Columbus financial forecast: party cloudy, chance of lay-offs

Under Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman’s proposed 2008 budget, the city would avoid a tax increase and not dip into its "rainy day," but might have to eliminate as many as 101 jobs to help balance the budget.

"You only dip into the rainy day fund when it’s raining," Coleman said Nov. 15 as he rolled out his $650 million spending plan. "And it’s not raining."

But Coleman is concerned about the looming financial outlook for the city, as tax revenues decline, and he will be convening an economic advisory committee to study all operations in the coming year.

Coleman wants to add police officers to the force in 2008 and vehicle to the department’s fleet.

There will be no lay-offs of uniformed police officers, firefighters, snow removal or trash pick-up crews, and there will be no  income tax increase in 2008, Coleman said.

"We will fund the basics for high-quality neighborhood services, while at the same time tightening our belts," the mayor said.

His proposed budget, which will be the subject of City Council hearings before adoption in January or February, is a 2.5 percent increase over 2007 spending.

It allots 71 percent of spending to safety services, totalling $461 million.

Columbus will not dip into its $44.2 million "rainy day" fund to balance its budget, as it had between 2003 and 2006.

But the home foreclosure crisis, a drop in home construction and rising gasoline prices are clouding the financial picture, according to the mayor.

After a growth rate of 6.6 percent in income tax revenue for 2006, that figure is projected to dip to 4 percent for 2007. That could result in a  funding gap of $12 million for the year.

Income tax growth is projected to be  3.75 percent in 2008. Income tax collections represent two-thirds of the city’s revenue. Estate tax and investment revenues are also down.

In response, cost-saving measures were implemented starting in late summer, and department heads were asked to close a $27 million spending gap as the 2008 budget was drafted.

One result is the projected job cuts, which would save the city $5 million. Those include the potential lay-off of 26 full-time workers and one part-time employee. The city also could leave 61 full-time and 13 part-time vacancies unfilled.

Coleman said it was "very premature" to pinpoint which specific jobs would be cut, and administrators probably won’t know until February or March, after City Council works on the budget and final financial figures come in.

The mayor is confident that his spending blueprint will provide essential city services.

In addition to safety services, the budget earmarks the remaining 29 percent for neighborhood services, including almost $26 million from the general fund for recreation and parks.

Next year the city will close two under-used swimming pools, which have not yet been chosen, the mayor announced, and will offer free admission to its remaining seven pools, and will look at adding more of the popular splash pad playgrounds.

The health department is slated to receive $19 million from the general fund for such programs as restaurant inspections and community nursing services.

The health department could lose six full-time employees to lay-offs and have another 16 vacancies unfilled.

But Teresa Long, director of the department, noted that its neighborhood health centers should receive the same level of funding as in 2007.

Construction of a new westside family health center is scheduled to begin in early 2008.

The city will continue to invest in its Capital Kids after-school tutoring and mentoring program and summer jobs for young people.

It will also continue its Home Again program  to rid neighborhoods of abandoned and blighted houses, many of them the result of the foreclosure crisis, Coleman said. The city will also keep 64 code enforcement officers working.

The economic advisory committee will be similar to the one formed as a recession hit in 2001, and that presented options that helped Columbus weather the storm, Coleman said.

"That doesn’t necessarily mean a tax increase" down the road, Coleman said. "But we have to look at everything."

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