COLUMBIA, 8/26/10 (Beat Byte) -- Columbia city manager Bill Watkins continued his down-beat drum beat about City Hall's flagging finances at last Monday's City Council meeting, even disputing a Columbia Heart Beat report.
But rather than make his case for dire straits, Watkins reinforced the idea that Columbia city government is wealthy beyond the measure of mere mortals. With a figure he said represents "our real cash position," Watkins told Council members City Hall is sitting on a staggering $166,404,198.
That's nearly $1,700 for every man, woman, and child among Columbia's estimated 100,000 population. It also represents a 47% cash reserve as a percentage of City Hall's overall yearly expenditures -- about $353 million.
In comparison, the heated debate that Columbia Public Schools' cash reserve had reached lofty heights -- 20-26% -- helped cost Superintendent Phyllis Chase her job and deny the school district a tax levy.
Mandated by city ordinance to carry a 16% reserve, the City's General Fund that finances fire, police, and other basic services holds only 10% of the city's overall cash: $17 million. That leaves a whopping $149 million -- by Watkins' own estimate -- stashed away in other accounts.
Unclear how or where City Hall allocates another $316 million shown on its balance sheet across 27 different funds, Watkins made the "cash on hand" announcement to dampen criticism about cost-cutting and rate-raising moves that strike many as punishing, even draconian. "Would we not be filling positions?" if we had a mountain of cash, Watkins publicly wondered. "Would we be laying people off and asking for utility rate increases if this were so?"
Would we be secretively handing out enormous tax incentives to large corporations who have left many other communities in the lurch?
(Public hearings on the Columbia City budget continued Sept. 7 and Sept. 20. The City Council must approve a budget on Sept. 30 or the city manager’s budget is automatically adopted.)