Committee chair says this year could be toughest city budget in years

City Finance Director Pam Hodge formally walked Columbus Council’s Budget Review Committee through the proposed $265.7 million fiscal 2016 budget today.

It’s a budget that committee Chairman Skip Henderson says may be the toughest in many years.

“We were moaning last year about how tough it was,” Henderson said. “I think you’ll hear us moaning even louder this year.”

The city is looking at expected revenues of $264.3 million versus expected expenses of $265.7, meaning the city will use $1.4 million in reserve funds. That would leave a projected reserve fund of only 60.37 days, barely above the 60-day threshhold beneath which bond rating companies consider lowering a city’s rating and when the city could see cash-flow problems early in the calendar year.

The city’s General Fund, as usual, takes the largest chunk of the budget, 57 percent. From it, most of the day-to-day operations of the government are funded.

Looking at General Fund expenditures by departments, Public Safety is the largest, at almost 40 percent of the budget. Public Works is next, at 10.4 percent, Community Services (which includes things like planning, engineering, and the like) at 8.6 percent and management operations at 6.6 percent.

Looking at expenses by type, personnel and benefits account for almost 57 percent of the budget, with operating at 38.3 percent and the rest shared by much smaller types.

Property taxes provide the largest chunk of revenue, about 31 perecent, followed by sales and use taxes, which provide 27.5 percent. The other 40-odd percent comes from numerous other sources such as charges for services, business and other taxes, franchise fees and numerous others. That is good for the financial health of the city, Hodge told councilors.

“You can see that we have a very diversified revenue stream, which is really important, because if some revenues are down, it doesn’t have a major impact across our whole fund,” Hodge said. “We have multiple sources to support our operations.”

The proposed budget contains more personnel additions and changes than in recent years. It calls for adding a network engineer to the city’s Information Technology department and the already controversial transfer of personnel fro the Sheriff’s Office to the Police Department, ostensibly to eliminate duplicative services. It would also eliminate several position in the Marshal’s Office, along with making some changes in vehicle policies.

Both Sheriff John Darr and Marshal Greg Counrtyman have strongly objected to the proposals, but each will have a chance to present his case to the committee in the coming weeks.

The budget also calls for an aggressive program called the Rapid Resolution Initiative, a program devised by Chief Superior Court Judge Gil McBride, District Attorney Julia Slater and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, among others.

With an eye toward resolving cases that have languished in the courts, as defendants have languished in the county jail, it would add two assistant district attorneys and two public defenders, an investigator and a legal clerk.

Tomlinson said in her budget letter presented last week that savings realized by a reduction in jail population ($440,000) should just about pay for the additional personnel expenses, $458,000.

Henderson complimented the Tomlinson administrative team for producing a lean balanced budget, and said he has told other committee members that if they want to add something back into the budget that’s been removed, they will have to identify the same amount of spending to cut elsewhere.

“I don’t know if we can get a whole lot leaner leaner,” Henderson said. “But as you can see, we’re at almost 60 percent personnel, so any time we make cuts, that’s people.”