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Columbus CFO suspended without pay in wake of budget deficit revelation

 

Columbus Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle, standing, appears before the city council Tuesday evening at the Muncipal Complex. The council suspended Rawle for 16 working days, without pay, for failing to provide city officials a clear picture of the city's financial status in a timely manner. The city operated at a near $881,000 deficit in Fiscal Year 2018.

Columbus Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle, standing, appears before the city council Tuesday evening at the Muncipal Complex. The council suspended Rawle for 16 working days, without pay, for failing to provide city officials a clear picture of the city's financial status in a timely manner. The city operated at a near $881,000 deficit in Fiscal Year 2018. Photo by: Zack Plair/Dispatch Staff

 

Zack Plair

 

 

Columbus Chief Financial Officer Milton Rawle has been suspended for 16 working days, without pay, for failing to comply with job performance standards. 

 

City councilmen voted 5-1 Tuesday evening to suspend Rawle. It came two weeks after he surprised them with a report showing the city had operated at an $881,000 deficit in Fiscal Year 2018, which ended Sept. 30. The council in its Nov. 20 meeting amended that year's budget to reflect the deficit -- created by a roughly $467,000 revenue shortage and more than $413,000 in excess expenditures. 

 

A source familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named, said councilmen criticized Rawle for not being forthcoming with information about the city's financial standing sooner, especially when the council approved a Fiscal Year 2019 budget in September based on what they believed to be a balanced 2018 budget. 

 

Rawle presents monthly financial statements to the mayor and council, and councilmen approve a claims docket -- a list of city expenditures -- at each of their bi-monthly meetings. Still, several councilmen claim those documents didn't give a clear picture of the city's cash flow. 

 

The 16-working-day suspension will equate to four calendar weeks, since city administration operates on a four-day work week. 

 

As executive sessions are not held in public, the public record for which councilman opposed Rawle's suspension will not be available for at least 30 days. 

 

Rawle declined to comment after the meeting, as did his immediate supervisor, Mayor Robert Smith. 

 

However, in an interview with The Dispatch last week, Rawle indicated the year-end deficit was somewhat of a surprise to him, too. 

 

He said the city entered August showing a surplus that turned to a steep deficit in the last six weeks of the fiscal year -- during which time city councilmen were considering the FY 2019 budget. 

 

While Rawle did suggest the council raise the property tax millage for general operations to offset future expenses -- which it did not -- he failed to indicate the 2018 budget had slipped into the red until two months after the new budget was approved. 

 

Instead of trying to revamp the 2019 budget before it was approved, Rawle said he decided to take a "wait-and-see" approach. 

 

"A lot of people see that big deficit number, but what they don't realize is if a couple of things go the other way, the number is a lot lower," Rawle said. "I took the attitude of looking in January or February -- when we had a clearer picture of how (2019) was going -- and see if the new budget needed amending." 

 

On the revenue side, city sales and property tax collections lagged behind budgeted projections. Also, Columbus didn't receive $200,000 it thought it would receive from Lowndes County for its parks department as part of an agreement the two entities made when the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority split into separate parks departments in October 2017. 

 

Expense-wise, the city police, fire and public works departments exceeded their budgets by roughly $475,000 combined. Most of that came from excess overtime, Rawle reported. 

 

The deficit dropped the city's cash on-hand -- which includes a cash balance in its general fund accrued from previous years' surpluses and a $900,000 dedicated reserve fund -- to about $2.3 million. 

 

Last week, Rawle defended his budgeting practices to The Dispatch. 

 

"It's a crap shoot because there's no way you can know exactly what's going to happen," he said. "It's not an exact science. You set the budget, and you hope. ... The good news is it's a new fiscal year, and we have time to make adjustments as necessary." 

 

Four councilmen -- including Ward 2's Joseph Mickens, Ward 3's Charlie Box, Ward 5's Stephen Jones and Ward 6's Bill Gavin -- have confirmed to The Dispatch those adjustments will include immediate spending freezes of some kind. All four mentioned city travel, while some also mentioned hiring freezes and curtailing departmental overtime.

 

Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.

 

 

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