Cash-starved city must set priorities, fund top needs

IT'S NO BIG surprise that budget cuts have severely weakened the ability of Columbia firefighters to respond to fires.

City leaders might not have known to what degree they would be hindering the Fire Department, but they were well aware the cuts would hurt service. Just as they knew that cutting garbage pick-up for apartments and other commercial entities and charging retirees for free health care promised to them long ago would hurt. The city's poor financial state demanded deep cuts that spared few, if any, departments. The question is whether the cuts made did the least harm possible.

The Columbia Firefighters Association doesn't think so. Its study said reducing staffing at two fire stations hurt the city's ability to meet national response time standards and placed a strain on the rest of the system. The City Council's decision to take one truck at Station 9 on Devine Street and one at Station 8 on Atlas Road out of service will save $1.2 million a year. But, the association said, the cost is that the city can reach only 73 percent of property in the city in less than eight minutes. The national standard is 90 percent.

Candidates for mayor already are using the fire reductions as an issue in the April election. While calls for restoring fire coverage are understandable - and even warranted - the city can't respond in a vacuum. The fact is that a case can be made for restoring any number of cuts the city has had to make.

As important as it is to have adequate fire service, this is deeper than the Fire Department cuts. The real problem here is that City Council's failure to exercise sound financial stewardship in recent years severely hampers its ability to meet Columbia citizens' service needs. Bad bookkeeping, faulty budgeting, unchecked spending and other mismanagement ate away at city reserves and created deficits the city still is trying to deal with.

Instead of just responding to specific demands to fix individual departments, City Council must get a firm handle on the overall budget situation and then determine what's most important and ensure it can do those things well even in this poor economy. Whether you like the results or not, the city has done some of that, from cutting commercial garbage pick-up to cutting holiday pay and requiring employees to pay for health insurance. It must do more. People who move into a city and agree to pay a higher level of taxes have certain expectations, high-quality fire and police protection as well as regular garbage and trash collection among them. It may be that the city decides that maintaining well-staffed fire and police departments is more important than maintaining well-groomed parks.

The exercise doesn't have to begin and end within the city limits. Columbia needs to think seriously about how it can work with Richland County to combine some services to get more savings through efficiency.

There is no quick fix here. The city is struggling to avoid a deficit this fiscal year, and it faces the unfortunate task of having to cut more staff. That means it's going to get tougher and tougher for the city to deliver services.

That makes it ever more important to figure out not only what the city will do, but what it will stop doing. If Columbia is going to survive its new reality, city officials - or wannabe city officials - had better have a sound strategy for getting on the right track rather than simply catering to individual departments to get votes.