It started when Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones voted against the city’s claims docket because he had questions about some of the charges.
From there, the council, led by Ward 6’s Bill Gavin, grilled Columbus’ fire and police chiefs about their departmental overtime — all in an effort to rein in spending after the city suffered a near $881,000 deficit last fiscal year.
By the time Tuesday evening’s Columbus City Council meeting came back to questions Jones posed about how city credit cards were being used, Mayor Robert Smith had heard enough. So, he challenged the council, referring specifically to items citizens most often request from their respective councilman.
“What about all these speed humps? They cost about $800 or $900 (apiece) to put in?” he asked. “… What about these LED (street) lights y’all are always asking for? Those are about $300 each? … I need to know, council. If we’re going to cut, let’s cut.”
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens saw Smith’s “speed humps and street lights” and raised him more than he bargained for.
Mickens moved to place a “freeze on everything” for six months, broad language that drew a second from Ward 3’s Charlie Box and earned approval on a 4-2 vote. Jones and Gavin voted along in favor, while Ward 1’s Gene Taylor and Ward 4’s Fred Jackson opposed.
Before the vote, Jones and Jackson asked for clarity on what constitutes “everything,” but the motion went forward unaltered.
“We need a freeze on everything until we get a grasp of what’s going on,” Mickens said.
Smith, for his part, said he could live with that.
“I’m good with it,” Smith told councilmen. “But when the citizens call asking (for things), and those are your constituents, you’re going to tell them about the freeze, right?”
What ‘everything’ means
Immediately after the meeting, Mickens told The Dispatch his motion pertained to all spending that isn’t already budgeted for Fiscal Year 2019, which began Oct. 1.
“No new projects,” he said. “No new spending that’s not already expressed in the budget. That’s what this means.”
That’s also how City Attorney Jeff Turnage interpreted the motion. In fact, he plans to suggest the city amend the meeting minutes to reflect as much.
“It was obvious to me that’s what he meant, and that’s how I will recommend the minutes be crafted,” Turnage told The Dispatch after the meeting. “We’re not shutting down the city government. I expect when I send the city my bill that I will be paid. I feel all the other vendors the city uses can expect the same.”
The freeze, beyond speed humps and street lights, could affect hiring and travel, as well as employee overtime, which garnered at least a half-hour’s worth of discussion on Tuesday.
Some of those freezes could negatively impact public safety, Taylor said.
“The LED street lights especially are a safety issue, and that’s why I voted against the motion as it was made,” Taylor said. “Many times, we put these lights in high-crime areas to help promote safety, and it helps.”
Jones, who was the last to raise his hand to support the freeze, and thus cast the deciding vote, said he still wants more clarity on what exactly the measure entails.
“I wasn’t going in there looking for a freeze on everything, but we do need to look at what we’re spending and how we’re spending it,” he said. “I believe we will have to come back at some point and define what ‘everything’ means.”
Spending on city credit cards is not part of the freeze, however, despite Jones’ efforts Tuesday.
Discussion between Jones and the mayor became confrontational after Jones started questioning how and when city credit cards were being used.
Then he asked for those cards to be frozen until the city could account for them all, but Smith said that is impossible because such a measure would hamper department heads making purchases within what has already been budgeted.
According to Jones, the city holds 22 credit cards. He requested the names of who has each card, and he said Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle provided him a handwritten list of 22 names, along with the card number each is associated.
Several of those names listed, Jones said, are no longer city employees.
“There are three of these cards in Selvain McQueen’s name,” said Jones, referring to the former police chief who hasn’t been employed with the city since 2014.
Rawle told the board each card is held by a current city employee or official, and the city simply didn’t change the name after the card changed hands.
Smith directed Rawle to provide Jones with an updated list of cardholders.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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