December 28, 2018 10:57:34 AM
Columbus city councilmen lifted the city's "spending freeze on everything" Thursday morning, replacing it with what they hope will be less drastic safeguards to rein in deficit spending.
In a special-call meeting at City Hall, Mayor Robert Smith and the council sought to clarify a vote from Dec. 18 that stemmed from Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens' motion to freeze spending "on everything" for six months. Mickens told The Dispatch after the meeting he meant his motion to apply to all spending outside the scope of the Fiscal Year 2019 budget, and the minutes from that meeting reflected it meant all spending "not previously approved by the board."
The measure was a reaction to the city operating at a near $881,000 deficit in Fiscal Year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, a fact that didn't become clear to councilmen until November.
Smith, on Thursday, argued either interpretation of Mickens' motion was too equivocal and did not provide department heads with the proper guidance for operating day-to-day. Even if there was money in the budget to cover the cost of certain items or supplies, if those aren't specifically budgeted, Smith said the "freeze" could conceivably prohibit those from being purchased.
"The confusion is (Mickens) said 'everything,'" Smith said. "How can you operate from day to day with a freeze?"
Neither Mickens nor Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin attended Thursday's meeting.
Ultimately, the council voted 4-0 to rescind the freeze and instead appoint a five-member committee -- comprised of the mayor, Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong, Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle, Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box and Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones -- to put forth some type of guidelines for, and place extra scrutiny on, spending, even if it is within the existing budget.
"I don't want the public to think we are back like we were -- wide open," Box said during the meeting. " ... (I think this) will allow more discussion with department heads, so, for example, if you have to buy a $5,000 transmission (for a vehicle), there should be some discussion with (the mayor or others on the subcommittee) before it is purchased. ... There may be a way to get it cheaper."
After the meeting, both Box and Smith indicated the scrutiny would apply to cutting out avoidable employee overtime, limiting travel and postponing "big projects" -- such as purchasing property -- when possible.
"We might not have a written freeze, but we will be controlling spending," he said. "We may have to revisit some specific things to be frozen at a later time."
Specifically on travel, councilmen may also be more willing to move approval for certain trips from the consent agenda, where it's passed without discussion, to the policy agenda to facilitate discussion, something for which the council has always had the authority.
By doing that, the council can determine whether the travel is necessary. Smith said in other cases, the council might decide to send one employee to a workshop then require that person to come back and train coworkers. In other cases, there may be opportunities to host workshops rather than have anyone travel.
After Thursday's meeting, Smith said he was wanting to point out unintended consequences for a carte blanche freeze and instead have city officials commit to working within the budget the council already approved.
"My point is we already have the structure in place (the budget)," Smith told The Dispatch. "We just have to adhere to it."
Jones voted for the freeze on Dec. 18, though he predicted the council would have to meet again to clarify it.
"And here we are," he told fellow councilmen on Thursday.
After the meeting, Jones called the exercise a "horse and pony show," saying the city shouldn't have to create extra committees to make sure it adheres to its budget.
"The budget is what you're already supposed to be spending, and if you have a budget, which we do, there are already some funds in there for emergencies and contingencies," he said.
"I guess we were just making sure we were allowed to pay payroll," he added.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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