Next mayor may face budget battle

mowen@ledger-enquirer.comMay 10, 2014 

Faced with flat revenues and rising costs, the Columbus Consolidated Government has over the last five or six years relied on its fund reserves to make up the difference and avoid deep cuts in personnel or services.

It's a practice that has allowed the city to avoid layoffs since the Great Recession, but it has whittled the fund balance down from 90 days to perilously close to the 60-day level under which the city's bond rating could possibly be lowered.

Even as austere as the proposed fiscal 2015 budget appears to be, it relies on about $4 million in reserve spending. Unless revenues are increased or expenses are cut, the mayor and Columbus Council will not have that $4 million cushion in next year's budget preparations, which could make the fiscal 2016 budget the toughest in years.

On May 20, voters will decide whether Mayor Teresa Tomlinson or challenger Colin Martin will be calling those shots. The two agree on some approaches to the challenges the city will face and look in different directions on others.

The city's current reserve represents 60.7 days. One day of reserve represents about $408,000, according to the city's Finance Department.

Dipping under 60 days would impact the city's ability to do business, or even meet its payroll, in the first quarter of the year, before the first wave of property tax revenue rolls in.

Neither Tomlinson nor Martin foresee any significant reduction in force or in city services.

"I will not go into fiscal 2016 looking at layoffs," Tomlinson said. "I think we can avoid them because I think we're going to be able to find new revenue."

Some of the new revenue would come from identifying tax receipts currently not being collected because of inefficiencies in the Tax Assessor's office, Tomlinson said.

"We think we have great efficiencies that we could reap there. We feel that through outdated process, outdated software that we're leaving millions of dollars on the table," Tomlinson said. "For instance, we appointed a three-person committee that went in and found $32 million (of property) that we put back on the tax rolls in 10 days. That tells you there's probably more there that we really need to take a look at."

Martin said his approach to more efficiency in government would come through what he calls "priority budgeting," which breaks down and prioritizes the tasks and missions of each department, identifying what might be able to be reduced or eliminated.

That approach can also be applied to the Consolidated Government as a whole, to identify which services are critical and which might be able to be cut back on.

"The short-term approach is priority budgeting," Martin said. "We need to listen to the department heads and city employees. What is the priority of the departments? Then what are the priorities within the departments?"

When applying the approach to which services should or should not be considered for reduction, it's also vital to seek public input, Martin said.

"Anytime you cut a service, you're going to cut a service somebody likes," Martin said. "That's why it's so important to get citizen input."

Another area in which the candidates agree is the need to figure out why local sales tax revenues continue to be flat while the state and other municipalities seem to be seeing signs of economic recovery through rising sales tax revenue.

"We need to figure out why our revenue isn't growing," Martin said. "I had a conversation recently with Gov. Nathan Deal and he said the state revenue was expected to grow at 4 percent but grew at 5 percent. And I hear that other cities have had revenue growth."

Tomlinson said many cities, Columbus among them, are looking for ways that local governments can effectively track sales tax receipts on the local level so they can be assured that they're getting back from the state all of what's being collected. But that effort has so far faced corporate opposition.

"We're speaking with the revenue commissioner in Atlanta about being able to have our own sales tax information so we can see why our sales taxes have declined and been so stagnant," Tomlinson said. "I'm very hopeful that that's gong to lead to something that may at least educate us as to why, but may also lead to us picking up some monies that have fallen through the cracks."

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