The budget for Columbia's victim services unit - the state-mandated five employees who shepherd crime victims through the city's municipal court system - is running a $125,925 deficit and posing a challenge for a city that is desperately trying to cut its costs.
Columbia's general fund budget, which pays for things such as police and fire protection, parks and recreation and garbage pickup, finished the 2009 fiscal year June 30 with a $9 million deficit.
The shortfall was covered by the city's reserve fund, which has now lost $24.7 million since 2007 and does not contain enough money to cover another multi-million dollar deficit.
To ensure the city does not run a deficit again this year, Columbia officials have reduced staffing at two fire stations and discontinued garbage pickup for Dumpster-like containers. It has even told some employees to keep the lights off in their offices - to work with natural light instead.
But state law requires the city to operate a victim services unit and allows the city to pay for it with fines from certain offenses. It cost $248,384 to operate the victim services unit last year, and the fines to pay for it totaled $121,459.
Interim city manager Steve Gantt said the city's general fund will have to make up the deficit.
It's not that Columbia residents did not commit enough crimes. It's that the residents did not pay their fines.
When someone can't pay a fine, the court puts them on a scheduled time payment plan. Dana Turner, chief administrative judge for Columbia's Municipal Court, is trying to tally up how many people have not made their payments.
Her staff printed out a list of names.
It was 788 pages long.
Turner said it is unlikely the city will ever collect those fines.
"You got folks that don't have any money that end up in jail that are unemployed," Gantt said. "They can fine them, but they don't have the wherewithal to pay it. You can't get blood out of a turnip."
Mike King, Columbia's public safety director, said the program is not wasteful. It has five employees: three victim advocates, one of whom is a police officer; a clerk and an office assistant. They contact more than 3,300 victims every year.
In one recent month, the advocates made contact with 365 crime victims, including:
- 73 criminal domestic violence victims
- 77 aggravated assault victims
- 31 robbery victims with injuries
- 2 homicide victims (Their families were contacted.)
"The numbers are amazing," King said. "When you look at the amount of numbers and amount of folks they impact in a very positive way, I came to the conclusion that this unit is by no means overstaffed."
Gantt said the police department will have to make cuts elsewhere to make room for the victim services unit, but he acknowledged that Chief Tandy Carter doesn't have much left to cut.
Instead, the city might rely on a $2 million "cushion" City Council members voted to set aside in the budget for any funds that have an unavoidable deficit.
But Gantt said he's hopeful that by turning off the lights and other cost-saving measures, the city will save enough throughout the year to cover the deficit.
"We finished the first quarter in the black on the general fund," he said, "so we have had some savings."