The Columbus Budget Briefing: The GrumbleButt SuperWonk Breakdown for Normal People

Budget2On Tuesday, May 19th, Columbus Council held a 3-hour plus meeting in which our elected officials and department heads appeared before Council to defend their requested budgets. There is no doubt that nothing will make people’s eyes glaze over faster than municipal finance. I get it, believe me. But there are very important changes being discussed for very important reasons, and I am going to try to break down what is being asked for versus what we can actually do.

We all know that we are living in trying financial times. Cities all over the country are feeling the pinch of reduced revenues and reduced funding from their respective states for services that now fall into the municipality’s realm of financial responsibility. This is not a foreign concept; the exact same thing is happening in businesses and households all over the country. We are all being forced into doing more with less

In Columbus, we have one more challenge laid on top of that with our property tax freeze. While our expenses for providing services continues to rise along with the cost of everything else, our revenue remains consistently flat. This leaves us 3 options. We can remove the freeze and increase revenue, we can cut services to citizens, and we can provide the services we do more efficiently. Until we (hopefully) get the chance to re-address the freeze as a community through referendum, we only have two of those options available to us; cut services or provide them more efficiently.

Let me add one more thing before I get into the meat of what was discussed on Monday. When I question the management of funds by any department of our city government, it is NEVER my intention for that to be seen as an attack on the people who are called to public service. I have a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude for law enforcement, our city employees, and our elected officials. But in these difficult financial times, every penny must be scrutinized, every efficiency must be maximized, and every redundancy must be minimized. My questions about how things are and quest for answers to how things could be done better should not be translated into disparagement of those rank and file servants of the public good.

So let’s get to it. I’m not going to discuss everything that was talked about, because I don’t want this to be a cure for insomnia. My intent is just to try and provide some illumination on some of the more controversial proposals.

Let’s start with the sheriff. Sheriff John Darr began his presentation with a 45-minute video that appeared to be professionally produced. Normally I wouldn’t begrudge the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) doing a video to explain their difficult mission of managing the jail, but the fact is this video’s narration had a political tinge to it that I found inappropriate. Were it not for that one unfortunate aspect of the video, I would have nothing but praise for it. I have no doubt that most Columbus citizens have no real concept of how difficult and complicated the task of running the county jail is. If the video was privately funded, I have no problem with it. I think it would have been beneficial if Sheriff Darr had offered up that information when he introduced the video. I also noted that the redundant services MCSO overlaps with the Columbus Police Department (CPD) were barely addressed, and those are the primary budget items under scrutiny for this current budget. Other than all that, it was a nice video.

The first area of redundancy involves an overlap between the MCSO and the Muscogee County Marshal’s Office (MCMO) in serving and executing evictions. You, like me, probably thought that evictions were the primary responsibility of the MCMO. It turns out they are not. Since the MCMO’s jurisdiction is strictly limited to the dictates of the Municipal Court, they can only serve evictions that are generated by that court. It turns out that you can also get an eviction served through the Magistrate Court. The fact that we even have both of these courts is somewhat redundant given that we are a consolidated county, and the divisions represented by those courts don’t exist in our county. Originally, a municipal court was empowered by local legislation and it’s jurisdiction was derived from cities and towns within a county. The Magistrate Court was meant to serve the county at large. In Columbus, the reason a plaintiff most often chooses one court over the other is that the fees in one of the courts are less than the other. The obvious fix would be to move all evictions into either the MCMO or the MCSO. I don’t think that it is possible to move all evictions to the MCMO. Magistrate Court gets its jurisdictional authority from state law, and the Sheriff is mandated to enforce the authority of that court. Among it’s mandates are dispossessory warrants and evictions, and as a local governing body our Council can’t do a thing in the world about that. If we really wanted to save some money, we would simply eliminate the Marshal’s office through local legislation and place the enforcement of the Municipal Court in the Sheriff’s hands. If that is too radical for you, however, another option might be to set a fee structure that would support not only the court’s cost in processing the action but the enforcing agency’s cost in executing it. This would isolate the cost directly to the party requiring that service and help fund these efforts within the MCSO and MCMO. It would require some bookkeeping changes and some cooperation from the Magistrate Court judge, but it could be done. If a Columbus citizen in distress can be asked to pay for an ambulance ride to the hospital, then landlords can be asked to pay the cost of law enforcement to execute their court orders and evictions.

The second area of redundancy involves an overlap between the MCSO and Columbus Police Department (CPD) in investigating criminal activities outside of the county jail and other facilities that MCSO is mandated to be the primary investigating authority. I must say, there seemed to be a great deal of confusion among some council members on this topic. I watched this section of Sheriff Darr’s testimony more than once, because I wanted to do my best to get to the meat of the matter. To give you a brief description of the mission of the investigations unit of the MCSO, suffice it to say that they are the ones who investigate any illegal activity within the jail in addition to other unfortunate incidents such as suicides and attempted suicides. Just because criminals are in jail doesn’t mean they quit committing crime. The Sheriff’s office handling these jail-related investigations is as it should be, and no one is suggesting that should change.

But as I understand it, there is an area of overlap that can streamlined. When a MCSO investigator gets information from a jail-related incident that leads to criminal activity taking place out in the community, they continue their investigation beyond the jail incident and out into the community. Currently, they are also investigating intelligence they receive from the community at large regarding criminal activity outside the jail. Obviously this is eating deeply into the resources of the MCSO, because under Darr’s administration the number of investigators has risen to an all-time high of 12. Historically, the average number of investigators has been 4. Our local law enforcement agencies are all quick to point out that they work together in a team effort to protect the public safety, so I offer the following solution in that spirit of team work. When the MCSO’s investigation provides intelligence leading to crimes being committed outside the jail, or they somehow receive intelligence originating outside the jail about criminal activity in the community, they should simply hand it off to CPD. Cases are handed off to other agencies that are better suited to handle them all the time in law enforcement. Mayor Tomlinson’s proposal returns the number of investigators in the MCSO to the traditional average of four, and it moves 8 of those positions over to CPD. It seems the perfect solution to have a team of highly specialized investigators within the MCSO to provide investigative services within the jail, and another highly specialized team of investigators within the CPD that are free to apply their skills far beyond the limits of the mandate of the MCSO.

It is noteworthy that while Sheriff Darr claims the shifting of those positions to CPD will essentially eliminate his investigations unit, it wasn’t important enough for him to show up to one single meeting devoted to discussing the allocation of those positions. Not a single one. It is essentially a cost neutral move that has the potential to exponentially improve the efficiency of both teams of investigators. Councilor Thomas suggested that it might not be *truly* cost neutral because CPD uniforms and cars would have to be provided to those who transferred over. With all due respect to Councilor Thomas, it seems to me that it also means that the MCSO will need 8 fewer uniforms and cars making it a wash.

The Marshal’s Office and his budget requests are a much more clear-cut matter. There are currently 20 sworn positions in the MCMO including the Marshal, himself. Of those 20, 11 are supervisory positions that do not perform deputy duties. This top-heavy structure came about because Marshal Countryman thought it necessary to combine several deputy positions in order to create supervisory positions. That leaves 11 people supervising 9. Of those 9, 2 positions have purposefully been left vacant by the Marshal so that he could re-allocate those funds to travel and other expenses. Those trips to the Tucson Hilton El Conquistador Golf and Tennis Resort don’t just pay for themselves, you know. Of those 7 remaining, 1 or 2 deputies could be on sick leave at any given point in time. That means we have 11 supervisors supervising what amounts to 5 people. That is an awful lot of chefs and not much stew. The MCMO is *clearly* over capacity and the proposed cuts are appropriate. Any personnel affected by the cuts in the MCMO have an open door at CPD, so no one should end up without a job.

Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of the travel and training the Marshal insists is necessary for his department is actually related to law enforcement functions that do not fall within the mandated jurisdiction of his office. The Marshal’s suggestion that the eviction process would suddenly jump to 3 months if the suggested cuts are enacted is nothing more than fearmongering, and quite frankly a disappointing tactic. To a cynical observer, that might come across as a threat to the people of Columbus that he will slow down work if he doesn’t get his way. I’m trying not to be that cynical. If the Marshal would simply focus on the mandate he was elected to manage without all of this extraneous spending, he would have more than enough resources to meet his mission.

In closing, I’d like to make a few observations. This whole disagreement is about mission. It is about the mandated mission of each of these law enforcement agencies. During good financial times, when the city coffers are full, government agencies can be funded at a level that can encourage mission creep. Sometimes it can happen so gradually over time that it can go largely unnoticed. After all, these public servants want to do everything they can to contribute to the public safety of our community. But when lean times come, like the one we are in now, we are required to make courageous and difficult decisions to create efficiencies, work smart, and eliminate the redundancies that simply aren’t necessary. We HAVE to roll back the mission creep. Not because we want to punish law enforcement, not because we aren’t all deeply grateful for the service of the men and women who serve the public good…but because we only have *so* much money. City governments cannot simply turn on the printing press to make more money like the federal government can. City governments cannot pass off the funding it can’t or won’t provide to a smaller jurisdiction the way the state government can. Municipal finance is where the rubber meets the road. The only revenue we have is the revenue we collect. A city’s primary source of revenue is property tax, and we have had a property tax freeze for decades. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

Councilor Davis summed it up most succinctly at the end of the Sheriff’s presentation by painting the stark financial situation Columbus faces. Before Sheriff Darr started talking, we had about $500k on the Add/Delete list (the list of items yet to be decided to be added or deleted from the budget) and $143k to spend on them. By the end of Darr’s presentation, approximately another $250K had been added to the list. Still…only $143k to cover that. And there are still several departments yet to present. And we still will only have $143k to cover any items *those* departments may want to be considered on the add/delete list.

I know these are hard decisions. I, like every single member of council and the mayor, wish with all my might we had the funds to provide law enforcement with everything they ask for and more. But wishing just won’t make it so. Bitching and moaning about how unfair it all is won’t grow any revenue or solve these shortfalls, either. Let’s be grateful that we have city leaders who are protecting our future as well as our present. Most cities don’t have leadership willing to make these hard choices. If those cities aren’t paying dearly for it now, they very soon will be. It is time for mutual sacrifice, team work, and compromise.

Work smart. Maximize efficiency. Minimize redundancy.

Peace and love, yall