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City Council discusses ballot initatives at winter retreat

Sunday, December 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The April ballot might be getting a bit longer.

The City Council and staff discussed seven ballot initiatives at its winter retreat Saturday — five of which could be put to voters on April 6.

2009 Columbia budget report

Finance Department Director Lori Fleming gave a report to the council about the 2009 budget. Some of the highlights were:

  • The city used $200,000 in available reserves in 2009.
  • Sales taxes decreased by 2.4 percent as opposed to the predicted 3 percent decrease.
  • The solid waste enterprise fund had revenue about $1.9 million higher than expected, largely because of the elimination of distributing garbage bags.
  • The electric enterprise fund had revenue about $4.5 million higher than expected, largely because of the price of electricity being lower than expected.
  • Based on current projections of expected revenues and expenditures, there will have to be significant cuts to expenditures to not deplete the city's usable reserves. If the city does not cut spending, the reserves will run out in 2012.


Those five proposals are amendments to the city charter.

There were no votes taken at the retreat, but the council encouraged City Manager Bill Watkins to move forward with submitting the issues for council consideration at future meetings.

To appear on the April ballot, an initiative would have to be ready for the Jan. 4 meeting. The initiatives would have to be approved by the council no later than the Jan. 19 meeting.

Watkins said the amendments are housekeeping issues that have arisen because the problems weren't considered when the charter was written in the 1950s.

Water and Light Director requirements

One amendment would change the job qualifications for the director of the Water and Light Department to not require that the director be a registered engineer.

"I don't think this position needs to have that kind of technical expertise," Watkins said.

He said that because the department has grown, the director needs to focus more on managing the department and being a visionary than on engineering. Watkins said that is the responsibility of the Chief Water and Chief Electric engineers, who are required to be registered engineers.

Acting city manager protocol

Another proposal would be to allow the assistant city manager to become acting city manager. According to the charter, only the leader of a department may step in as acting city manager.

Watkins said there was no assistant city manager when the charter was written, so the possibility was not considered.

The change would not require that the assistant city manager be named acting manager, but it would allow it.

More time to process initiative petitions

This proposal would allow the city clerk's office to take 30 days to certify submitted petitions instead of the 10 the charter allows.

City Clerk Sheila Amin said the deadline has sometimes caused problems. If the county clerk's office is too busy to help certify the signatures, then the city clerk's office must set up database access, which can take a whole day.

Amin also said there can be a problem when there are several petitions submitted on the last day allowed.

The proposal would also remove the maximum number of signatures allowed on a petition.

Internal fund transfers for the entire year

If approved, this measure will revise the city charter, which prevents city offices, departments or agencies from transferring funds during the first half of the fiscal year. The report presented to the council said that the restriction can prevent the speedy implementation of grants or capital projects.

Loosening of security of deposits restrictions

When dealing with city funds, the charter requires the city's bank to maintain investments and capital of specific kinds to cover a portion of the funds.

The proposed amendment would loosen the restrictions on what specific kinds of investments the bank is allowed to use. Finance Department Director Lori Fleming said this proposal would allow the city to use the same requirements the state uses, which she said are still safe and conservative but less restricting for the bank.

Concerns

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said he had some concerns about putting forward so many ballot initiatives. He said he worried it would create a "slippery slope" of encouraging people to submit more ballot initiatives.

"I think there's a psychological component to making any sort of change that can bring additional change that changes the way (the city charter) is supposed to be," Skala said.

Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said that he isn't concerned about citizens submitting initiative petitions and that a fear of that should not prevent the city from updating the charter.

"I think we have a responsibility to keep the charter current and modern," he said.

Possible future ballot initiatives

The City Council and staff also discussed two initiatives that the staff would like to see on the November ballot.

One is a renewal of a one-eighth-cent sales tax for the Parks and Recreation Department. The tax, which was established in 2000 and renewed in 2005, will expire unless it is renewed by the voters in November.

The possibility of using a ballot initiative to make changes to how the Stormwater Utility is operated was also discussed.

Public Works Director John Glascock said he would like to have an advisory board established for the utility that would help determine what to put into a ballot initiative. Glascock said he hopes the proposal can be completed in time to be placed on the November ballot.


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Comments

Larry Bossaller December 16, 2009 | 11:11 a.m.

The City Council has not addressed the most important item: Public and Human Safety. The present City Council ideology and priorities are not in proper perspective. For example, the Council voted 4 to 3 to implement the anti-smoking ban. This was a no-brainer compared to other cities and governments voting to implement the anti-smoking ban. 3 of the City Council voted NOT to implement the anti-smoking ban. Another example is the "Safety camera's" installed downtown to insure human safety. The present City Council wouldn't even discuss it, yet over 3000 Citizens signed a petition to put the issue on the ballot. I just saw where the "ARC" had consideration of the "safety cameras". The "Downtown Association" wanted the safety cameras and was willing to put $25,000 toward the installation. Another problem is the "killer curve" on Creasy Springs. People have been getting killed for years, many accidents with people getting hurt, yet the city council hasn't corrected the problem. The same area has roads turning white from the rock quarry dusk and the dusk to go into nearby homes. The Prairie Hills subdivision is isolated when Creasy Springs floods,yet the city wouldn't connect Prairie Lane to correct the problems. Also, the current fire station on Providence could be in the Prairie Hills subdivision in a few minutes for emergencies, but again, the city wouldn't spend the money to correct the sitution.
The city has no money for these types of situations to protect public safety, yet can build buildings for themselve and etc.
We definitely NEED CHANGE with the City Council and City Goverment. PUT People with management backgrounds on the City Council!!

(Report Comment)
John Schultz December 16, 2009 | 3:14 p.m.

If the smoking ban was about public health, where is your call for the city to outlaw the sale, possession, and use of tobacco inside the city limits? Why should the city profit via sales tax dollars of something that is unhealthy?

Downtown "safety" cameras won't ensure anyone is kept safe, only that money is spent in an attempt to keep people safe. London is covered by thousands of closed-circuit cameras and crime still happens there. You might have a better chance of apprehending offenders after the fact, but actually reducing crime is not supported by the studies Karl Skala has mentioned during council discussion. If property owners want cameras downtown, let them buy them or soon we'll have other parts of town saying they need them as well.

(Report Comment)

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