Added costs of police protection is price of growth

Saturday, January 19, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:54 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Kennedy is a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism.

So a 54-cent increase in our school tax will join a $77 million bond issue for sewers on the April ballot. The news reminds me of something Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala has been saying about the cost of cops.

I’ll try to explain.

Even before the school tax and the sewer bond hit the headlines, both the Missourian and the Columbia Daily Tribune reported how the council and City Manager Bill Watkins are scraping together pennies and shuffling assignments to get more cops into uniform and onto our increasingly hazardous streets. Officers have been pulled from the schools and sent on patrol. Money intended for other purposes has been diverted to the police personnel budget.

I first heard Karl address the issue back in December, during a public meeting called to allow citizens to express their concerns and officials to offer their assurances. He repeated his point several weeks later as the council was shifting dollars and bodies to combat street crime.

What he said was this (and I paraphrase): The increase in crime is at least partly a function of the city’s growth. Police protection should be considered as much a part of infrastructure as roads and sewers. The expense of more cops should be treated as a cost of growth and paid for, at least in part, by the developers.

Good point. Important point. Growth, especially the kind of dumb growth our city’s leaders have allowed and encouraged, is expensive. We’ve never required newcomers to pay their fair share of the costs not only of moving them and their waste but of protecting them, educating their children and providing all the other services new residents require.

Karl’s election to the council, like that of Jerry Wade in the Fourth Ward and Barbara Hoppe in the Sixth, was due, I think, mainly to the growing concern among the citizens about all the ramifications of Columbia’s expansion.

Since their arrival, the council has taken a small — very small — step in the direction of fiscal sanity by raising slightly — very slightly — the fees charged to developers. I suspect I’m not the only voter who has been at least a little disappointed that movement in the right direction has been so slow and so slight.

The school tax increase, part of which would help pay for two new schools, reminds us just how expensive growth is. A new fire station is under construction, and plans are drawn for sorely needed road expansion. There’s more, but you get the point.

We’ll also be voting in April on three school board positions and on the First and Fifth Ward council positions. Both developer-friendly council incumbents are seeking re-election.

One thing is for sure, the best way to increase police protection isn’t to jerk officers from the schools or raid the piggy bank intended for other services. The best thing, the foresighted and fair thing, is to treat the cost of cops — like the cost of new schools and sewers and roads — as the cost of growth it is.

The question Karl raises and his colleagues must answer is an old one: Who pays?

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