BY BRIAN JONES
The Columbus City Council held a special meeting August 6 to further discuss its budget process. Less than one week after cutting seven police officers and three firefighters, the council handed out raises to several employees, including Mayor Robert Smith casting the tie-breaking vote to give himself an extra $10,000 per year. Smith currently makes $78,797 annually.
[Keep in mind that Smith received a new vehicle in last year’s budget – a $45,000 Chevy Tahoe. – Jeff Clark] During last week’s special meeting, the council was told that the city was going to have to dig into its fund balance for about $410,000. Smith said that, to get the deficit down to that figure, numerous cuts – including the seven cops and three firefighters – had been made. He also pointed out that about $310,000 of the deficit was generated by the across-the-board three percent pay raise for all city personnel. At the end of that meeting, Taylor asked to give an additional raise a number of public works employees to bring them up to a minimum of $10 per hour. Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle said the additional increase would add about $89,000 on top of the original deficit. [For more on that meeting, see my account in this week’s Packet. – Brian Jones] When the meeting started Wednesday afternoon, Smith read off a laundry list of new items, which he said originated with conversations he had with the department heads.
In the public works department, he said Director of Public Works Casey Bush asked for several changes to rates of pay.
“(Bush) is requesting one worker be moved from $8.80 to $11 an hour,” Smith said. “He wants to change one operator from $10.80 to $13, and another from $10.11 to $13. Also when (Bush) was hired he was to get a raise after six months. I forgot to put it on the agenda for last night, so I am asking that he be moved from $51,000 to $54,000.”
Smith’s request was approved 3-3 on a motion from Ward 4 Councilman Marty Turner and a second by Taylor. Taylor, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens and Turner voted yes, Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box, Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem and Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin voted no. Smith broke the tie in favor.
Next up was the fire department.
“At the fire department, Chief Martin Andrews has asked that the public information and accreditation officers become full time,” Smith said. The salary for the public information officer would be increased from $32,000 to $37,000 and the accreditation officer be increased from $44,000 to $46,000.”
“How come these weren’t in the original proposal?” Box asked. “Why are we coming back now after struggling with this thing for two weeks and adding in now?”
“The department heads knew this was the final chance,” Smith said.
Taylor made a motion to approve, but his motion died for lack of a second.
Smith recommended three raises in the mechanics shop.
“One of our mechanics resigned and went to the county,” Smith said. “We was paid $13,000. We are discussing raising the remaining (three) positions to $15,000 in order to keep the mechanics.”
Taylor made a motion, seconded by Turner, to approve. It passed 3-3. Mickens, Taylor and Turner voted yes, Box, Gavin and Karriem voted no, and Smith broke the tie in favor.
“At the police department, the head chemist resigned and took a position making more money,” Smith said. “The chief has requested that we do not replace him because two of the other employees have split his responsibilities. He is requesting that each of them get raises: one would be raised from about $39,000 to about $45,510, and the other from about $32,000 to about $44,000.”
Police Chief Tony Carleton estimated the department would save about $24,000 a year by not replacing the chemist.
The request was approved unanimously on a motion by Box and a second by Karriem.
The council also approved raising a bailiff’s salary from $11.16 an hour to $14.50 an hour on a 4-2 vote, with Karriem and Turner voting no, and giving Trotter director Frank Goodman a $2,500 raise on a 5-1 vote, with Karriem voting no.
The mayor opened the floor for questions, and Box jumped right in.
“I have a lot of concerns about this,” Box said. “The numbers that we started with were something like $500,000 that we’re taking out of our reserves in a down trending economy. The mill is down and (Tax Assessor Greg Andrews) is telling us it’s going down again next year. People are moving out of town, we are losing industry, and now we’re about to take $500,000 out of our reserves. These raises are not just once, they’re forever. I’d like to hear from our CFO and COO. You talk to us when doors are closed, but I want to hear from you on the record. Are we heading towards deficit spending?”
“It is not a good situation,” Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong said. “We have lost $5,000 in the value of a mill this year. We have lost since 2009-10 $12,000 off the value of a mill. When I came here eight years ago we had no reserves, and we built them up. But we can’t keep going the way we’re going. I know one of the councilmen doesn’t agree with me, but we don’t have a spending problem, we have a revenue problem. We just don’t have the revenue to do what a progressive city has to do. We have to give raises, we have to buy equipment, we have got to pave roads. If we continue on this trend, in three to five years it’s not going to be a pretty picture. In my opinion we will be in deficit spending. It’s not a popular thing to say, but it’s seldom we’ve raised mills. But we have got to operate the city. There are things we have got to do.
“We should have raised mills at least twice since I’ve been here,” Armstrong said. “Nobody wants to pay more taxes, but there’s not a whole lot of options out there.”
“I know when I look at my checkbook and I’m getting low on money I don’t take my wife out to eat that weekend,” Gavin said. “I make cuts. I cut my cable off. I talk to people in this economy that have to do this kind of thing. I understand we have a problem with revenue coming in, but we have got to cut costs as much as possible. I have been here for five years and I have been through three police chiefs. Every one of them has asked for more officers. We can’t do that because we don’t have the money. I would love to give every employee in the city a raise, because they deserve it. But at some point you just can’t do it.
“We’re about to write a $400,000 check from our checkbook,” he said. “Where’s the money going to come from next year? What if we get grants and they have to have a match? Where’s that money going to come from? It comes from the checkbook.”
“What I’m looking at is next year if things don’t get better we’re going to be in the same boat, probably worse,” Rawle said. “I understand with the raises, it is what it is. Looking at this, to get this down personnel would be the first thing I’d cut. Here that wasn’t an option. In private industry we would cut personnel as far as we could get.”
“We looked at privatization when I first came here eight years ago,” Armstrong said. “But the majority didn’t want to do it. I think cutting all those people is a terrible option. I think we have to raise the millage. I know you don’t want to do that, but if we don’t we are going to get into a deficit spending situation. We can’t keep declining millage, it’s not going to work. It’s voodoo economics.”
“I don’t want the legacy of this board to be that we’re the ones that put the city into deficit spending,” Box said.
“I know you don’t think we’ve cut back, but we have cut significantly,” Armstrong said. “State law says we have to balance the budget, but these are not real numbers because we’re going to go over. There is not sufficient money in there to make it work.”
The discussion cycled back around to privatization.
“You can beat around the bush all you want, but public works is the only department that can be privatized,” Smith said. “Are there the votes to look at that?”
Gavin made a motion, seconded by Box, to look at the feasibility of privatizing public works. The vote failed 3-3, with Box, Gavin and Mickens voting yes and Karriem, Turner and Taylor voting no. Smith broke the tie to defeat it.
At the very end of the meeting, Taylor made a motion to give Smith a $10,000-per-year raise. He was seconded by Turner.
[It’s no secret that Taylor is a close ally of Smith’s. And for someone who recuses himself from the tough votes such as appointments to the Columbus Municipal School Board and Columbus Light and Water Board, this vote was par for the course, to use golfing terms, for Taylor. There is also a city ordinance that states that a council can not give a raise to a sitting city council. I guess what’s good enough for the proverbial goose is not really good enough for the gander? – Jeff Clark] “That is crazy,” Box said. “We have got to find a place to stop. We’re talking about running this deficit up to $700,000.”
The vote passed 3-3, with Mickens, Taylor and Turner voting yes, Box, Gavin and Karriem voting no, and Smith breaking the tie in favor.