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Columbia city manager focuses on sustaining existing programs

Thursday, June 4, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
City Manager Bill Watkins gives the State of the City address at the Council Chambers, highlighting accomplishments of the past year and the goals and obstacles that the city foresees in the future. "It's been a long time since we as a community have had to face some of the economic challenges we will face in 2010," Watkins said in his address after he referred to the 1980s as the last period of no city revenue growth. Much of his speech addressed questions regarding efficient use of existing funds and programs.

COLUMBIA — The city's fiscal condition is "sound but not comfortable," City Manager Bill Watkins said during his fourth annual State of the City address on Wednesday morning.

State of the City

ECONOMY/ENVIRONMENT

Goal: To craft an “SOS” strategy to “Seek Opportunities to Save” city resources and use them more efficiently.

Steps:

  • Create and fund a new position to look for ways to save city money.
  • Set efficiency benchmarks, be accountable for savings and strive for returns on investments.
  • Create an advisory task force to revise stormwater utility funding.
  • Modify land disturbance ordinances.
  • Update comprehensive development plans and zoning and subdivision codes.

ENERGY

Goal: To reduce energy use.

Steps:

  • Implement energy-demand management to reduce the amount that customers use.
  • Implement an Energy Star assessment of all city buildings.
  • Create incentives for developers to build energy-efficient structures.
  • Revise city building codes to reduce and conserve resource use.

STAFF

Goal: To fund a three-year talent strategy to identify staff that can fill positions left open by expected retirees.

Steps:

  • Complete an employee pay scale and job description review by looking at professional and supervisory staff.
  • Have an employee committee create an application process for future employees and assist in their training.

NEIGHBORHOODS

Goal: Create more opportunities for citizen engagement and communication with the city.

Steps:

  • Merge functions associated with neighborhood relations and property code compliance into a single unit.
  • Improve Police Department communication and accountability.
  • Appoint a transit advisory committee to advise the City Council on the bus system.
  • Not defer maintenance funding on existing roads and sidewalks.

BUSINESS

Goal: To continue to support economic development.

Steps:

  • Continue to work with Regional Economic Development Inc.
  • Continue the shift to a technology-based economy while still seeking manufacturing jobs.
  • Continue the discussion on downtown redevelopment.


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The theme throughout Watkins’ speech was not on introducing new programs but on carefully managing those that already exist. This is the first time since the 1980s that city revenue has experienced no growth, Watkins said. The budget for fiscal year 2009 projects is $74.9 million in general revenue, which would be down 2.6 percent from fiscal year 2008. Watkins said fiscal year 2010 might also see a decline in revenue.

The theme echoed last year’s address, when Watkins also emphasized refraining from new incentives and programs.

Watkins first spoke of sustainability, which he said is more than climate control and energy; it also involves maintaining city services that residents expect and retaining effective city staff, many of whom are expected to retire in the next few years, he said.

The city has scheduled nearly a quarter of the programs at the City Council’s annual retreat this weekend on sustainability, Watkins said. The council is to define the goals of a new sustainability manager, who is to focus on saving city money. The job’s tasks are likely to begin by engaging the community and businesses in energy-efficiency incentives but could broaden to ensure accountability and efficiency across city departments, city Public Communications Director Toni Messina said.

Watkins focused a large part of his speech on the city’s workforce, saying that it has been his goal to “recruit, hire and retain the best possible employees with the funds available.”

He is to propose to the council that the city fund a three-year talent strategy to find qualified staff that can offset the substantial number of city employees expected to retire soon.

Although he did not mention layoffs, Watkins did say that some empty positions would not be filled in the new fiscal year.

“Positions that have become vacant and that I feel we can live without, I will probably not fill them,” Watkins said.

A four-year internal review of all job descriptions is to be completed this summer, Watkins said. The review also is to include how the city’s pay scales compare with open-market levels.

“Our goal long-term is to move all of our positions up, comparable to market levels, so we are not substantially above or substantially below what it costs to fill them,” he said.

Watkins said he would like to provide an across-the-board raise for all city employees, but that's “probably not in the cards this year.” He said the city would have to contribute more to pension funds for retired employees because of the hit they have taken in the recession.

Watkins suggested creating an advisory task force to update the utility funding structure to meet toughened environmental standards and the city’s growth.

“The stormwater revenue system, set by voters almost 20 years ago, just is not adequate for what we must do,” he said.

Watkins said the council is to discuss amendments to land disturbance ordinances, update the city’s development plans concerning zoning and subdivision codes, and try to lower the city’s energy use through demand-side management.

The city manager briefly outlined four areas that are to be funded by more than $1 million through a federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant: Energy Star assessments of all city buildings, energy retrofits for some city buildings, a pilot project to create energy-friendly building codes and building design incentives, and funding for the sustainability manager.

Watkins said that the city is to focus on maintaining existing infrastructure in neighborhoods rather than seeking to build new assets. Trying to save money by deferring maintenance is a strategy that has led to collapsed infrastructure in other communities, he said.

In the past, the city has spent funding on new sidewalks rather than repairing existing sidewalks, Watkins said. But he said he has immediate plans to fix sidewalks that are falling apart in old neighborhoods such as East Campus.

Because of increasing bus ridership, he also outlined plans to appoint a transit committee to advise the council on the bus system, stating that the council is committed to making it more accessible.

He also spoke about upcoming changes to the Police Department administration that are being implemented by Police Chief Ken Burton. Watkins mentioned a distribution system in the works to make sure police officers are spread throughout the city and not all responding to one incident.

He also said that the Police Department spends a lot of resources on solving crimes when more focus could be placed on crime prevention.

Despite the dour revenue expectations, Watkins said he firmly believes “we are at the bottom” of the economic downturn and on the way out. But the city is not yet in a comfortable position, he said.

“It’s been a long time since we as a community have had to face some of the economic challenges we will face in 2010,” he said.

The State of the City address sets the table for discussions at the council's retreat, which is to begin Thursday and continue through Saturday afternoon at the Lodge of Four Seasons at Lake Ozark.


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Comments

Charles Dudley Jr June 4, 2009 | 4:51 a.m.

Watkins tried to cut the living hell out of the FY2009 City Budget last year with numerous programs campaigning hard to keep what little they had already. Most of these programs operated and still do on under the 100k budget line, meanwhile the City still spends money on multi-million dollar projects that not many can see the sense in.

Is this the type of City Manager or even City Council this community really wants or actually deserves looking over us?

What happened to the money from the FY2009 City Budget that was to go to the Ombudsman position that was created? Is it still there or did they transfer that money elsewhere pulling the wool so to say over the eyes of the community?

Now Watkins wants to create similar positions in another tight economic year?

Give us all a break here and realize Bill Watkins that the citizens of this community are not as stupid as you believe them to be and I know many cannot wait until we elect a new Mayor and hopefully he or she boots you out of that job for good!

It is time this community realizes how much we are all getting jacked around and kick all of the good ole boy network out of City Government offices and get people in there who will get this community back on track as it should be. That is unless all of this community likes what it is getting now but by comments I see on local blogs,forum boards,radio shows and in both newspapers that is not the case.

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