After weeks of negotiations, presentations and meetings, Columbus Council appears poised to approve Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s proposed budget of about $24.8 million for the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office.
That’s about $2 million less than Sheriff John Darr had originally requested. But city Finance Director Pam Hodge told councilors she met with Darr last Thursday and Friday and found about $1 million in savings in his budget, lowering the gap between his proposal and the mayor’s to about $1 million.
Should council follow through on its discussions at Tuesday’s Budget Review Committee meeting. Council would approve the $24.8 million but hold $1 million in abeyance until the sheriff’s budget could be revisited at mid fiscal year.
Tomlinson was the one who recommended the approach to the councilors as they were struggling with how to fund the sheriff’s budget within a proposed city budget of about $263 million.
“I’m feeling pretty good about it,” Tomlinson said. “We’ve made a lot of progress. In just seven days we were able to reduce (Darr’s) request by about a million dollars.”
Tomlinson said by revisiting the budget at mid-year, councilors will have a better idea of how much money the will actually have to work with for the second half of the year. She also thinks Hodge might be able to find another million in savings, given several months to work at it.
“We have identified some suggested savings, especially in the jail clinic contract, and those could be substantial,” Tomlinson said. “There’s no reason not to save money if you can save money without impacting operations. I think we’re going to be able to find a million dollars there if we have enough time.”
Darr disagreed with Hodge’s and Tomlinson’s assessment of potential savings, saying he didn’t think they had produced anyway near $1 million. But he said he would have no problem with the mayor’s proposal to fund his budget at her recommended level with the understanding that it would be revisited at mid-year.
“That should be fine,” Darr said. “I trust the council to fund the budget at the level it needs to be funded.”
Darr’s budget has been an issue for some time. In his first five years in office, he has overspent his budget every year, racking up $7 million in accumulated deficits in that period, according to city records.
The overspending, Darr says, is the result of a budget that is insufficient to carry out the legal and constitutional obligations of his office. Increasing demands placed on the sheriff’s office by the county jail, its medical clinic and burgeoning demands from the court system exceed the amount of money the city budgets for the office, he has said.
Council is to iron out its add/delete list at the end of tonight’s meeting, then will hold a first reading on the budget ordinance June 10. Council will then hold a second reading June 24 and vote to approve the new budget, which will take effect July 1.