Here's how Columbus' $32M in development funds will be spent
The Department of Development has entered 2021 with an almost identical operating budget to 2020, with a focus on increasing the availability of jobs and affordable housing.
The Department runs a lean operation with a budget of $32 million — a little more than half of which is spent on the 169 staff that work to fulfill its missions — but serves as a connection to many public and private partners.
“Development is very much a part of a larger plan to make sure that the community has the resources it needs,” Bill Webster, assistant director for fiscal services, told Matter.
Here is how the Department of Development budget fits into that plan.
How development funds are divided up
Administration — $9.5 million
Even though Administration is the largest budget item listed in the Department of Development, much of the work is carried out by strategic partnerships developed over the years with area nonprofit agencies, corporations and other governments.
“The thing to understand about the City of Columbus is that the city government plays a major role primarily because of the federal block grants that they get,” said Mark Barbash, director of Ohio Economic Development Institute and former City of Columbus development director. “But every city has this whole range of outside partners that do an awful lot of the heavy lifting.”
Webster agreed. He said, “Our focus is making sure that we are getting resources into the hands of our community partners so that way they can help and benefit the community.”
Human Service Organization partners will receive $3.64 million from the general fund and $1.36 million from the Emergency Human Services Fund, totaling $5 million. The funds pay for 44 programs at 41 community agencies.
The largest grant of $266,653 goes to YWCA Columbus, followed by four grants of $200,000 each going to Star House, Jewish Family Services, CHOICES for Victims of Domestic Violence, and the Economic Community Development Institute. These programs relate to the housing and job creation missions of the Department of Development.
Michelle Heritage, executive director of the Community Shelter Board
Other strategic partners will receive $9.8 million, almost $1 million less than last year due to the reduction in tourism from the pandemic. The money forwarded to one of the strategic partners, the , is 8.43% of the Hotel/Motel tax receipts. That tax also suffered from a reduction in tourism and convention traffic during the pandemic, according to Webster.
The (CSB) receives the largest portion: $6.3 million. It was founded as a collaborative effort between Columbus, Franklin County, the United Way and others to streamline homeless services in the area. The CSB coordinates programming and then partners with nonprofits like Faith Mission and YWCA to deliver the programs.
The CSB also receives $905,931 of grant funding managed by the city from a and the Investment Partnerships Program. A total of $44.4 million was budgeted by the CSB this fiscal year for homeless prevention, homeless services and housing, so only 16% comes from the City of Columbus.
While expressing shock and delight at the unprecedented federal funding for pandemic recovery that targets the most vulnerable residents, Michelle Heritage, executive director of the CSB, said she is still worried.
“Homelessness is a lagging indicator on a down economy. When we have something like a pandemic, humans that were already on the edge, predictions are that they will never recover,” she said.
Heritage feels the funding coming through now may not last long enough to protect these folks. CSB is ramping up early detection measurements and using more prevention tactics, which are significantly less expensive than rehousing a family after losing their home. Heritage said the CSB is identifying other social service points of contact that can screen for risk of eviction and is working with partners to train their staff to recognize families in danger of homelessness.
Housing — $17.6 million
The mayor has charged the Department to create an affordable housing plan for the city as it grows. One goal is to increase the number of affordable housing units created in 2021 over the five year average of 1,146 units.
“The efforts to push affordable housing have been pushed hard by [Ginther] and actually, even before he came in, the latter part of Coleman’s term, they were redoing the incentive policies. The issue of poverty and affordable housing, I think, has crept up on the leadership in Columbus,” Barbash recalled. “I think that it was the 2009 recession and now the COVID recession that has brought out some of the disparities and I think that, people that are now paying attention to it, it’s a little bit more obvious, but it was never high on the ‘this is my important issue’ agenda.”
Joe Motil, a community activist and former city council candidate, told Matter he feels the city can do much more in this area. He points out that $11.5 million of the 2019 voter-approved $50 million affordable housing bond issue has been allocated, but the public has yet to learn which projects have been funded from that money.
The city is contributing $139,000 for homeowner counseling and other support to keep residents in their homes. Also included in the city’s Equity Agenda is the goal to work to reduce evictions, where the city has found that Black families are disproportionately impacted.
In May, Mayor Ginther announced an additional $10 million for affordable housing initiatives — also pulled from the 2019 bond issue and not currently included in the budget — that will fund the construction and renovation of more affordable housing units. He also announced that he hired Erin Prosser as the first-ever assistant director of housing strategies for Columbus. Prosser was the former director of community development for the planning department at Ohio State University, which had a hand in the development of Weinland Park and University District.
Code Enforcement — $8.6 million
Mayor Ginther continues to emphasize investment in neighborhoods as the most important budget goal. Code enforcement contributes to that goal through safety and health measures such as alerting landlords to unsafe living conditions posed by their properties.
The city responds to emergency violations that pose immediate risks to residents, like raw sewage in basements, in less than two days over 90% of the time, the city’s budget document states. Three-fourths of the time they respond to the rest of the calls within two weeks. The Department set a goal to improve their response time this year by about 2%.
The 2021 Budget does not highlight any goals to increase assistance to homeowners burdened by increasing code enforcement highlighted in Matter’s analysis of last year’s budget.
In addition, this budget includes neighborhood support for environmental nuisance management with $400,000 for weed cutting on abandoned properties and $344,189 for graffiti removal, debris and tire removal and arborist services.
Economic Development — $4.5 million
The Economic Development Division assists local businesses and others looking to locate or expand in Columbus. Exactly $700,000 of this budget is sent to , the regional economic development group which works to increase economic activity in the central Ohio area. The division also has a goal of supporting the corridor plans which would connect residents with jobs.
By the end of the year the actual spending of this division will quadruple to around $16 million, if recent history is a good predictor.
“We have economic development programs where we offer [property] tax abatements [on real property improvements] to companies that are expanding and creating jobs and investments in the community,” Webster explained.
He continued, “Likewise we have performance incentive programs called the Job Growth Incentive and the Downtown Office Incentive, when we can provide the companies creating new jobs [with] grants that are equal to some portion of the income tax that we would collect on those new jobs.” The division hopes to spur the creation of over 2,600 new jobs this year.
Because the property tax abatements Webster mentioned also affect the school districts where the property is located, the city shares half of the new income taxes collected from those employers with the school districts. But there’s no way to predict what those income tax receipts will be, so they are only moved into the department’s budget through city council-approved resolutions as reports come in from the employers throughout the year.
The Finance Department maintains a “citywide accounts” line item to hold funds that could be used for these payments. Matter found in an analysis of the Division of Police budget that this is also the line item used to fund police brutality liability claims.
Planning — $1.7 million
The Planning Division develops long range plans on a variety of land use issues such as historic preservation, commercial zoning, public art, annexation, capital improvements, transportation systems, and urban design.
The division expects to review 2,614 property development plans submitted by developers during 2021, up a bit from their three-year average of 2,563. The city continually updates their zoning plans that provide developers with a guide to what type of development is possible. The city has set a goal of keeping the number of plans older than ten years under 43%.
Neighborhood leaders complain that a lack of staff needed to keep these plans current leaves zoning decisions lagging behind neighborhood needs, according to Motil.
“I give a lot of credit to Ginther for starting to rewrite the zoning code,” Barbash said. “I don’t think people understand how big a deal that is. That’s a huge deal as it relates to how zoning decisions are made and where and how development occurs. And it can cause a lot of controversy. Any city that tries to rewrite the zoning code is buying a lot of controversy and discussion. I give credit to the mayor for doing that.”
Land Redevelopment — $0.9 million
The Division of Land Redevelopment works to improve Columbus neighborhoods by turning vacant properties into utilized housing, commercial spaces or community gardens. This is also referred to in the budget as “land banking.”
Properties that are abandoned or seized by the city can be managed for redevelopment. The city has set a goal of returning 100 land bank properties to productive use. They hope to sell a minimum of 20 affordable housing units through the .
More work to do
In the changing landscape of a growing city, the Department of Development is a hub for many policy decisions and financial management activities. Folks in the department find resources, make deals, work with community partners, report to the Mayor and city council, but look for input from residents as they build plans and offer up solutions. The Department is attempting to tackle a huge number of foundational challenges facing the city, but didn’t ask for more money or staff this year to do it.
“The budget that we requested and received was more than appropriate on the operating side.” Webster said.