By Paul Gable
One look at the City of Columbia budget deliberations tells you it’s an election year in the city.
Council recently pledged a two percent, across the board pay raise for all city employees in next year’s budget and even more for fire and police.
The firefighters received a 3.3 percent pay raise retroactive to January 1, 2013. Approximately 400 police officers and seventy 911 dispatchers will receive an additional 3.3 percent mid-year pay raise in January 2014.
History proves there is no better way to get city employees on the side of incumbent council members than to give them a pay raise in an election year.
Along with the police pay raise costing approximately $400,000, council is proposing spending approximately $700,000 more for 800 new security cameras at intersections and in city parks.
You would think the city is awash in cash with all these pay raises and extra cameras, but that is not the case and that is what is troubling.
Reportedly, as many as six funds will be raided to help pay for these extra expenses. This includes 75 percent ($750,000) from the city’s budgeted emergency fund for next year.
Additionally, Mayor Steve Benjamin proposes dipping into water and sewer reserve funds to pay for utilities at the former state hospital campus on Bull Street and repay the funds with property taxes. It’s a no-no to commingle designated fund monies with general fund monies, but that doesn’t seem to be a consideration to Benjamin.
Benjamin said the city is on sound financial footing because it has hundreds of millions of dollars on its balance sheets. However, assets on a balance sheet don’t necessarily translate into cash to pay for general fund expenditures as Benjamin should be learning.
This doesn’t look like it is going to end well. When local governments start shifting money around the budget from reserve funds to immediate expenditures, it never does. But, if the problems don’t arise until after the November election, these machinations may have served their purpose.