Unless the city makes drastic changes, the Consolidated Government will end the current fiscal year $6.5 million in the red, and that could mean layoffs, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson told Columbus Council on Tuesday.
Tomlinson outlined the city’s current financial state and shared forecasts for further deficits during a 25-minute presentation that highlighted downward trends in property tax digest growth and sales tax revenues over the last few years.
She also pointed out that for the last six consecutive years, the city government has spent more than it has taken in.
The result of the consistent deficit spending is a dwindling reserve fund, which has dropped from 130 days to down in the 60s, perilously close to the point at which bond rating companies could lower the city’s bond rating.
“We’ve been living off our savings account,” Tomlinson told councilors. “When that happens, our general fund reserves are depleted.”
She also reminded council that not only have they added a total of $4.15 million to the three budgets she has so far submitted, but that they have snubbed several cost-saving proposals her administration has brought forward, which she said would have saved the city about $4.5 million a year.
At-large Councilor and Budget Review Committee Chairman Skip Henderson said council was “investing” in city projects that it hoped would pay off when it dipped into reserves.
“Most of the deterioration in the fund balance has been the result of a conscious decision made by this council to invest in instances that were designed to make more revenue for the city,” Henderson said. “For example, we invested heavily in NCR, and that came out of the fund balance. We invested in the Housing Authority, with the idea that some of the Hope VI grants that we were leveraging were going to stem some of the crime in public housing area. We also invested in whitewater, which we’re seeing some returns on.”
Henderson called the city’s financial situation “alarming,” and said the council will be faced with tough choices in the near future.
“Some of the decisions we’re going to be faced with are not going to be easy. But we’ve known they were coming,” Henderson said. “We’re getting to a point now where some of the decisions we’re going to have to evaluate will be ‘What is going to do the minimum amount of damage to the employees and to the citizens?’”
Another cost-saving proposal Tomlinson threw out would be to cut off supplements given annually to city affiliates, such as Keep Columbus Beautiful, the Civil War Naval Museum and Uptown, Inc. That, she said, would save the city about $300,000 a year.
Judy Thomas, the city’s other at-large councilor, agreed that a series of smaller cuts such as those supplements could add up to substantial savings and might be the best way to address the chronic deficit spending.
“Those are wonderful programs,” Thomas said. “But can we afford $300,000 to supplement them? I don’t think so. So we’re going to have to say to them and to the people who support them, ‘We think you have a wonderful program, but we can’t continue to pay for it.’”
Going forward, the Tomlinson administration will bring individual department heads, at least from the larger city departments, before council to present ideas for possible cuts in spending and scenarios on what budget cuts would do to their personnel and level of services.