The good and bad behind $1 billion in proposed spending
There's $20 million for a new Linden Community Recreation Center. There's $4 million in new sidewalks citywide. There's $1 million for a new gunfire detection system for the police department.
Yes, I'm talking about the city capital budget — $1 billion in proposed spending that Columbus City Council will soon vote on.
Now, I know words like “capital” and “budget” are pretty terrible, but the capital budget is really where the rubber meets the road for local government.
The majority of city spending authorized every year happens in this capital budget. The city operating budget, which is presented as a glossy, 35-megabyte PDF on the city website, actually contains $100 million less than its humble spreadsheet of a cousin that is the capital budget.
In addition to the sheer amount of money being spent, the capital budget is also important because it funds a lot of the things Columbus residents interact with on a daily basis. A majority of this year's proposed capital spending will go towards spending on public utilities, mainly improvements to the city's sanitary sewer and water systems. Another major area of spending is transportation improvements, including road surfacing, bike trails and paths, bridge rehabilitation and intersection improvements. A smaller portion of the proposal is for park improvements and fire and police facility construction.
How does the city go about making all these complex decisions, sorting $1 billion of spending into hundreds of line items, then presenting them to Council to be voted on a week later? To simplify a complicated process, the city plans ahead.
On its website, the Department of Finance and Management publishes a six-year capital improvement program, which details future infrastructure needs for the city. This is informed by a list of thousands of capital improvements the department keeps track of, prioritizing on the basis of deterioration, crime and accident statistics, and public attention.
It's technocratic, meticulous work. And while it may seem opaque, it also seems to work pretty well. Compared to my experiences in other cities, the streets here seem to be in serviceable condition, and we have beautiful parks and an enviable public library system.
That being said, there is certainly room for improvement on the transparency front. One way would be for city leaders to turn their magnifying glasses towards infrastructure maintenance. It could be helpful for the city to publicize maintenance efforts and the amount of maintenance that the city has put off over time. Keeping track of the accumulated cost of maintenance that's been put off could assure voters that their tax dollars are funding infrastructure that's being well-used and will likely be used in the future.
Reporting of deferred maintenance isn't the be-all and end-all of capital budgeting, but if it can help the city make its way toward an even smarter level of investment in its public infrastructure, I'm all for it.