Mayor proposes 1.5 percent cuts, overtime caps in FY 2015 budget

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 28, 2014 

Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson speaks Tuesday afternoon during a press conference at the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce. Tomlinson and others spoke at the event about the Department of Army's decision to keep the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning. 06/25/13

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson presented her proposed Fiscal 2015 budget to Columbus Council Friday morning, a balanced budget that would maintain a 60-day fund balance, but not without some significant changes in the way the city does its business.

The mayor’s budget calls for spending of $263.1 million, a .05 percent decrease from fiscal 2014, according to the mayor’s presentation to council.

The budget maintains a 60.7-day reserve, prevents the potential loss of 80-120 city jobs, maintains an adequate level of city services and an acceptable level of benefits for employees, the mayor’s budget cover letter to council states.

Falling below 60 days of reserves could lead to a downgrading of the city’s bond rating – in effect, its credit rating – which could make future bond issues more expensive for taxpayers.

Having the full reserve on hand is also crucial to the city’s functioning in the first quarter of every year, before property tax receipts come in, according to Pam Hodge, city finance director.

In the first quarter of 2014, the city spent $48 million but only brought in about $23 million in revenue. That meant that the city needed $25 million in reserves, which amounts to close to the full 60-day reserve, Hodge said.

The budget requires some changes in the way the city operates, Tomlinson’s letter to council states. Without the outlined changes, the city would face a $4.5 million budget shortfall in its health care budget and a $6.5 million deficit in its general operating budget, totaling $11 million in deficits, the letter states.

To eliminate the $4.5 million health care deficit, Tomlinson proposes:

Eliminating spousal coverage if the spouse has access to health insurance at his or her job. This is common in the private sector.

Basing the city’s contribution to premiums on 70 percent of the cost of its Health and Wellness Center program’s premiums, which are lower than either the HMO or PPO options. This would raise premium costs to employees who opt for the HMO or PPO plans. The mayor’s proposal would also raise out-of-pocket maximum payments, deductibles and prescription co-pays.

Those steps would produce just over $4.5 million in savings, in effect balancing the health care budget, the letter states.

To eliminate the $6.5 million general fun deficit, Tomlinson proposes:

Maintaining the city’s current hiring freeze and unfunding all vacant positions throughout the city government, in the general fund. The positions would be funded when or if they were filled.

Setting overtime budgets of $350,000 for both the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office. Both departments could petition council for increases in overtime if necessary, Tomlinson’s letter states.

Instituting fee increases at the city’s tennis and golf facilities, and at other parks and recreation venues and the Civic Center, Parking violation fines would also increase, as would the garbage collection fee.

An across-the-board 1.5 percent cut from all city departments. The amount of savings from the above-mentioned unfunding of vacant positions would be counted toward the 1.5 percent.

Budget Committee Chairman Skip Henderson said the challenges presented by the budget are “what we should have expected.”

“I’m not sure how the user fee increases are going to be received because they’vecome up before,” Henderson said. “But it’s going to be extremely important that if you want to put something back in, you’re going to have to find that money somewhere else. If you’re going to give money to someone, you’re going to have to take it away from someone else.” The budget proposal presented to council Friday was about a month earlier than usual, the mayor’s letter notes. “The object of this early delivery is to allow for ample deliberation of the important and impactful decisions that need to be made in order to balance the competing interest of our city’s: 1.) municipal financial stability, 2.) citizen services, 3.) employee jobs and, 4.) employee benefits,” the letter states.

Tomlinson said she was pleased with the budget her staff prepared but she expects a thorough vetting process by council.

“I expect there will be some push and pull from council,” Tomlinson said after presenting the budget. “I’m sure it will be a thorough 60 days (of budget hearings), but I’m confident that we’ll end up with something near this.”

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