Harsh criticism from two elected officials in mayor's proposed budget

Columbus proposed budget released Tuesday Posted: Mar 31, 2015 3:50 PM EDT

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson released her proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 during a work session in council chambers on Tuesday.

The $265 million proposed budget included $1.4 million to be dipped into the reserves to balance the budget, which is better than the $5 million that has traditionally been pulled to help balance the city's budgets, according to Tomlinson.

The budget also created 63 days in the city's reserve fund.

"We've made great progress considering the FY15 budget was only 12 days in reserves," Tomlinson said.

As for city employees, there is good news on the horizon. Tomlinson's recommended budget also projected to give city workers a .5 percent pay increase and a .25 percent pay adjustment for retirees starting January 1, 2016. She also complimented city councilors on their diligence in the last two years.

"Your hard work with FY2014 and FY2015 budgets paid great dividends," Tomlinson said.

The mayor also pointed out in 2014, the city faced the prospect of laying off 100 to 120 employees, but because of the leadership and teamwork of legislative and executive officials, those jobs were saved.

The mayor's plan outlined several sections including "Laying a Firm Budgetary Foundation."

"We had to face persistent reductions in our local revenue and reserves due to state mandates and revenue exemptions, the years' long recession and the unexpected $11.3 million budget over runs in the Sheriff's Office," stated the mayor's letter.

Those elements have forced the city to change the way they conduct business. For the last two years, city council has been focusing on avoiding duplicate services among the three public safety entities within Columbus.

"Both the sheriff and marshal were invited on several occasions to participate in the discussion, while the marshal responded in part and in writing to council's inquiry during the FY2015 budget process, neither elected officer has thus far participated in staff's review of information related to council's referral for this FY2016 recommended budget," an annotated footnote of the mayor's report said.

The assessment results would yielded a reduction in the department's budgets compared to the previous year's budget and a change in manpower within the marshal's and sheriff's offices.  The MCSO's proposed budget is $26.972.433 million,  $681,523 less than the FY2015 adopted budget of $27,653,956 for the sheriff's office, but an estimated increase of $410,000 over Darr's 2014 budget.

In the marshal's office, the recommended budget for FY2016 is $1,236,498 compared to $1,579,177 for FY2015.  For FY2014, the marshal's office went over $13,500 in it's $1,589,196 budget, according to the mayor's letter.

To eliminate the duplicate services in both departments, the mayor is recommending moving eight investigative positions from the sheriff's office to and remove six jobs from the marshal's office to the Columbus Police Department.

When asked about the deeper cuts in light of the pending litigation filed by Darr and Countryman, along with two other elected officials over alleged inadequate funding for their perspective departments for FY2015, Tomlinson said the litigation was not a factor in the decision-making.

"We didn't take into consideration the litigation at all," Tomlinson said. "We took into consideration what we needed to do for a prudent budget. You cannot run the city, you cannot run policy on worrying about things that might happened. We have to run the city on police; we have to look at the fact and figures that we have."

When reached for comment, Darr said: "I would like to challenge the mayor to come over to the sheriff's office and lets go down to the county jail and lets truly find out what's going on at the county jail and what happens in the sheriff's office because I truly don't think she knows how...she thinks or will tell the public she does, but I don't think she truly knows what goes on in the sheriff's office because she has never walked in to the office."

Tomlinson said the sheriff is looking at it backwards.

"No one is trying to be the Sheriff; we are being a good steward over taxpayers' dollars. He is looking at it from his own perspective," Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson also indicated that they've looked at decades of accounting, years of analysis and interviewed people who work with other sheriff's departments.

"The question is whether the city is funding duplicate services and we've determined that we are. The discussion on duplicate services dates back to the early 2000s," Tomlinson said.

Countryman also responded to what's going on in his department with this statement:

Mayor Tomlinson seems determined ot keep the city embroiled in litigation for the remainder of her term. Her continuing intentional disregard of the city charge on the heels of three costly lawsuits is reckless and a dereliction of duty. Any illusory budget savings will be consumed by legal fees. Her claims of eliminating redundancies have been debunked repeatedly through Charter Review Commissions, and a University of Georgia student which found "the Sheriff and Marshal's Office are positively viewed as supplemental to the police department, rather than duplication." Given that the mayor has publicly supported this, her latest action is a thinly veiled personal vendetta against two of the city's major law enforcement agencies. Her callous actions when crime is at an all-time high under her watch should be a wake up call to Council and the citizens of Columbus.

The person's holding the jobs that would be moved to CPD, would have first right of refusal, meaning they will be given the opportunity to decline the jobs before they can be offered to anyone else.

Another highly discussed issue addressed in the mayor's proposal of "Straight Time" or "Gap Time," best explained as "Columbus Police Officers work 160 hours for their salary and then are paid hourly on top of their salary for any time worked up to 171 hours, after which point they earn the legally mandated time and one-half overtime," according to the report.

In an attempt to address the problem with the "patchwork system" and put an end to the inefficient pay practices, the Mayor's Commission on Officer Retention and Longevity decided a fair pay system is needed. The FY2016 budget seeks to reallocate money spent for Straight/Gap time and signing bonuses to a graduated interval pay plan (See pg. 16 of attached report).

The budget proposal will now go through a series of meetings to be held on the first Tuesdays of April in council chambers. The department heads will go before council during this process to discuss the budget in more detail.

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