COLUMBIA — Money will be tight in fiscal year 2009, City Manager Bill Watkins said in his annual State of the City address.
“Last year was extremely tight, financially, and I don’t see much relief for fiscal year 2009,” Watkins said.
Rather than creating new programs, he said, the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, will be focused on efficiency through redirection of funds and strengthening of partnerships with community organizations.
Wednesday morning’s speech was Watkins’ third State of the City address since taking the position in 2006. He said he has faith in Columbia’s economy over the long term but still emphasized the need to redirect resources throughout the city.
Watkins mentioned the declining national economy, saying that because the city does not expect increased revenue, it must use existing funds efficiently. This can be done by putting money where Columbia needs it most, he said.
“I’ve told the council that this can’t be the year for new and expensive initiatives or major increases in existing programs,” Watkins said. “We must focus on using existing resources more intelligently.”
Watkins said he hopes to do this by strengthening partnerships with other groups in Columbia, particularly in the areas of health and social services, economic development and law enforcement.
Watkins proposed redistributing funds toward economic development and bringing new jobs to the region. The economic playing field has changed, Watkins said. Global shifts, such as higher energy costs and fewer domestic manufacturing jobs, have had a local impact.
Columbia can strengthen itself economically through partnerships with the Regional Economic Development Inc. and MU, Watkins said.
“I recommend that we take a leadership role to restructure REDI and redirect its efforts from emphasizing traditional business recruitment to greater support for its partnership with the university,” Watkins said.
The purpose of REDI, a public-private partnership, is to help coordinate and direct sensible economic growth in the community, said Bob Wagner, vice chair of REDI and president and CEO of Columbia Insurance Group. One of Wagner’s major concerns is that in recent years, the number of jobs in Columbia has been shrinking.
“Instead of seeing our better paying jobs leaving the community, we need to do something to bring them back in,” Wagner said.
MU has much to offer potential employers, Wagner said, and a stronger partnership with MU will be key to job growth. MU’s formal addition of economic development to its research mission is a step in the right direction, Watkins said.
Watkins also said he hopes to streamline the city’s review and inspection processes.
“My intent is to break down government silos created when we don’t talk to each other or coordinate our work,” he said.
Watkins’ next proposal is to improve health and human services. He said the city should increase its investment in its health agency, changing the name to “the Department of Health and Social Services” and adjusting the mission accordingly.
“The demand for social supports has increased dramatically — the available resources, not so much,” Watkins said.
He cited examples of this recent increased need. In the Columbia Public School District, nearly one-third of students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches, and the client load at the Central Missouri Food Bank has increased by 28 percent.
Watkins also spoke about the crime spike that has commanded attention. He recommended strengthening Columbia’s law enforcement approach through a stronger partnership between Columbia and Boone County justice, government and education communities.
“The police plan, in my opinion, must assess our community’s public safety environment, collect reliable data, identify assets and resources and focus on people and issues,” Watkins said. He suggested holding a summit.
Police Chief Randy Boehm said there is always an opportunity to strengthen these relationships.
“We work together daily with (other law enforcement agencies) on all kinds of investigations and programs,” Boehm said. In light of Boehm’s upcoming retirement, this assignment will rest with the new police chief and the departmental staff, Watkins said. This increases the need for partnerships, he said.
“I think I can speak for our command staff that certainly we’d be open to that,” Boehm said.
Watkins gave his speech on the eve of the City Council retreat, where his recommendations will be discussed in detail.
Missourian reporters Catherine McComb and Kourtney Geers contributed to this article.