On Monday, Columbus City Council discovered what it thought would be a $550,000 surplus in its proposed FY 2022 budget was instead a $1 million deficit. Incredibly, the discovery of the discrepancy came not through scrutiny of CFO Deliah Vaughn, COO Mark Alexander, Jr., the city council, its budget committee or Mayor Keith Gaskin, but by questions from a Dispatch reporter. One question in a Monday interview caused Alexander to notice that while income from the city’s solid waste service was included in the budget calculations, the expense of the service ($1,571,069) was not.
Just like that, the planned budget went to … solid waste. We note the symmetry.
The discovery comes just two days before the state law-mandated budget deadline and is likely to wipe out plans to better equip the police and fire departments, tend to long deferred maintenance at several facilities and provide employee pay raises, all of which were built into the flawed budget.
For an administration and multiple councilmen that came into office vowing to apply an extra measure of vigilance to the city’s budget after the Milton Rawle fiasco led to prison for the former CFO and major deficits for the city, the discovery of this error is potentially more than an embarrassment.
The timing is more than unfortunate, leaving little time to adjust the budget to provide for additions the city felt were a priority. As a result, this won’t be the budget the city leaders hoped for; it will be the budget they’ll have to settle for.
Additionally, there is reason to believe that a similar error was made in the current fiscal year budget and possibly in years prior. More investigation will be necessary, but it is possible that this error over multiple years contributed to the multiple years of deficit spending that have plagued the city.
As embarrassing as this is for the city, we commend city officials for acknowledging the mistake and, more importantly, allowing reporter access to records that, during the previous administration, were often difficult to obtain because of stalling tactics and a general lack of cooperation.
It is the media’s job to ask questions and hold public officials accountable. The cooperation a reporter receives from these officials can either expose errors and correct mistakes or perpetuate them.
What’s important here is that the error was discovered before approving a budget that was doomed to produce a deficit.
The Gaskin administration deserves credit for creating an atmosphere that allowed the media to do its job. In this case, it proved extremely important.
We hope both City Hall and the council are sufficiently chastised to the point where every line of every budget category is given the scrutiny it deserves from now on. Doing so will not only result in a legitimate budget, it will help restore much-needed confidence that the city is serious about performing its due diligence in fiscal matters.
If that is what happens, Monday will be merely an embarrassment rather than a troubling reflection of our city leaders’ competence or commitment.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.