Saturday, August 14, 2010

BUDGET BALONEY: City Hall hoards $1/2 Billion cash stash

Part One of a series
COLUMBIA, 8/12/10  (Beat Byte) --  We've heard it many times before.  City government is on the financial brink!   Budgets are tight!   Sales tax receipts are so low Columbia has again opted out of Missouri's back-to-school holiday. 
This year, saving money even requires gutting a fire station.   Tax increases and budget cuts are twin looming threats. 
But that's all baloney!  says a nearly $1/2 billion cash stash that sits in a quiet corner of Columbia city government's 2011 budget.   
That's One-Half Billion, with a "B." 
The grand total of the city's 27 individual balance sheet funds, this enormous cash wad -- $482,036,064 to be exact -- represents the end game in a shell game of sorts.   City management can move money from one fund to another, making parts of the budget appear nearly broke while other parts bulge with cash.  It's a complicated arrangement that makes hiding money from politically-weak constituents and finding money for politically-powerful constituents nearly a cinch.  
To help developers finish a "shovel ready" industrial site north of town last year, Columbia city manager Bill Watkins "found" $1.3 million in the budget for a costly sewer extension.   To buy land for a downtown historical society museum, his office found $250,000.   To secure ground for so-called "shovel ready" development sites, the city manager proposed taking some $2 million out of a "Water and Light Reserve Fund" last year.  Public works experts at City Hall claim their own employer is subsidizing big players with nearly $1 million yearly in lost sewer charges.   
In 2009, City Hall was too broke to maintain a $70,000 Paquin Towers recreational program.   Now, it's too broke to pay firefighters.   Last year's shell game shenanigans prompted former City Councilman Karl Skala to quip, "Bill [Watkins] finds money for all kinds of things under all kinds of rocks.  There's money buried all around the back yard at City Hall." 
That back yard cash stash represents an unprecedented accumulation:  several city funds have reserve balances topping 600%, when 10% is healthy.  The city's $1/2 billion Total Fund stash is just as outrageous.  With citywide expenses running about $353 million, it represents a whopping 136% reserve!  

General Fund
Capital Quarter Cent Sales Tax Fund
Parks Sales Tax Fund
Transportation Sales Tax Fund
Public Improvement Fund
Special Road District Tax Fund
Convention & Tourism Fund
Office of Sustainability Fund
Debt Service Funds
Capital Projects Fund
Contributions Fund
Railroad Fund
Water & Electric Funds
Recreation Services Fund
Public Transportation Fund
Airport Fund
Sanitary Sewer Utility Fund
Parking Utility Fund
Solid Waste Utility Fund
Storm Water Utility Fund
Employee Benefit Fund
Self Insurance Reserve Fund
Custodial/ Maintenance Fund
Fleet Operations Fund
Information Technologies Fund
Public Communications Fund
Utility Customer Services Fund
-- by Mike Martin, M.B.A. M.S. Physics.  Martin served as chairman of the City of Columbia Finance Advisory Commission between 2002-05 under previous city manager Ray Beck.   He did not reapply for a second term. 

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