Council hammers out budget with few changes to mayor's proposal

Acting as the city’s Budget Review Committee, Columbus Councilors crafted what could be the final version of the city’s Fiscal 2015 budget late Tuesday night.

After an afternoon budget committee meeting and a lengthy council business meeting, councilors reconvened as the budget committee to vote on the add/delete list that had grown throughout the two-month budget process.

Tomlinson presented her proposed $263.1 million budget to councilors in early April. During subsequent budget review meetings various department heads came before the committee to plead their cases for more money. Along the way, councilors temporarily added back some spending and deleted some proposed new revenues on the add/delete list.

That list had to be reconciled Tuesday night in order to stop the city’s fund balance from dipping below 60 days, a level under which bond rating companies would likely diminish the city bond rating.

Among the items on the list were:

Marshal Greg Countryman had requested more than $41,000 be added back to his office’s budget for uniforms, auto supplies and operations. He was denied.

Public Works Director Pat Biegler asked for about $81,000 to hire an internal services manager for the Recycling Center. She also asked to eliminate the need to cut almost $124,000 from her operating by raising fees at Animal Control/Special Enforcement. The new hire was declined but the fee hikes were added to the budget.

The state court judges asked that $9,000 be returned for operations, while the municipal court asked for $1,946 for operations be returned. Those were denied.

District Attorney Julia Slater asked for $17,700 for operations, $41,000 for a juvenile court clerk and $74,200 for a new assistant district attorney. The operations request was denied, but the two positions were added to the budget.

Councilor Gary Allen proposed eliminating more than $64,000 in general fund revenue by removing proposed fee increases for youth league teams. The fees were not eliminated and remain in the budget.

Sheriff John Darr had asked for $2 million more than Tomlinson had proposed, but Budget Director Pam Hodge met with Darr and whittled the gap down to aabout $1 million, Tomlinson said. Darr disputes those numbers, but the committee kept his budget at the $24.8 million Tomlinson proposed, but vowing to revisit his budget at mid fiscal year if need be.

In the end, what started as a $263.1 million budget grew to $263.7 million, an increase of about $615,000. But $484,000 of that was offset by additional revenue, reducing the impact to the reserves to about $131,000. That is about a third of a day of reserves, leaving the city with 60.37 days of reserve left, according to Hodge.

Tomlinson said the budget represents a possible turning point for the city, with several significant reforms now in place to eliminate or greatly reduce systemic deficits in past budgets.

“We’ve got the big ticket items behind us, the large systemic deficits behind us,” Tomlinson said. “And now we can move on to correct some other things. I think it was a long and arduous process, but a very necessary and productive process.”

The city now must advertise the budget on June 3, then hold a first reading and public hearing on the budget ordinance on June 10, then hold a second reading and a final vote on the ordinance on June 24. The budget would go into effect on July 1.

“Council still has to vote on the final budget, but they did do the add/delete list last night, and left it very largely intact,” Tomlinson said. “The budget chair certainly said some kind words for the administration for pulling this together, and then council did the yeoman’s work of vetting through it.”

Tomlinson’s budget requires some changes in the way the city operates, as outlined in her budget letter to councilors. Without the outlined changes, the city would face a $4.5 million budget shortfall in its health care budget and a $6.5 million deficit in its general operating budget, totaling $11 million in deficits.

To eliminate the $4.5 million health care deficit, Tomlinson proposed:

Eliminating spousal coverage if the spouse has access to health insurance at his or her job and basing the city’s contribution to premiums on 70 percent of the cost of its Health and Wellness Center program’s premiums, which are lower than either the HMO or PPO options.

Those steps produced just over $4.5 million in savings, in effect balancing the health care budget, Tomlinson said.

To eliminate the $6.5 million general fun deficit, Tomlinson proposed:

Maintaining the city’s hiring freeze and unfunding all vacant general fund positions, which would be funded when or if they are filled.

Setting overtime budgets of $350,000 for both the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office, with the caveat that either department can petition council for increases if needed.

Increasing fees at the city’s tennis and golf facilities, and at other parks and recreation venues and the Civic Center. Parking violation fines would also increase, as would the garbage collection fee.

An across-the-board 1.5 percent cut from all city departments. The amount of savings from the above-mentioned unfunding of vacant positions was counted toward the 1.5 percent.

“I think we accomplished what we set out to accomplish,” Tomlinson said. “That waas to produce a really financially sound budget.”