Columbus departments facing budget cuts in 2008

 Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman’s proposed 2008 budget includes spending 71 percent of the general fund for police and firefighters. That figure is up from 64.5 percent in 2000. Recreation and parks and the finance and management department would each receive 4 percent of the budget, the health and development departments would get 3 percent of the pie, and 8 percent would be divided among elected officials.
At $406 million, income tax collections will represent nearly two-thirds of the city’s total estimated revenue of $634 million for 2008, followed by shared revenue at $55 million and property taxes at $51 million. Revenue growth has slowed in several areas, including income and estate taxes, prompting officials to propose a budget that is only 2.5 percent larger than the current year’s spending.

Columbus department heads came to City Council Dec. 6 with their hats in their hands, asking to have some of their anticipated 2008 budget cuts restored.

But officials aren’t holding out much hope that the city’s financial picture is going to improve any time soon.

"I don’t believe the problem is going to go away," Finance Director Joel Taylor said during the first hearing on Mayor Michael Coleman’s proposed $650 million budget.

That spending plan could include the elimination of 101 jobs, while adding police and firefighters.

Taylor explained that income tax revenue growth in 2007 dipped to its lowest level in several years, and is expected to be even lower next year.

The growth rate was 6.6 percent in 2006, and is expected to only reach 4 percent this year, a loss of $10 million over the previous year.

The projected growth for 2008 is 3.7 percent. A one percent increase represents $4 million in revenue for the city.

In addition, estate tax collections and investment earnings are down, adding up to more than $30 million less in revenue in 2008, according to Taylor.

Some expenditures will be up significantly, he explained. The city will be paying $8.4 million to Franklin County next year to house prisoners, having exhausted credits for overcharges.

Overall, from 2001 to 2006, Columbus spent $139 million more than it took in. To close the gap, departments have spent $59 million less than budgeted for that period, with the rest of the deficit covered by moving $60 million from the "rainy day" fund over three years.

Depleting this fund, reserved for severe economic downturns or natural catastrophes, hurts the city’s bond rating. The mayor is not proposing a transfer for next year.

Instead, the proposed 2008 budget is only 2.5 percent higher than the current year, after an increase of 6 percent in 2007.

Departments have been asked to make $27 million in reductions from their initial budget recommendations, and some expenditures have been shifted, Taylor pointed out.

His own department is expecting $2 million in budget cuts for 2008, including $740,000 in personnel costs by not funding 10 full-time and four part-time positions.

City Attorney Richard Pfeiffer testified that he will be working with a smaller staff next year than in the past, with 60 attorneys, although that is above a previous low of  54 lawyers.

The city attorney’s office handles 150,000 misdemeanor cases a year, along with defending the city in legal cases and collecting money owed to Columbus.

Pfeiffer noted that his office has always returned money from its budget at the end of the year, and he would like to see the $100,000 slashed at the last minute restored to his 2008 budget.

Franklin County Clerk of Courts Lori Tyack also expects to be working with less  staff, which she believes will impact public safety. Her office has an authorized strength of 172 employees, but is working with 148 full-time staff members.

In addition to handling more than 206,000 court cases a year and managing $43 million, the office is open 24 hours a day to support law enforcement officers, particularly in verifying warrants, and preparing the 100-plus cases for the morning docket.

Tyack is concerned that the proposed budget will affect the second and third shifts, which handle the bulk of these duties, and she is asking to have $200,000 put back, the equivalent of four employees.

The development department budget is also slated to take a hit, at almost $4 million less than 2007, Director Boyce Safford testified, and is targeted for lay-offs.

That would include two building code enforcement positions, Safford said, which would delay action on orders for inspections.

In the area of economic development, the office was responsible for creating 2,700 new jobs in the city in 2007, and retaining another 1,500, according to Safford, and it plans to increase those numbers in 2008.

Under the recommended budget, Neighborhood Pride Centers will continue to operate, and six additional Neighborhood Pride areas will be designated, Safford said.

About the only department not anticipating a budget reduction is public safety, with $461 million earmarked for police and fire, representing 71 percent of the entire general fund budget.

The division of police budget, at $253 million, would include funds for 130 police recruits in 2008. The division of fire would receive $191 million, with 35 firefighters undergoing training starting this month, and another 20 in December, 2008.

Director Mitchell Brown reported that the anti-violence strike force, responsible for 2,187 arrests since its inception, would receive $800,000 to continue its efforts.

The homicide rate in Columbus is down in 2007, and photo traffic enforcement has reduced the number of crashes and drivers running red lights at the intersections where the cameras are installed, Brown said.

Council will be holding hearings on individual areas of the budget, and a hearing for public comment will be scheduled in January before the vote expected in early February.

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