Mayor Teresa Tomlinson has brought some innovations to the office, such as pension reform and health care reform. One thing she says she hasn't changed is the city's budget process.
Sheriff John Darr disagrees, saying the mayor has, contrary to the city charter, created her own budget for the Muscogee County Sheriff's Office instead of forwarding the sheriff's budget request to Columbus Council as part of her proposed budget.
Tomlinson disputes that interpretation, saying she does in fact forward department head budget requests to councilors for reference. But because the city charter and state law require her proposed budget to be balanced, if she were to just use all the department requests in her budget, it would be far from balanced and far from legal, she said.
Former Mayors Bobby Peters, now a Superior Court judge, Bob Poydasheff, an attorney in private practice, and Jim Wetherington, a former police chief who is now retired, described their approach to preparing city budgets and presenting them to council. All of them described the process as Tomlinson has followed it throughout her administration.
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Former sheriff Ralph Johnson, whom Darr defeated when he was elected in 2008, says making his budget was always a "struggle," but that he was "satisfied" with the budget process.
The budget process
Deputy City Manager Pam Hodge, who is acting finance director, said if the approach of simply adding all department head requests to the budget had been followed, the mayor's proposed fiscal 2016 budget would have been in the neighborhood of $290 million instead of her proposed balanced budget of $265.7 million.
In every year since fiscal 2008, which would include all of the Wetherington and Tomlinson budgets, the mayor's proposed budgets for the sheriff's and marshal's offices were less, sometimes significantly less, than the officials' budget requests.
The process, as described by Tomlinson and her three immediate predecessors, is as follows:
Department heads, including elected officials, prepare budget requests for their departments and present them to the mayor and city manager. Using that information, then the mayor, city manager and the finance director, who provides revenue projections and such, prepare a budget to present to Columbus Council, in the form of the Budget Review Committee.
Over the course of a couple of months, with department heads appearing before the committee to present their cases, the budget is amended. Few, if any, departments receive everything they asked for in their budget requests, former mayors said. And in the end, it is the function of Columbus Council, as the city's legislative branch, to approve the final budget and vote it into law.
The main difference this year is that the mayor, city manager, finance director and councilors prepared the fiscal 2016 budget while fighting lawsuits against them over funding levels of four offices in the fiscal 2015 budget.
Darr, Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce, Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton-Bishop sued the city and its top executive and elected leadership last year. Parts of their lawsuits have been withdrawn, parts have been dismissed by the court and the remainders are awaiting hearings before the Supreme Court of Georgia on appeal by the city.
Wetherington, Poydasheff and Peters said department heads can't reasonably expect to get everything they want in their requests, especially in tough economic times. And all said it is council that has the final control of the city's purse strings.
Both Peters and Poydasheff served as councilors before being elected mayor, so they have seen the process from both of those perspectives. But Wetherington is the only living mayor to have served as both a department head (chief of police) and as mayor, so he has seen the process from both sides of the fence. That, Wetherington said, helped him understand the process and helped give him credibility with department heads when he was mayor.
"That was very beneficial. And I told those folks I'd sat where they sat at one time, and you take your best shot to get what you need, and what you can justify," Wetherington said. "Many times, I got turned down on some of the requests that I made that I thought were justified. But I took what the council and the mayor gave me and did the best job I could do with it."
Wetherington said he doesn't think any mayor wants to deny budget requests, but their hands are tied by economic reality.
"I tried to explain to them that we didn't have the money to fund every item they requested," Wetherington said. "The current mayor, I'm sure she does similar to that. She's doing the best that she can and I think she's done a pretty good job."
Poydasheff, who preceded Wetherington, echoed Wetherington's sentiment that there are limited resources, and that department heads for the most part realize that.
"I got along very well with the other elected officials, when Sheriff (Ralph) Johnson was the sheriff," Poydasheff said. "I'm sure there were some things that we did not accept. It's always a massage."
Poydasheff said the city's current legal woes were caused by some officials being "intransigent."
"They wanted this and they wanted that and they just feel that, as elected officials, once they submit a budget, it has to be accepted lock, stock and barrel," Poydasheff said. "I don't know any mayor, myself included, who would ever accept a mandate or a demand saying, 'You must accept my budget.' That's just not the way it works."
Peters, who preceded Poydasheff, said the city is obligated to provide enough funding to carry out the constitutional duties required of constitutional officers, but there is no obligation beyond that.
"The budget is totally within the purview of the mayor and council," he said. "A request from a department head is not set in stone and can be increased or decreased by the governing authority."
In the case of the sheriff, those duties include operating the county jail and providing security for the Superior and State Courts.
"But let's say he puts in his budget that he would also like to create a SWAT team," Peters said. "The law does not require the sheriff or the marshal to have a SWAT team, then the city government does not have to provide the resources to start a SWAT team."
Former Sheriff Ralph Johnson, who preceded Darr, said staying within budget in the sheriff's office is tough, but he rarely exceeded his budget and then by a fraction of what Darr has overspent during his tenure ($11.5 million over seven years).
"There are certain things that you have, such as the expenses at the jail," Johnson said. "You just have to manage it and cut costs. You struggle every year and do the best you can without cutting services to the citizens.
"I was satisfied. Everybody always wants more personnel, more vehicles and all that stuff, but you never get them. So why cry over that?"
Darr said he does not and has never expected his final budget to be everything he asked for, and he believes Tomlinson is misleading people into thinking that is his position.
"She tries to make it out that whatever budget I present, that's what I should have. I've never said that," Darr said. "What I'm saying is that we develop our budget, it's given to the city manager, like the charter says, and then it's passed on to the council for them to then look at and us discuss with them."
Tomlinson said the sheriff and the other officials who are suing the city are reading the charter "selectively" and ignoring parts of it, and that state law gives mayors authority to do executive budgetary policymaking.
"They just reject that outright," Tomlinson said. "They say there's no such thing, that the mayor has no such authority, that the mayor is not to do executive budgetary policymaking. The problem with that is, there is a direct statue that says that a mayor can do executive budgetary policymaking."