would have went personnel right off the top. Whoever is left has got to pick it up." 


Councilman Kabir Karriem asked Rawle why that wasn't brought up last week, saying he was saying something "totally different" from what was recommended last week. 


"Last Wednesday, I didn't see a need to do that," Rawle said. "In the future, if it stays as is or gets worse, we're going to have to look at more drastic options. We can get away with it this year, but I'm just saying after this, if things don't improve, we're going down that road." 


Armstrong reminded the council that the idea of privatizing a city department was brought before the council when he became chief operations officer in 2006, but the votes weren't there to do so. 


"Why don't we recommend cutting 30 people? Because this is not private industry," Armstrong said. "This is government, and it's not that simple to do that. I think that's a terrible option when we've got other options. I know you don't want to raise millage, but if we don't do that, we are going to get into a deficit spending situation." 


Gavin said the city should evaluate how much money is spent on travel before Smith redirected the conversation back to department cuts, saying that only so much can be cut from each department before they can no longer adequately provide services to citizens. 


"We can sit up here and beat around the bush all we want to," Smith said. "Who would be willing to raise the millage more than we already have? When you talk about privatization, the number one department you look at ... you're talking about the public works department. So who is willing to vote to privatize the public works department?" 


Gavin then said the city could re-evaluate how much money privatizing public works could save each year before making a motion to study the matter. Councilman Joseph Mickens then said there was "nothing wrong with looking at it" before councilman Gene Taylor spoke out against the idea. 


"It's not a guarantee that whatever company picks this up and runs with it is going to keep these people that are here," Taylor said. "It's not going to be guaranteed that they're going to have any medical or any benefits, period. These are people that have been here 10 and 15 years and dependent on us to see after them, but we're going to turn around and throw them into the woods." 


Councilman Charlie Box noted the city "ought to be looking at everything" facing its deficit next year. 


"If we don't do a better job of managing this budget and getting this spending under control, there's a lot of people that are going to be gone," Box said. "I'd be willing to vote today to raise the millage, as much as I'm against it, if we would cut some more out of that budget." 


The vote on having the privatization study conducted was a tie with Gavin, Box and Mickens in favor. Taylor, Karriem and Marty Turner voted against it. Smith broke the tie against the study. 




More raises 


Before the discussion on the city's financial woes, public works department head Casey Bush requested raises for four employees in his department, including one for himself.  


Among the requests were for a tree cutter to be paid $11 an hour instead of $10, one operator to receive $14 hourly instead of the $12.94 he receives now and another operator's pay to be bumped from $10.11 to $13 an hour. He also asked for a $3,000 salary increase from $51,000 to $54,000 a year that councilmen were originally supposed to consider upon the six-month anniversary of his promotion to the position.  


A vote to approve the raises ended in a 3-3 tie with Turner, Taylor and Mickens in favor. Councilmen Box, Gavin and Karriem opposed the requests. Smith broke the tie in favor of Bush's requests. 


Fire Chief Martin Andrews requested raises for two employees, including one for fire accreditation officer Mike Chandler after the department received national accreditation. Taylor's motion to approve Andrews' request died without a second. 


City garage director Glenn White asked for three diesel mechanic positions to be raised to $15.50 an hour and provide a $1 pay bump to a small engine mechanic from $13 to $14 an hour. His request ended in another tie vote with Taylor, Turner and Mickens in favor and Box, Karriem and Gavin against. Smith once again broke the tie supporting the raises. 


Columbus Police Chief Tony Carleton proposed eliminating the drug chemist position an employee recently vacated and raising the salaries of two current crime lab employees, including director Austin Shepherd, to absorb the duties. Doing so would cut costs by $24,000, Carleton said. A vote to approve Carleton's request was unanimously in favor. 


Part-time court bailiff Grady James' hourly wage was bumped from $11.16 to $14.50 an hour in a 4-2 vote. Turner and Karriem opposed. 


Finally, Frank Goodman, director head of the Trotter Convention Center, received a $2,500 raise. Smith praised Goodman for his work and fiscal responsibility during his run. 


"I don't think you'd find a department head that has been more conservative than Mr. Goodman," Smith said.  


Goodman was then asked if he was about to retire and said he would do so next year. Councilmen approved Smith's request for Goodman's raise in a 5-1 vote with only Karriem in opposition.


Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.



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