COLUMBIA — Smothered chicken steak is on the menu for the Columbia City Council's pre-meeting dinner Tuesday, but council members are considering whether to make themselves brown bag or eat before meetings next year.
The council's food spending is among several items on the chopping block as members try to find money in the fiscal 2011 budget for additional firefighters and police officers, a move that would make good on spring campaign promises to shore up public safety.
The second in a series of public hearings on the proposed city budget for fiscal 2011 will be held during the Columbia City Council's regular meeting on Tuesday. The meeting is at 7 p.m. in the council chambers in the City Hall Addition at Eighth Street and Broadway.
Four firefighters, a police officer and two joint communication operators, the workers who receive 911 calls, are being proposed as additions to the budget, which will be the subject of a public hearing Tuesday. The council is scheduled to approve a total budget of $385.5 million after a third public hearing at its Sept. 20 meeting.
The council can make hiring the additional public safety employees possible by trimming city travel and training expenses, employee car allowances, the council's contingency account, its food budget and other items.
“We’re of the attitude that it’s time to tighten our belt,” Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl said.
CAMPAIGN PROMISES AND PUBLIC SAFETY
The emphasis on hiring more firefighters and police comes on the heels of April’s elections, when Kespohl, Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley and Mayor Bob McDavid won their seats in part by adopting public safety platforms.
“We need more police officers,” Dudley said during his campaign. “The police chief needs all the help he can get.”
Police Chief Ken Burton had indeed brought to the council a list of 23 positions he wanted to fill, Columbia Police Department spokeswoman Jessie Haden said. But that was always a wish list. After the council identified $204,000 in cuts that could pay for two new police officers, Burton instead asked that it swap one of those officers for two joint communication operators.
Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill said Burton reasoned that two additional staffers would have more impact in the small joint communications department than in the larger police department. Plus, relieving overworked dispatchers would help police improve relations with the community, as well as foster better reactions to the officers, Thornhill said.
“If you call in with an emergency and you feel like your call was not handled as well as it should have been, by the time a cop gets there, you’re probably not going to feel the need to be as pleasant to that arriving officer,” Thornhill said.
The fire department has had two firefighters retire and two resign, according to an Aug. 28 letter from Fire Chief Bill Markgraf to the council.
The four new firefighters would fill these existing vacancies and staff a "quick attack" type rescue vehicle at Fire Station No. 2 on West Worley Street, Markgraf said.
This addition would bring the red-brick firehouse, Columbia's second busiest of nine, back to having two response teams, one with the ladder truck and one with the quick attack truck.
Columbia Professional Firefighters President Brad Fraizer said response times around Station No. 2 slowed when one of the station’s two crews was transferred in February to the new Station No. 9 at Blue Ridge and Providence roads in north Columbia.
The fire department has proposed about $150,000 in cuts to help offset the additional $344,000 it would take to fund the firefighters. These cuts include a reduction in the number of guaranteed vacation days, reduced travel and training expenses, elimination of take-home cars for assistant fire marshals and the assistant training officer, and a deferment in gear purchases, according to Markgraf's letter.
McDavid, who was endorsed by the Columbia Professional Firefighters during his campaign earlier this year, said firefighters and police have been a priority for him from the beginning. He said he’s seen other cities cut public safety amid financial woes and wants Columbia to avoid being one of them.
“Cities that manage their resources poorly end up cutting their police and firefighters,” he said. “We have to manage ours wisely.”
To find money for these positions, the council combed through the city's budget and proposed trimming around a dozen areas.
Some of the cuts would affect areas that traditionally have not used all their funding. For instance, the council's printing budget and its reserve account would be cut by $14,000 and $75,000, respectively, because they previously held excess cash. The city’s $100,000 contingency account would also be eliminated; it hasn't been touched in three years.
“Quite honestly, a lot of those cuts are not hugely painful,” First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz said.
City employees who receive $250 or more in monthly auto allowances would see those payments cut by 25 percent, a move that Thornhill said mainly would affect employees in the upper salary ranges.
The council also cut $60,000 from an original budget of $100,000 for pursuing the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Winning the award requires changes that increase effectiveness, sustainability and innovation in government. Thornhill said $40,000 is plenty of money to continue working toward the recognition.
Travel and training costs would be cut by about $130,000 across all departments.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The council also is considering whether to take money from its food budget. Council members aren’t paid, but they do get free dinners before meetings. Those meals run the gamut, including fish, tacos or Tuesday's smothered chicken steak. Jimmy John's, Boone Tavern, Bambino's Italian Cafe and Chevy's Fresh Mex are common caterers, Kespohl said.
Some council members, including Kespohl, said they could eat in advance without any problem. But Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser worried at a work session last week that permanently cutting the food budget might prevent some people from serving on the council.
Even with all these cuts, the mayor cautioned that 2012 will be a tough year, so belt-tightening is likely to continue. For one thing, there’s still the problem of pensions: Ideally, the city is able to fund its employees’ pensions with the interest made from its investments, but the tumultuous stock market forced the city this year to dig into the general fund for $4.2 million to cover pension payments.
McDavid noted that all the cuts being considered for fiscal 2011 don’t come close to covering the amount by which pensions are underfunded: there are four pension plans, and public safety pensions alone were underfunded by $55 million as of September last year.
“The way we look at city finances,” McDavid said, “is we’re not done trying to be frugal when the budget is passed.”