Two local governments approved annual budgets Wednesday, and the contrast could not be more stark.
The city of Columbus — blind-sided by an 11th-hour error that wiped out planned employee pay raises, equipment for its police and fire departments, parks/recreation and public works, along with repairs to municipal facilities — passed a $24-million budget that raised taxes for debt service.
On the same day, Lowndes County passed a $31-million budget that included employee pay raises without raising taxes.
For critics of city leadership, of which there is no shortage, the comparison supports the argument that the city has historically done a poor job of managing its finances. While there is evidence to support that point of view, it’s important to realize that there are some factors that also explain the disparity in financial health.
The county has a $30 million hospital trust fund from which to draw funds for capital improvement projects. The city does not. You cannot blame the city for that.
The county also has a large industrial/manufacturing and growing tax base. The city once had an opportunity to share in that revenue, but declined. It was an enormous error, certainly, but the ship sailed on that opportunity long ago, something recent city administrations have no culpability or power to change.
It is unlikely the city’s revenues will increase anytime soon and very likely that the county’s will.
With that landscape in mind, we believe now may be a good time for leaders to discuss ways for the city and county to work together to consolidate services when possible, something that benefits all residents of Lowndes County regardless of which side of the city limits sign they happen to live on.
County-city relations have been icy in recent years, but there are signs current leadership is amenable to working together. In July, newly elected Columbus mayor Keith Gaskin appeared before the supervisors in an effort to build relationships. Later that month, the county agreed to help the city with debris removal, a one-time, handshake agreement. It was a small gesture, but we hope it is symbolic of a collaborative spirit.
Last week, we applauded Gaskin’s efforts to bring local mayors together to explore opportunities to work together and share ideas.
We believe the greatest benefits will come from working with the county to address issues and seize opportunities.
There may be opportunities to consolidate the work currently being done by separate departments, chief among them parks/recreation and public works. In a county our size, there’s no meaningful benefit to having separate parks/recreation departments. We believe re-establishing a county-wide parks/recreation department will eliminate unnecessary redundancies while strengthening and enhancing programs and facilities.
We believe the same dynamic may be applied to public work and possibly other services.
It’s far too early to suggest, either. City and county leaders will need to examine these options carefully to learn whether or not they are worth pursuing. While they are talking, other possibilities may emerge.
But those discussions cannot happen until city and county leaders first express an interest in collaborating.
We believe there is a powerful argument to support working together. The city and county are interdependent in many, many ways. What harms one ultimately harms the other. Additionally, each has resources that can benefit the other.
Cooperation will benefit all of the citizens of Lowndes County.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.