Editorial: City leaders should upgrade to second class

COLUMBUS’ city council is considering a change in local government structure that would increase the size of the city council, create a new position to oversee municipal finances and make a few other changes common to Indiana cities our size. It’s a change that’s overdue and simply makes good government and business sense.

Based on reporting from The Republic’s Jana Wiersema, the council appears to have the numbers, as well as Mayor Jim Lienhoop’s endorsement, to approve an ordinance that would reclassify Columbus as a second class city under Indiana law. Odd choice of words aside, the second class city designation would be an upgrade. Columbus currently is designated a third class city, the classification for communities with less than 35,000 residents.

With an estimated 50,569 people and growing, according to current census estimates, Columbus is well past the population threshold to count as a second class city under state law. If the city council votes to make the switch, these would be the most significant changes:City Council would increase from seven to nine members. Instead of the current makeup of five district council representatives and two at-large members, future councils would have six district representatives and three at-large members.

Instead of a clerk/treasurer, the city would have an elected clerk. The clerk/treasurer’s financial duties would transfer to a city controller appointed by the mayor.

The mayor would no longer preside at city council meetings, nor would the mayor hold a tie-breaking vote. City council matters that result in a tie would be deemed defeated for failing to get a majority vote.

If city council passes this change, the new structure would not be effective until 2024 at the earliest.

A small cost would be associated with this change — Lienhoop estimates about $150,000 a year — most of which would be the salary of a skilled city controller. However, we would argue that an expert with experience in municipal finance, incentivized to get the most bang for the city’s buck, could return multiple times more than that to taxpayers by identifying savings and efficiencies and prudently managing city resources.

Lawmakers devised the city government classification system for good reason. At a certain size, cities become extremely complex, particularly where municipal finance is concerned. We believe an enterprise of the size of the City of Columbus demands the services of a full-time, dedicated city controller responsible for expert stewardship of the city’s finances. If for no other reason than this, Columbus should become a second class city.

It’s also notable that our city is an outlier for having not adopted second class status already.

Consider this: Columbus is one of 26 Indiana cities with a population between 35,000 and 599,000, entitling them to be designated second class cities. Republic research finds that of those 26 cities, 22 have adopted second class status. Of the four that have not, Columbus is joined by at least two other cities that have considered or are now considering making the change.

As we see it, there is no reason for Columbus not to step up in class, so to speak, and procure the government structure designed for a city of our size.