Monday, August 30, 2010

"BOOM YEARS": Boost city coffers

Part Four of a series on the Columbia city budget
COLUMBIA, 8/30/10  (Beat Byte) --   Good news is tucked away in Columbia government's 2010-11 budget after all.  "The City's General Fund Balance [which pays for basic city services like fire and police] is projected to be 23% at 2011 year end, well above the 16% policy requirement," the budget says on pg. 46, under Revenue Summaries
What's more, over a dozen revenue sources will rise in the coming year, including sales taxes (up 1%); property taxes (up 2%); so-called "payments in lieu of tax" (up 4%); utility bills (up 6%); construction fees (up 6.5%); and municipal court fines (up 34%). 
City Manager Bill Watkins admitted to the sizeable savings account for the first time.  "By using the surplus built during boom years, Watkins said last week, the city can maintain services such as fire, police, public health and public works," the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.  So large are these surpluses that the Trib reported, "Columbia’s municipal government lives off of its savings." 
"Surplus" built during the boom years?  "Living off its savings?"  Quite a turn of rhetoric.  
One of 27 City Funds that hold a combined $482 million, the General Fund has the city's longest neck, always getting chopped.  To save it, unpaid volunteer City Council members are proposing to give up half their $15,000 annual allowance for food they consume during meetings.   Council members are also stepping up to give up most of their reserve and contingency funds -- roughly $175,000.  Those funds have helped social service projects with no place else to turn. 
No mention yet what paid senior city administrators with 6-figure salaries plan to sacrifice for our struggling city budget, which Mr. Watkins calls "a real bugger." 
2007:  For Watkins, the first priority in the year’s tight budget is the city workforce...lagging sales tax growth has made budgeting a struggle. ...the city will have to dip into reserves to make the budget work, Watkins said.
2008:  Although in recent years City Manager Bill Watkins has referred to Columbia's budget as "tight," he used a new word for fiscal year 2009 ­-- "squeaky."  
2009:  The budget process has been particularly difficult this year as the city faced a projected 2.9 percent drop in revenue.  In crafting the 2010 budget proposal, City Manager Bill Watkins faced the task of finding $2 million in savings.  Watkins requested cuts in spending across most city departments, but two areas in particular garnered the most discussion Monday night:  changes to employee benefits and cuts in social services funding.

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