How Columbia spends its tax money next year could be determined by two council members who won't be in office to oversee its spending.
Mayor Bob Coble, who is retiring this year after 20 years in office, and Councilman Kirkman Finlay, who lost his bid for mayor on April 20, are driving the discussion of the city's 2010-11 budget.
After years of multimillion dollar budget deficits, the spending plan is a chance for Coble to leave behind a balanced budget that preserves city services but raises taxes for Columbia property owners.
For Finlay, the budget is a chance to prove that he is right about the degree of the city's financial crisis. Finlay wants a budget with no tax increases but a smaller government with fewer services - including fewer parks.
The city is projected to spend $2.7 million more than it earns next budget year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.
Coble and Finlay have a fundamental disagreement on how to cover that deficit.
Coble supports a property tax increase that would raise taxes about $15 for anyone who owns a home in the Columbia city limits assessed for tax purposes at $100,000. Taxes would increase about $23 for someone owning a business within the city limits that is assessed at $100,000.
The money from the property tax increase would be put into a separate fund that would pay for new police cars, firetrucks and garbage trucks. The money would be restricted, meaning city officials could not use it for anything other than buying vehicles.
The property tax increase would preserve about $400,000 a year that would have come out of the operating budget to maintain the city's aging vehicle fleet. It also would free up $700,000 set aside in the city's public works department for buying new vehicles.
Those savings would lower the general fund deficit to $1.6 million.
Also, the Fire Department was just awarded a two-year, $1.4 million federal emergency response grant. The first year of that money would reduce the deficit for the 2010-11 budget to $900,000.
The remaining deficit could be covered by the elimination of vacant positions and the early retirement of some city employees.
The budget includes 48 hours of furlough for city employees and a $2 million reserve for emergencies. Coble's plan would take $1 million out of the emergency reserve and eliminate the furloughs.
"It would be unconscionable to have 12 days of furlough and close half the parks to fund a $2 million cushion," Coble said of the reserve fund.
Finlay opposes the tax increase but supports the idea of creating a separate fund to buy vehicles.
Instead of raising taxes to create the fund, he wants to take money that would have been generated by the property tax increase - $1.7 million - out of the city's operating fund and shift it to the vehicle fund. That would create the fund, but not raise taxes.
That plan would increase the city's operating deficit to $4.4 million. Finlay would make up that deficit in three ways:
- Furlough every city employee for 96 hours - 12 days for employees who work eight-hour shifts - to save $1 million
- Cut the parks and recreation budget by $1 million - a move that would require that some parks be shut down
- Take $1 million out of the city's $2 million emergency reserve
That would reduce the deficit to $1.4 million. One year of the Fire Department grant would reduce the deficit to $700,000. The remaining deficit would be covered by eliminating vacant positions and the early retirement of some city employees.
"It's unconscionable to contemplate raising taxes in the tough environment we have now in a city that already has one of the highest (tax) rates in the state," Finlay said.
A majority of City Council members say they would have a hard time supporting a tax increase. They discussed the possibility Wednesday but did not make a final decision.
They are waiting on an assessment of the city's vacant positions and a recommendation on which ones can be eliminated. The assessment, due May 12, is being done by assistant city manager Allison Baker. Council members said they hope the report will identify enough savings to make a property tax increase unnecessary.
"All of us agree our police officers have got to have the cars they need," Councilwoman Belinda Gergel said. "What is nonessential to the core mission of the city is what we have to look at. Everything goes on the table, including salary reductions."
City Council members have scheduled a public hearing on the budget June 2. According to that schedule, council members would vote on the budget June 9 and June 16; it would go into effect July 1.
Mayor-elect Steve Benjamin and District 4 Councilwoman-elect Leona Plaugh are to take office July 1.