Our View: City needed deeper examination of spending before blanket freezes




Columbus residents, like people all across the country, have been awaiting word on a possible government shutdown. 


We weren't expecting the threat of a local shutdown at the Columbus Municipal Complex on Tuesday. 


Tuesday evening, in a council meeting that quickly went off the rails, the city council voted 4-2 in support of Ward 2 councilman Joseph Mickens' motion to "freeze everything" regarding spending for a period of six months. 


That's pretty much the definition of a government shut-down, although there remains much confusion about just what "everything" means. There are six city councilmen and chances are that each has his own definition of "everything." 


After the meeting, Mickens said he intended for the motion to put an end to any un-budgeted spending, an interpretation shared by city attorney Jeff Turnage, who said he intended to have the minutes of the meeting changed to reflect that. Whether Turnage has the authority to do that is just another unanswered question on a night where the council's actions only served to muddy the waters in a failed effort to address almost $881,000 in budget shortfalls.  


Even under the most restrained interpretation of what "everything," means, there will undoubtedly be demands on the budget that cannot be anticipated since many budget categories are estimated and can be influenced by circumstances beyond control. For example, the city's police and fire departments do have budgets for overtime pay. But what happens under extraordinary circumstances -- a major crime incident or a disaster? What happens if turnover in a department requires unanticipated overtime? Public safety can never be sacrificed or compromised to meet a budget, but there is a potential for that if the council means what it says about "everything." 


This was a case where good intentions fell victim to poor procedure. 


It began when Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones voted against the city's claims docket -- which almost always passes without discussion -- because he had some questions about some of the charges. In one respect, we find no fault in Jones' position. Given the circumstances, it is right that the council closely examine every expenditure. What should be obvious, however, is that these examinations should have been made prior to Tuesday's council meeting. 


In Starkville, the mayor and board of aldermen often meet on the Friday before their Tuesday meeting in a work session. Columbus Municipal School District has similar meetings. These work sessions provide public bodies an opportunity to dig deep into the planned agenda and brainstorm solutions. Those work sessions equip decision-makers to make informed decisions during their board meetings.  


Under the circumstances, we are convinced that if the mayor and council had held a similar work session to address the issues, we would not have seen the knee-jerk action taken Tuesday. 


Today, no one is absolutely certain what "everything" actually means. In that respect, the solution offered may serve to make things worse than better. 


Tuesday night, the council sought clarity and ended up with confusion.



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