Columbus City Council recently voted to authorize the 2019 Capital Improvement Budget, a $940 million infrastructure plan for the city for the upcoming year.
The department that was awarded the most capital funds by far this year was the Department of Public Utilities, which will manage almost 60 percent of this year’s capital budget. This includes more than $340 million for improvements to the city sewer system and more than $190 million in improvements to the city water system.
Behind the Department of Public Utilities comes the Department of Public Service, which will manage about 18 percent of the capital budget. The vast majority of this funding is $160 million in transportation system funding. Another $9 million will go towards refuse collection.
Next comes the Department of Recreation and Parks, which will manage about 8 percent of capital budget funds, with $72 million allocated towards improvements to the city parks system.
Other departments receiving substantial allocations in the capital budget are the departments of Development (4 percent), Public Safety (4 percent) and Finance and Management (2 percent). These allocations include $34 million of economic development funds, $21 million in fire system improvements, $20 million for construction management, $8 million in police system improvements and $7 million in housing funds.
The remaining 4 percent of the capital budget funds technology administration, education, the City Auditor’s office, neighborhood programs, municipal courts and local health and human services.
It is sometimes said that “a budget is a moral document.” What can we learn about the values of the City of Columbus from its capital budget?
Unfortunately, “moral audits” are not simple. A press release from the city trumpeted $14 million in early childhood spending, $11 million for a new fire station, $30 million in road maintenance, $182 million in sewer, water and street lighting improvements, and $10 million on housing in the capital budget. This articulation of a quarter of the spending in the capital budget shows us items the city is proud to fund.
Internal reports by the city, though, have said that the city should be spending twice as much on road maintenance as it currently spends. This estimate may be high, though, since it is drawn from engineering assessments of roads, not economic assessments of their ability to promote safe, free movement throughout the city. Advocates for spending on other categories might have other reasons to quibble with the spending decisions in the capital budget.
The biggest limitation we have in budgeting is the imbalance between fairly comprehensive accounting of costs and minimal accounting of benefits. What will the economic impact of this capital budget be? How will it impact poverty and inequality in the city? What will it do for educational attainment, health, housing and food security of city residents?
Ultimately, these outcomes are the true indicators of the success of a city, and budgets that adhere closest to these goals will be most successful at attaining them.
This column first appeared in Columbus Alive.