GEORGE KENNEDY: Budget 'bloat' not quite what has been reported

Thursday, September 2, 2010 | 1:30 p.m. CDT; updated 2:59 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 2, 2010

You might call Mike Martin the anti-Hank Waters.

As you may know, Hank presides over the Columbia Daily Tribune, filling the hole in the upper left-hand corner of the editorial page every day and sitting comfortably at the heart of Columbia’s establishment. He writes often and usually approvingly of the actions of our rulers in city and county governments.

Mike, a freelance science journalist, makes his living fixing up and renting out houses in the First Ward. His avocation is his weekly online publication, the Columbia Heart Beat. His particular delight is skewering city and county officials. Favorite targets are County Assessor Tom Schauwecker and, these days, City Manager Bill Watkins.

I subscribe to both publications (Mike’s is free; Hank’s is not.). If you’re also among the 7,200 Mike claims as his readership, you’ve no doubt been struck as I’ve been by recent headlines. This week, he wrote, “BALANCE BLOAT: City Manager hones cash stash figure.” The first paragraph continued the theme:

“Columbia city manager Bill Watkins continued his down-beat drum beat about City Hall’s flagging finances at last Monday’s City Council meeting, even disputing a Columbia Heart Beat report.”

Mike continued, “City Hall is sitting on a staggering $166,404,198.” (The capitalization and boldface type are Mike’s. His numbers come from the city budget and audit.)

That certainly caught my attention. So I did what Mike did not. I went down to City Hall and asked Bill Watkins how he could justify the bloat.

He began by pointing out that the Heart Beat report he had disputed was one in which Mike complained of city government wealth amounting to nearly a half-billion dollars. That, Bill told the Council, includes the value of all city property, including the sewers, water lines, buildings and sidewalks. Impressive holdings, I concluded, but no scandal.

The $166 million is, indeed, what the city held in cash and “cash equivalents” as of the last audit, Sept. 30, 2009. But, Bill demonstrated, it’s hardly the spendable cornucopia Mike’s angry prose would imply. For instance, the biggest chunk, about $65 million, is money set aside to pay for capital improvements such as roads and sewer expansion. The next biggest amount, $56 million, is “working reserves and capital projects for water, sewer, electric, solid waste, bus, airport, stormwater.” And so on.

The real spendable surplus, it turns out, is about $8 million, which Mike argues is still a lot. Bill responds that it’ll be used over the next three years to cushion the budget blow caused by revenues coming in lower than we’re used to. Nearly $3 million is plugged into his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.

As to those reserves, Bill summed up, “Glad to have them – they are saving our butt.”

That heartfelt if inelegant quote and the others from Bill come from the handout he put together for a council member who also is one of Mike’s readers and also wanted explanation. Bill gave me a copy. The curious councilman and colleagues must have found the explanation satisfactory, because when I went to Monday night’s work session on the budget there was no talk of bloat. Instead, the conversation focused on ways to squeeze into next year’s budget four more firefighters and a couple of cops.

Afterward, I asked several council members about Mike’s criticisms. I got the clear impression that they think his questioning is useful though his conclusions are sometimes hyperbolic.

Mike told me he has heard nothing directly from officials. Other readers, he said in an e-mail, “simply thank me for keeping an eye on it and providing references and links.”

One councilman, shaking his head at the hyperbole, conceded Mike’s contribution. “He stirs things up.”

My guess is that he’ll keep on stirring.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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John Schultz September 2, 2010 | 3:39 p.m.

Kudos to him as long as he stays out of murder investigations.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin September 2, 2010 | 4:44 p.m.

George Kennedy emailed me about contacting Bill Watkins. Here's what I wrote back:

1) Have you talked about any of this with Bill Watkins? If not, why not?

I haven't spoken with Columbia city manager Bill Watkins, but I have no questions for him. His positions and analyses of the city budget are probably the city's most well-advertised and well-reported, and have been for years.

I include links and references in virtually every story or op-ed I write.

[For George, I included roughly 3 dozen links to Trib, Missourian, and Business Times pieces about Mr. Watkins' budgets dating back to 2007].

Mr. Watkins regularly appears (solo) on radio talk shows and leads virtually every news report about the budget. He even has his own twice-monthly column in the Columbia Business Times, where he spills much ink discussing his take on the budget.

Mr. Watkins' pitch -- that the budget is "tight" -- "squeaky tight," in fact -- hasn't appreciably changed since he took office.

The implications and impacts are always the same: the average Columbia citizen will pay more and get less; the average city worker will get little or nothing in his or her pay package; and what the city manager proposes (in 636 pages this year) will mostly stand, after just a handful of late-summer hearings (and praise from Trib publisher Hank Waters).

Unpaid, volunteer Columbia City Council members are following this lead, shedding their own meager benefits -- and those of other volunteers -- to somehow "balance" a $450 million behemoth.

It seems like pre-emptive punishment for our elected voices rather than substantive economizing for city government.

I think it's a shame.

(Report Comment)
Carlos Sanchez September 2, 2010 | 4:58 p.m.

Thanks Mike for all you do in getting the real story out.

(Report Comment)

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