EDITOR’S NOTE: In a municipal election marked by exceptionally divisive language and increasingly irresponsible attacks, the actual issues facing Columbus have often been lost. Each day this week, The Dispatch will present an editorial exploring the issues most often cited by readers and candidates. Many of these issues are the same for all Golden Triangle municipalities. Please make plans to vote June 8.
One of the most important duties performed by our mayor and city council is to plan and manage the taxpayer money set aside to provide city services.
In February, former Columbus CFO Milton Rawle was convicted of embezzling $290,000 after the state auditor’s office discovered Rawle had moved city funds into his personal accounts between December 2016 and December 2018. On Tuesday, state auditor Shad White told the Columbus Rotary Club there’s a possibility that the amount of money taken by Rawle could be even higher, suggesting the city consider hiring a forensic auditor to explore that possibility. The paper trail — particularly in 2017 and 2018 when the city ran $800,000 deficits — is largely non-existent and some funds remain unaccounted for.
It would be easy to attribute the city’s budget trouble to a rogue CFO. But the painful truth is the city has struggled with its budget for years.
In 2014, the city faced a $500,000 deficit, a shortfall COO David Armstrong attributed to an unrealistic budgeting process that ignored declining property tax values and resisting mileage increases to make up for the shortfall. At the time, Armstrong said the city should have raised millage “two or three times” to maintain the services their budget required.
That’s something that cannot be laid at the feet of Rawle. It’s a function of poor planning and a reluctance to do what families do every day — live within their means.
That city officials — both in city hall and on the council — were caught totally unaware of Rawle’s dubious handling of city finances displays a failure on their part to properly oversee spending, budgeting and basic accounting principles.
Over the years, the lack of attention has been demonstrated time and time again. In 2016, the city budgeted a $200,000 bond repayment from a local retirement community after that debt had already been paid off. The city’s failure to implement proper checks and balances at the city landfill resulted in multiple violations in annual audit reports.
There are other examples as well, including the lack of a system to track city-owned equipment.
City officials have said that many of the circumstances that created these lapses in budget management have been corrected through new policies and procedures, but basic accounting principles would have helped prevent many of these things.
Too often, the city seems tempted to use matching grants for projects that are essential, such as the roundabouts on Main Street. Although MDOT paid 80 percent of the $800,000 cost, it came at a time when the city is still struggling to maintain its city streets. That $160,000 may not be a lot of money in relation to the whole budget, but it’s fair to question that expense given the city’s financial state.
There has to be a time when city officials must say no, no matter how tempting the offers may be.
It is a time for fiscal restraint. The city’s failure to develop and fund an infrastructure program has driven the city into an unsustainable cycle of borrowing. With a falling general fund balance and a debt load of more than $30 million in 2018, Moody’s downgraded city debt and recommended focusing on reducing debt, improving reserves and stabilizing recurring revenues. How did the city respond? By privatizing bonds, thus removing the need for any bond ratings at all. Then it borrowed another $6.5 million for yet another round of street paving, something it has done four times in the past decade alone.
The city’s new government will face many issues. Not the least of them will be realistically establishing and consistently managing taxpayers dollars.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.