Columbus Council wants to add to budget to avoid ay-offs

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Columbus City Council has proposed additional spending that would avoid employee lay-offs in 2008, but would also eliminate 75 positions.

 "These are not full restorations. We are doing what we can with what we have," Council President Michael Mentel explained as representatives outlined amendments to add $2.8 million to the general fund spending and another $1 million from other funds.

Earlier in the week, council had passed Mayor Michael Coleman’s $650 million budget.

When unveiled in November, that spending plan anticipated cutting up to 101 jobs, including the lay-off of 26  full-time employees.

Coleman had asked administrators to cut around $27 million from their funding requests before his budget document was finalized. The budget was only 2.5 percent over the previous year’s budget.

Higher than expected tax revenues and lower than expected expenditures for the last six weeks of the year has allowed for the spending amendments, according to Councilman Kevin Boyce, chairman of the finance committee.

Meetings with department heads and input during public hearings made it clear that the number-one priority for Columbus should be saving jobs.

"When you lay off a worker, you’re also laying off a family," Boyce said.

Eliminating 75 positions, spread over most city departments, will save about $3 million.

More positions could be cut this year and in 2009, Boyce warned.

The city will avoid tapping into its $40 million rainy day fund.

"Many of us can see that it’s raining. But we have to look at the long-term impact," Boyce said.

Officials will also be convening to study the long-range financial forecast for the city.

An economic advisory committee will allow officials to issue a long-term report on the financial future of Columbus and address the imbalance between the growth of the city and the decline in its income tax collections, Boyce said.

Councilwoman Maryellen O’Shaughnessy noted that when she took office 12 years ago, the city saw a 12 percent increase in its income tax revenue.

In 2007, there was a 6.6 percent increase. This year, that figure is projected to be 3.75 percent, and it is not expected to recover any time soon.

With such a gloomy forecast for the local, as well as the state and national, economy, City Council is trying to maintain funding "to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves," Mentel said, by putting back $687,000 into funding for social services.

Seventy-two percent of the budget is allocated for safety services, but "safety is more than police and fire protection," Councilwoman Charleta Tavares said. "It’s food, clothing, shelter and jobs."

Columbus has 144,000 residents living in poverty, and that number is growing, Tavares pointed out. Of those, one-third are African-American, twice the percentage of whites living in poverty. And 40 percent of households in poverty are headed by a single female.

Columbus has a commitment to 42 social service agencies. The social services budget was cut by 20 percent five years ago, and has not seen an increase in that time.

"These desperate men, women and children cannot be an afterthought," Tavares said.

The amendments would also restore $432,575 to funding for the Community Shelter Board for services assisting the city’s homeless. Their original request had been for $1.6 million.

Columbus is ready to act on an initiative announced last year to create the position of Director of Homeless Advocacy, Mentel said, to provide a sustained approach to dealing with this problem he expects to get deepen as the economy worsens.

This office would be unique among cities in the United States, he added.

Councilman Andrew Ginther, chairman of the safety committee, said that the amendments would restore $83,000 to the budget for the Community Crime Patrol, "one of our best tools for fighting and preventing crime."

Councilman Hearcel Craig wants to put back $150,000 in the budget for the municipal clerk of courts office and $100,000 for the city attorney’s office.

Councilwoman Priscilla Tyson said that recreation and parks "has been the easiest place to make cuts," totalling a 40 percent reduction over the last two years.

The council amendments would add $200,000 to the department’s budget, allowing them to keep neighborhood centers open longer.

O’Shaughnessy indicated that the amendments do not include funds for additional code enforcement officers, but would spend $130,000 for vehicles.

There is also $839,775 for a contingency fund to help avoid future lay-offs and to provide support to agencies.

Council is also planning to earmark $800,000 from the hotel/motel bed tax for the arts and cultural activities.

The general fund amendments will be introduced at the City Council meeting Feb. 18.

The budget battle isn’t over. Officials will soon be debating the city’s capital budget for large-scale projects and equipment purchases, Boyce said.

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