Final 'Let's talk!' with mayor focuses on $6.5 million deficit

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 12, 2013 

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.

JOE PAULL — jpaull@ledger-enquirer.com

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson's final quarterly public forum of the year drew more than 100 people to Solid Rock Assembly of God Church in Midland, and the city's budget was the most popular topic of discussion.

Residents posed questions about how the city might address its projected $6.5 million deficit this fiscal year. Some talked about pension reform and tighter controls, while others sought city funding for worthy local causes. One said that since churches pay no property taxes but still get city services, they should be assessed a flat fee for those services.

Bob Hutchinson said most private-sector companies have done away with traditional pensions in favor of 401(k) retirement plans, and maybe the city should consider doing the same.

"Sometimes you have to give people half a cup," he said.

Tomlinson said the city addressed pension reform last year, changing a program that employees paid nothing into to one which current employees pay 4 percent of their pay into the plan and future employees will pay 8 percent.

David Smith asked Tomlinson why -- when the city has been spending more than it's taking in for six years -- did the city build a new Citizen Service Center and aquatic center.

"I'm trying to understand why we would build buildings such as the natatorium when we knew, according to the Ledger-Enquirer, it was going to run a million-dollar deficit?" Smith asked.

Tomlinson explained that the money to build the municipal complex on Macon Road came from a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, in which the projects were specifically outlined in the campaign for the SPLOST. So when it was approved, the city had no legal option other than to spend the money on those projects, she said.

"We're legally prohibited from using that money for any other purpose," Tomlinson said.

Kim Prescott works for a nonprofit that, among other things, provides Meals on Wheels to local low-income senior citizens. Federal and state budget cuts have reduced their budget to the point that they're having to cut back on the number of senior citizens who get fed.

"How we care for our seniors is really a direct reflection on our community," Prescott said.

Tomlinson said their plight is a perfect example of what so many local level service providers and governments are facing as the federal and state government cut spending on the local level.

Tomlinson, referring back to the $6.5 million shortfall, said local government doesn't have the money to take over what have been state and federal responsibilities. Rather, she said, the solution may be faith-based rather than tax-based.

"I spoke last night at a church in Columbus about home missions," Tomlinson said. "I'm afraid we're going to find that there is going to be more and more need for home missions, as we ask the faith-based community to step up in ways that they've never had to before to help us deal with this major seismic shift as the state and federal governments shed themselves of these responsibilities."

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