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2016 budget sound document, but future fiscal challenges remain

The $30.17 million operating budget approved Thursday by the Board of Mayor and Aldermen showed sound fiscal management on the part of the city’s budget oversight committee, which avoided the temptation of using one-time funds to balance a tight budget.

While the city’s projected revenue was put at $43.27 million, $13.1 million of that total was in one-time funds — money that will be used for capital improvements, repairs and matching funds for grants. Its name means exactly what it says: money that will not be renewed after this fiscal year. It may carry over to the next fiscal year, but it is already spent and can’t be used for something else.

What the committee did was place the one-time funds in a special category to keep them from influencing the operating budget, which is funded by recurring money like taxes and fees the city collects for its operations.

“The bottom line we were trying to get to was true operating revenues and operating expenses,” city Accounting Director Doug Whittington said, adding to qualify for the one-time lists, the money had to be for projects and items that would last over a 20-year life span, such as capital improvements and grant matching funds.

“In my opinion, I think this is the most responsible budget I think in the three years that we’ve voted on,” Mayor George Flaggs Jr. said. “This is a budget without tax increases, without furloughs and without layoffs, and we haven’t cut (employee) benefits.”

By taking the action it did, the committee helped the city avoid a more than $500,000 deficit and end fiscal 2016 with a projected $15,611 fund balance, or surplus, and put it on a sound operational footing. But the city is still not out of the woods financially.

As Flaggs has pointed out, 72 percent of the city’s budget is tied up in employee salaries and benefits, and firefighter overtime is in excess of $781,000 as of the city’s last pay period. If the city is to ever get on a stronger financial footing, those numbers will have to drop and only the Board of Mayor and Aldermen can address that situation.

The board has discussed both issues numerous times, and the start of the fiscal year is a good time to stop talking and take action. They need to do their research, put aside personal and political considerations and do the right thing.

The final decision may not sit well with some people, but these men were elected to make the tough decisions, and leadership requires people to make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions.

The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and a lot depends on how fiscally responsible this board and the city’s department heads are with the new budget. How they handle it could mean the difference between having an even sounder financial picture in the future or having to pass a property tax increase to shore up an ailing budget in 2017.