Karl Douglass: Buddy, can you spare $2M?

November 2, 2013 

Does anyone have $2,000,000 lying around? If so, let the City of Columbus know. They could use it right now.

Actually, the city would not need the additional $2,000,000 until July 1, 2014, but you get the point. The mayor has proposed raising healthcare premiums for government employees to balance the next fiscal year's budget. The employees are pushing back, saying that the proposed increase in premiums is an unfair burden for them to bear. The mayor has responded that the only other option is to severely cut services and lay off employees. Regardless of with whom you agree, the need for the city to find $2,000,000 is real and it must be addressed.

If this all sounds familiar, that's because it is. We just went through the same exercise with the Muscogee County School District. The District needed to find about $13 million to balance its budget this fiscal year. The goal was achieved through a combination of school closings, increasing class sizes and leaving about 40 teaching positions unfunded. None of the decisions were pleasant, but the School District could not commit to spending money it did not have.

The city cannot spend money it doesn't have, either.

So the stark reality of a $2,000,000 budget shortfall will force the mayor, city manager and city council to make some tough decisions. Raising healthcare premiums is an answer, but it may not be the best answer. Maybe cutting city subsidies to "Quality of Life" assets is a better idea. Perhaps it's time to rethink direct cash payments to community improvement non-profits. Or maybe we could finally revisit the conversation of twice-a-week garbage pickup.

Years ago, I had a friend who loved to paraphrase Isaiah 11:6. The verse reads, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together." My friend would always make a point to say that this could happen only if all the animals were full. "If anyone is hungry," she would say, "somebody is going to get eaten."

Based on the past week's conversations about the city's $2,000,000 shortfall, it is clear that not everyone is full. Some folks are hungry. So the essential question as budget talks begin in earnest is who, or what, is in danger of getting eaten. We should all remember that, sometimes, the most obvious prey does not offer the best meal.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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