Council taps into rainy day fund

The city’s financial difficulties were a major focus of the Sept. 22 Columbus Council meeting.

Facing a severe budget crisis, Columbus City Council authorized the use of $10 million from the city’s "rainy day" fund to help pay for basic city services for the rest of the year.

They also approved the use of $5 million in surplus funds from the employee benefits fund for the same purpose.

Council Member Kevin Boyce said the national economic crisis is affecting Columbus. Job losses and rising fuel costs have contributed to a budget deficit for the city.

"This is a year unlike any other that we have seen in recent times," he said.    

Joel Taylor, director of the Department of Finance, said the city faced hard economic times several years ago, but the current problems appear to be even more serious. Over the last several years, he said, they had worked hard to manage the budget despite increasing costs and a growing city, but now needed to take emergency measures to avoid "dire consequences."   

City Auditor Hugh Dorrian said income tax revenue was well below projections, and that given the current economic conditions, more emergency funds may be needed in the future.  He said the rainy day fund, officially named the Economic Stabilization Fund, held about $45 million.  

The recent power outages have not helped matters. Taylor said that even with federal assistance, the costs from the outages were likely to impact city finances.  

Boyce said it was premature to talk about raising taxes, but that they would need to examine what he called a "structural imbalance" as a result of the struggling economy.  

Council President Michael Mentel said the current crisis is the beginning of things to come, calling the situation very serious.  "Make no mistake, the storm is here," he said.  

Addressing another financial issue, council also passed a resolution to "enthusiastically endorse" Issue 75, the proposed bond and levy for Columbus City Schools. "It’s quite frankly an investment in our future," Boyce said.  "The reality is that these are the young people who will be running our city."  

Council member Charleta Tavares said fiscal responsibility has been a hallmark of the current board, and pointed out that the city schools have been steadily improving since some schools were rated as being in "academic emergency" several years ago.  

"This is really an important issue for us," said Dr. Gene Harris, superintendent of Columbus City Schools. "Issue 75 is helping keep our comeback alive."

The council also listened to an explanation of the plans for the Trautman Building on South High Street. The Columbus Downtown Development Corporation recently evicted businesses from the building, and members of the council had demanded an explanation at a previous council meeting, saying they had not been properly notified.  

Amy Taylor of the CDDC said the organization was open about their intentions to transform the building into moderately priced housing when they bought it. The tenants in good standing, she said, had been given relocation options, and some had accepted the offer. She said she didn’t know if the rent was higher at the new locations, but would get back to council about it.

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