Following several cost-saving measures implemented in the spring, Columbus ended Fiscal Year 2020 with a $2.8 million surplus, Public Information Officer Joe Dillon told The Dispatch last week.
By Sept. 30 — the end of FY 2020 — the city took in $24,119,441 and spent $21,334,163, Dillon said. Compared to the originally-budgeted figures, which proposed a balanced budget at $23.9 million, the city saw an uptick in revenue and spent more than $2 million less by the end of the year.
The surplus indicates a better financial standing compared to fiscal years 2017 and 2018, where the city ran at a deficit exceeding $800,000 each year. The savings came after Mayor Robert Smith cut back employee hours and therefore reduced pay and froze hiring and travel between April and July. The measures were estimated to save the city $1.56 million at the time, The Dispatch reported.
The city council amended the budget in July for the first time, but then amended it again Nov. 3 as required by state law to reflect the surplus. The year-end budget amendments lowered the previously budgeted revenue by $210,000 and slashed the budgeted expenditure by $2.7 million. Dillon said the budget was amended to match the actual year-end figures. The city’s action was days after the state-set deadline, since the law requires the year-end amendments to be approved by city council no more than 30 days after the fiscal year ends, said state auditor’s office spokesperson Logan Reeves.
Of the amendments, the city changed several budget line items to reflect a higher property tax revenue than anticipated, according to a copy of the document obtained by The Dispatch through an open records request. Dillon told The Dispatch Oct. 30 the city received $10,123,506 in property tax revenue — which is an increase from the $9,838,080 it had requested from Lowndes County Tax Assessor’s Office.
The city saw less revenue in other categories, including $323,286 less in police fines and forfeiture and $99,721 less in rental income at the Trotter Convention Center. Dillon said the loss of income at Trotter was anticipated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Police Chief Fred Shelton declined to comment on budget-related issues.
The biggest cut in spending comes when the city slashed $1.94 million in “transfer out.” Dillon said the money was historically used to pay for the city’s debts.
“The category ‘transfer out’ was historically used to satisfy bonded indebtedness including Moore’s Creek and University Mall (Tax Increment Financing) bonds among other things,” he said in an email to The Dispatch Sunday.
However, he said, the city raised millage last year instead to cover the debt payments. The millage rate — used to calculate how much each resident needs to pay in property tax — was raised from 47.59 to 51.24 last year.
The city also saw year-end salaries drop across the departments, such as fire, police and court. The police department, for example, saw a cut of $895,711 in overall expenses, including a $637,244 drop in salaries, $94,664 less in matching retirement benefits and $36,358 less in overtime pay. Its cost of travel and training, however, rose by $36,851. The department was only allowed to have a maximum of 54 officers instead of the 64 originally budgeted following the spring hiring freeze, which Smith lifted in July, The Dispatch reported.
Other departments experienced similar cuts and increases in earnings. Dillon said the reduced salaries are partly due to the rolled-back work hours in the spring.
In the administrative and finance department, however, salaries increased. The department experienced an overall cut of $1.8 million in expenses, but saw an uptick of $17,565 in salaries.
Dillon attributed that to the special election expenses after former Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor passed away. Ward 1 Councilwoman Ethel Taylor Stewart, sister to Taylor, won the election runoff in October 2019.
Yue Stella Yu was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.