Mayor Teresa Tomlinson presented Columbus Council with a $268 million operating budget Tuesday that would reduce the city’s spending by about 1 percent for fiscal year 2018.
In a budget letter addressed to citizens and councilors, Tomlinson said the anticipated changes in FY2018 projected revenues made the reductions necessary.
“CCG continues to struggle with declining revenues,” the mayor wrote in the letter. “In FY2018, we expect some $4.27 million less in revenues than the already reduced or stagnant revenues of FY2017 and preceding years. These reduced revenues are a result of state tax policies that disproportionally affect local government, reduce franchise fees and anemic property tax growth due to our local tax structure.”
The mayor said it’s the second year in a row that the city has presented a balanced budget without dipping into the general fund, following about 16 years of not doing so.
Her presentation kicked off the budget process which will continue with budget hearings beginning May 2 from 2 to 5 p.m., prior to the city’s regularly scheduled proclamation meeting.
The recommended budget was developed in collaboration with the city manager, CCG finance staff and department heads. It’s the first budget the mayor has presented since the elimination of lawsuits that had been filed against the city by four elected officials over budgeting issues.
Earlier this month, a judge granted the city’s motion for summary judgment in all aspects of a lawsuit co-filed by Marshal Greg Countryman and Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop.
Lawsuits filed by former Sheriff John Darr and former Superior Court Clerk Linda Pierce were dismissed by their successors — Sheriff Donna Tompkins and Superior Court Clerk Ann Hardman — at the beginning of 2017.
One of the major changes set forth in the recommended budget is the elimination of gap-time pay in the Sheriff’s Office.
“After much debate, CCG can finally say that it is eliminating the disparate and unpredictable cost of ‘Gap Time Pay,’ ” the letter said. “Gap Time Pay was a hybrid hourly and salary pay system used by some CCG law enforcement agencies, which in effect provided double-time pay for certain hours worked by certain employees.
“... Gap Time Pay was one of the causes for the millions of dollars in cost overruns at the Sheriff’s Office in prior years,” according to the mayor. “The Muscogee County Prison (MCP) and the Columbus Police Department (CPD) also used the Gap Time Pay, but MCP dispensed with the pay system in FY2014, while CPD ended the system in FY2016.”
In a recent letter to Tomlinson, Tompkins described the gap-time changes as well as other opportunities for cost savings and revenue streams in the Sheriff’s Office. Among other things, the changes include:
- The renegotiation of an amended contract with Bealls Communication Group that Darr signed before leaving office. The contract included a reduction in the commission paid to the city for the inmate phone system from 53 percent to 28 percent. Tompkins said she would not honor the terms of the amended contract and has requested that an attorney notify the company. She said returning to the 53 percent commission would generate about $244,000 annually.
- The reduction in the cost to replace the inmate visitation system at the county jail. Darr signed an amended contract to have the system replaced for $657,606, according to Tompkins. She has renegotiated the amount with Lightspeed Data Links, which has purchased the inmate visitation system portion of the business from Bealls for a savings of $161,912. The money will be paid over a four-year period with funds from the Georgia Municipal Association and LOST.
- Pharmaceutical expenses under in FY2017 were funded at $918,910, Tompkins wrote. She is close to finalizing an agreement with medical provider CCS that would reduce those costs by 10 to 12 percent.
The mayor also addressed the city’s General Fund Reserve, acknowledging the city’s struggle to maintain the 60-day threshold in the wake of the 2008 recession. The reserve, which was as high as 76.82 days in 2012, also has been hard it due to “a departure from a long-standing legislative policy,” according to the letter.
“Historically, Council has not allowed salary savings from any department to be converted for capital or salary enhancement use,” she wrote. ‘Given our many lean years since the Recession, Council has made limited but costly exceptions to this longstanding rule. From FY2012 through FY2016 some $2 million in unspent budgeted monies (or approximately 5 days of reserve) have been allowed to be converted from salary savings to much needed capital expenditures and targeted salary enhancements. This deviation from longstanding policy is not sustainable if we wish to maintain a reserve level over 60 days.”
That practice changed in January when Council adopted a resolution requiring that all salary savings be returned to the General Fund Reserves. That added an extra 6.88 days to the reserve fund taking it to 63.20. But the city has adjusted that number down to 60.20 due to the expected decrease in revenue, according to the letter.
“This Recommended Budget proposes the effort continue and, therefore, does not appropriate monies for positions that have historically gone unfilled,” the mayor wrote. “The estimated value of FY2018 unfilled positions is $2.5 million. (or 6.10 days of Reserve.) Again, Council can readily fund any Pubic Safety position where the department or office finds a suitable candidate. This prudent step simply allows these monies to stay in the General Fund Reserve instead of being held in the department or office account.”
While revenue from property taxes is expected to increase by $1 million and business taxes by $300,000, the city expects revenue from several other funding sources to decrease based on current trends, the mayor pointed out in the letter. The biggest reduction in revenue will come from Title Ad Valorem taxes and sales taxes, which are expected to decline by $1.7 million and $1.3 million respectively.
“CCG’s annual operating budget has decreased 4.42% since FY2011,” according to the mayor, “and, yet, Columbus Georgia continues to offer a high level of public services for the lowest per capita rate ($1,300 per person) among comparable communities in the state.”
Still, officials predict a 2.4 percent increase in property tax revenue, yielding an additional $1.2 million over last year in the general fund. The Local Options Sales Tax and the Other Local Option Sales Tax are expected to bring in $33 million in revenue.
The administration has addressed declining revenues by “holding steadfast against an effort by certain elected officials to spend millions of dollars in excess of budgeted funds and to otherwise improperly control the budgeting process ...,” the mayor wrote. And also by:
- Implementing comprehensive pension reform, resulting in $11.4 million in savings since FY2013 and expected to produce $39.1 million in savings over an estimated 10-year period.
- Reforming healthcare through the establishment of a Health and Wellness Center that has brought CCG within budget and not required millions in subsidy adjustments.
- Eliminating subsidies to private affiliates and service/cultural organizations such as the Naval Museum, Keep Columbus Beautiful and Uptown Columbus Inc.
- Increasing garbage and other service fees and reducing two-day-a-week household garbage pick-up.
- Implementing measures to tighten efficiencies, adopt cost-saving technologies, increase workload with existing employees and renegotiate partnerships and contracts.