Columbia’s primary operating budget for next fiscal year has been whittled to $128 million, but how City Council will divvy up the money remains in flux as council’s first vote approaches in three weeks.
City Hall staffers sliced $6.3 million from their initial proposed $133.5 million general fund budget for 2014-2015. The now-balanced $127.9 million plan covers most key city services, including public safety, parks and recreation, public works, city administration, municipal court and other departments.
City finance officials balanced the 2014-2015 spending plan largely by cutting more than half of the 31 new job positions in the original plan devised to meet goals council had set. And a recommended 2 percent cost-of-living pay increase for Columbia’s nearly 2,200 full-time employees might be delayed until Jan. 1.
The scaled-back proposal uses $16.8 million in transfers largely from a $7 million loan to lease 82 vehicles, $4 million from the water/sewer fund and $3 million from meal and beverage taxes. Those transfers are added to $111 million in city income from property taxes, licenses and fees and various service charges.
Columbia’s income from fees has been cut by $400,000 yearly because council decided this spring to eliminate building permit fees for subcontractors and for most re-inspections of contractors’ work. Council called that a business-friendly move.
Still, the city expects to receive $30.7 million from licenses and permits, a $2 million increase compared to this year. Property tax collections are projected to rise by $1.1 million to $50.2 million.
Even at the reduced size, the $127.9 million general fund budget for next year comes in at $3.2 million more than this year’s. That’s a 3 percent increase over the $124.6 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30.
The revised general fund budget has 12 new job positions – four of them are for the city’s part of the 911 center. The cost of the emergency dispatch center is split 50-50 by the city and Richland County.
Slicing raises effectively by 50 percent through a six-month delay in implementation — until January — cuts $1 million from the budget, budget director Missy Caughman said.
Any pay raise might be in jeopardy, actually, as Mayor Steve Benjamin has said he doubts he will support one.
The biggest portion of the general fund spending plan would go to public safety: a total of $57.5 million.
The police department’s $34.1 million proposed budget eats up almost two-thirds of public safety spending. The department’s budget reflects a $2.4 million, or 8 percent, increase from this year. That includes $2 million to pay for 11 officers who had been funded with grants, Caughman said.
The fire department ranks second with a $20.4 million budget that is $384,000 larger than this year’s. That’s a 2 percent increase.
The emergency dispatch center is slated to receive $3 million, a $385,000 increase compared to this year, or a 9 percent boost. The center director wanted 17 new positions so that the center could meet national professional standards.
General Services, the department responsible for maintaining city buildings, is in line for the largest percentage increase, 40 percent. Its budget of $2.6 million is $740,000 larger than this year’s. About $600,000 of the budget would go toward repairing or replacing roofs at the police and fire departments as well as those at parks and other city buildings.
One of the new positions would be for a projects administrator who would guide the city through the years-long process of overseeing construction in the proposed Bull Street neighborhood.
The draft spending plan eliminates one city job, an assistant city manager for economic and community development. That’s a post formerly held by city manager Teresa Wilson.
Wilson also suggested that a vacancy in the legal department be used to allow the county prosecutor to keep a city prosecutor who would oversee about 3,000 pending Columbia cases, including nearly 250 violent crimes.
Benjamin said last week he is interested in hiring an annexation coordinator, one of the positions struck from the initial general fund budget.
He said there are several ideas for changes within the general fund budget, including upgrades at Hyatt Park, contributing toward construction of a baseball field for handicapped children and providing police with a place to store evidence gathered during investigations. But the mayor said he wasn’t ready to lay out specific proposals.
Councilwoman Leona Plaugh also said she has suggestions for changes, including getting more police cars. She did not recommend where the money would come from nor which departments should incur cuts to pay for the cars.
Council has yet to have an in-depth discussion about the rest of the overall $296.6 million budget for next year, including the largest single division. Next year’s water and sewer budget was recommended by staff to reach $137.5 million – a $9.3 million increase compared to this year.
But last week, council blew a $9.9 million hole in that plan when it rejected a proposed 8 percent average rate increase for residential customers. The rate hike was projected to produce $9,895,000, budget director Caughman said.
Council left it unclear whether it would settle on a smaller rate increase. But the refusal came so late in the budget process that Wilson said next year’s budget would have to be amended after July 1 if a rate hike is adopted.