After finishing the 2009 fiscal year with a $9 million deficit, Columbia City Council members approved $150,000 in taxpayer money for an efficiency study - and have told the city's interim city manager to find the money to pay for it.
The city will pay for the study in part by selling a small piece of land on Huger Street to VistaBank, a Columbia bank that formed in 2007, for $100,000. The source for the remaining $50,000 "will be determined."
Some council members and city observers say the study is a return to the kind of financial recklessness that created the city's deficits in the first place and led to this year's budget cuts, including layoffs, reduced staffing at fire stations and the end of commercial garbage pickup for Dumpster-like containers.
"This was not budgeted, and it's a tight budget year," said Councilwoman Belinda Gergel, who voted against the study. "When you set a budget, the intention ought to be to follow that budget."
But others say the study is an opportunity for Columbia to permanently change its ways instead of making the kind of reactionary budget cuts, like eliminating holiday pay for employees, that have become routine at City Hall this year.
"You can budget yourself right out of business. You can reduce your budget only so far without doing some strategic things," said Cathy Novinger, a former SCANA vice president and the immediate past chairwoman of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce. "I commend the city for stepping out and embracing ways to do what they do better and cheaper in a way to save taxpayer dollars."
Interim City Manager Steve Gantt said he will try to find the extra $50,000 somewhere in the city's budget. If he can't, the money will have to come from the $52,500 set aside in the city's Economic Development Special Projects account for "investment recruiting."
That means if a large company were considering coming to Columbia, city staffers would not have the money to travel to persuade them to come here, said Jim Gambrell, Columbia's director of economic development.
Mayor Bob Coble and council members E.W. Cromartie, Sam Davis and Tameika Isaac Devine voted to approve the study, which is to be done by the EquaTerra advisory services company. Gergel and Councilman Kirkman Finlay voted no.
While Finlay, who is running for mayor, voted against the study, he voted in favor of spending the money to pay for it. The reason, according to Finlay's campaign spokesman Steve Fooshe, was that Finlay believed spending the money from the economic development special projects account would protect the city's general fund, which pays for such basic services as police, fire and garbage pickup.
"He was against the project," Fooshe said. "He thought this would be the way that least hurt the city's budget."
Efforts to reach Finlay for comment were unsuccessful.
Columbia has been in a cost-cutting mode since January, when, after nearly two years of work, officials untangled the city's financial records to discover consecutive multimillion dollar budget deficits had reduced the city's emergency reserves to practically zero.
The crisis likely took the job of former City Manager Charles Austin, who abruptly announced his retirement during an intense evaluation process by City Council in which members failed reach a consensus on his leadership.
Interim City Manager Steve Gantt, who took over for Austin, set up focus groups in every city department and gave them the task of figuring out how to save money.
Gantt also is conducting what he calls a "functional analysis," in which he goes through each department and writes down what it does and then assigns each function a priority.
So far this year, the city's revenue is slightly ahead of schedule, and its expenses are 4 percent less than budgeted - leading some critics to say the city's staff already has done an efficiency study, and they did it for free.
"I believe internally we could do a lot of this ourselves and use the knowledge of people who had been here for a long time," said City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, who was not present for the votes on the study and its funding but said he would have voted against it.
Gantt downplayed his analysis of the city's procedures, saying it was done mostly "by the seat of my pants."
"I would expect (EquaTerra is) going to ... probably have a more scientific approach to it," Gantt said.
That's why City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who shepherded the efficiency study vote through council, said she thinks the study is important.
"When I'm really sick, I'm not going to run the risk of trying to doctor myself. I'm going to go to someone who is trained do to this and has done it and has helped other people," Devine said. "It's the same thing (with the efficiency study). We're going to an expert in this field to help us do this."
As an example, Devine pointed to the council's decision earlier this year to reduce staffing at some fire stations in order to reduce the city's budget deficit. At the time, she said, council endorsed the cuts because fire officials said it was the best way to save money and not reduce services.
But since then, the Columbia Firefighters Association has produced a report that shows the cuts have reduced the department's ability to meet national standards for response times.
"Having that data makes you look at that recommendation a little bit differently," Devine said.
But Travis Carricato, spokesman for the Columbia Firefighters Association, pointed out that the association provided that study for free.
"Instead of (that money) going into the general budget that could be used to help the fire department, it is now used to help the efficiency study," Carricato said. "It sets us back even farther."