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Council OKs controls on spending

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Oversight of capital improvement project spending caused another round of friction between Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown and the Columbus City Council.

The council approved more than $7.5 million in capital improvement projects Tuesday, as Brown wanted, but with council-imposed restrictions she considers unwarranted and inconsistent with practices of previous administrations and councils.

The council approved 55 projects totaling $7,560,020 for 2013. However, the council also passed an amendment that requires projects exceeding the greater of 105 percent or $5,000 of the estimated cost to gain council approval.

Brown said the council was micromanaging spending line by line in the budget. Brown said she doesn’t oppose oversight but believes the council should impose spending limits on specific funds or departments, not each individual project within them.

“If you really believe that is what you should be doing, you guys have been fiscally irresponsible,” Brown said.

The mayor also questioned why these restrictions were not imposed on other spending, including more than $7 million for projects using economic development income tax funds in October.

She also said the council approved Tuesday an additional appropriation of $371,053 for the city and a $13.5 million operating budget for the city utilities department, neither with restrictions.

Jeff Logston, the city’s director of operations and finance, told the council he preferred leeway of 10 percent on a project because of variances in cost estimates.

Council members said the spending restrictions struck a balance between their need for oversight and the city’s desire to move forward with all the capital improvement projects.

“This gives you the ability to increase the amount,” council member Frank Jerome told the mayor.

“We feel like this is part of the oversight that is entrusted to us by the state statute,” council member Jim Lienhoop said.

Brown said after the meeting that line-by-line approval of purchases already occurs publicly at Columbus Board of Public Works and Safety meetings. Brown is a member of that board.

The council approved the capital improvement projects list with the restrictions 5-0.

Tim Shuffett was absent, and Dascal Bunch abstained. Aaron Hankins later said he meant to vote against the capital improvement projects ordinance, saying he was confused about what the council had voted on.

Support for mayor

Support for the mayor’s position expressed by several Columbus residents failed to persuade the council.

Max Lemley, a 2011 Democratic City Council candidate, said imposing these restrictions so late in the year had a “bad ring” to it.

“We’re trying to put limitations on what previous mayors have had the allowance to do. You’ve got to give Kristen credit for bringing more credibility to the city and to the finances we have,” Lemley said. “I hope this isn’t a political act, but this has that smell.”

The mayor and all the council members are Republicans.

Tamara Kiel asked what warranted the restrictions and why they weren’t imposed for other types of spending.

“I feel like the mayor has proven ... that she knows how to stay within a budget,” Kiel said.

David Jones, a 2011 Republican City Council candidate, described the $5,000 or 5 percent restriction as an “arbitrary application” of the council’s duties and said the council failed to provide a clear explanation of why restrictions were not imposed in the past.

After the meeting, Lienhoop told The Republic in an email that spending for capital improvement projects differs from projects using EDIT funds repurposed from the

outdoor sports complex bond.

“When we looked at the EDIT bond repurposing, we were looking at building projects. When we look at the capital budget, we’re looking at equipment,” Lienhoop wrote.

For the EDIT bond, the council had a list of projects and consultants’ estimates of how much each might cost.

“The council realized that such an estimate was prone to fluctuation, so the notion of limits didn’t arise,” he wrote.

Because the capital budget includes items such as garbage trucks and pickups, the council believed city employees should know what they will cost and the variance should be less, Lienhoop wrote.

“So we’re looking to put tighter controls in place,” he wrote. “In other words, we think they should give us a pretty accurate list to start with.”

Differences about oversight of the capital spending projects date to the Oct. 2 City Council meeting and resulted in a terse verbal exchange between the mayor and Lienhoop at the Nov. 20 council meeting.

How it works

The Columbus City Council approved the city’s 2013 capital improvement projects list of 55 projects with an estimated cost of $7,560,020. However, the council added a stipulation that projects that exceed the greater of 105 percent or $5,000 of the estimated cost need council approval. Here is how it would work:

The city wants to buy a street sweeper, and it is budgeted to cost $180,000.

105 percent of the budgeted cost would be $189,000 while the $5,000 threshold would be $185,000. Since the council’s provision is for the greater of the two possibilities, $189,000 would be the maximum the mayor could pay for the street sweeper.

If the actual cost of the street sweeper were $190,000, the mayor would need council approval to buy it. If the actual cost were $188,000, the mayor would not need council approval.


Other business

Also Tuesday, the Columbus City Council approved:

New City Council district boundaries, which makes them more even in population. The changes take effect Jan. 1, although they won’t apply until the next council elections in 2015.

A $13.5 million operating budget for the city utilities department for 2013.

$371,053 for 14 updated tornado sirens, 11 police car radios, a new paint truck for the city garage and a self-contained breathing apparatus fill station for the fire department.

$81,000 for insurance and utilities for The Commons.

A tax abatement of $722,000 for OSR Inc. to buy new technology screw manufacturing equipment to meet increased production needs. The investment would result in two additional jobs.

Rezoning part of the Westwood Preliminary Planned Unit Development to reflect residential development as an additional allowed usage.

Amending the maximum amount of scheduled and unscheduled overtime allowed for the city fire department.

The transfer of $32,000 between two fire department funds to pay for vehicle and building supplies.

Adding two departments to the list that transferring leftover money from budgeted insurance line items to the insurance non-reverting fund.

Setting the next City Council meeting for 5 p.m. Dec. 18 in the City Council chambers at City Hall, 123 Washington St. The time was moved from its usual 6 p.m. time to avoid conflict with the North versus East high school boys basketball games that night.

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