COLUMBIA — The Citizens Police Review Board can breathe a sigh of relief.
The Columbia City Council proposed to grant the board $8,700 in 2011 at its budget hearing Tuesday night, after supporters implored the council not to set the 8-month-old board up for failure with a $4,600 budget.
Money was the topic of the evening, as council members presented proposed cuts to about a dozen areas of the budget, and residents spoke out against rising utility costs. Mayor Bob McDavid also called for the 2011 electric rate increase to be lowered from 3 percent to 2 percent.
The council also accepted Police Chief Ken Burton’s request to add two joint communication operators, the workers who field 911 calls, next year in lieu of a second police officer. Burton said this addition would help forestall service reductions at joint communications.
The council is scheduled to approve a total budget of $385.5 million after a third public hearing at its Sept. 20 meeting.
Citizens Police Review Board budget
The decision to increase the Citizens Police Review Board’s budget came after a series of residents took the podium Tuesday to protest the drastic cut to the board’s 2011 budget from $23,200 to $4,600.
They argued that after investing four years into bringing the board to existence, leaving it on a shoestring budget would keep it from being able to carry out its function of increasing the community’s trust in the Police Department.
“What you’d be doing is cutting out any kinds of investigative services the board could provide,” said David Tyson Smith, an attorney who served on the board’s oversight committee.
The board was established in 2009 in response to the violent arrest of a 34-year-old woman at Columbia Mall in 2006.
At first, some council members were skeptical as to why the board members themselves couldn’t carry out these investigative services and had to spend money to hire an investigator.
In the end, Smith convinced them that an independent investigator would provide the distance from the situation necessary for a balanced investigation.
McDavid was the sole holdout: He said it was his understanding that the board’s charge was never to conduct independent investigations, and it could always come to the City Council in the future if it needed the resources for an investigation.
Utility rate increases
Residents will see utility rate increases across the board next year, but McDavid asked for a small, but symbolic, change in the electric rate increase from 3 percent to 2 percent.
“It’s a message to all the city government enterprises: We got to do better because we can’t be passing this on in this kind of economic reality to citizens,” he said.
City Manager Bill Watkins, seated next to the mayor, slouched and rocked in his seat as McDavid questioned the necessity for such high rate increases. Sewer rates will increase by 15 percent, water rates by 10 percent, electric rates by 3 percent and garbage collection fees by $1.
“We need to run our organization tightly,” McDavid said. “We need to decrease operational costs.”
Watkins defended the increases, saying they partly reflected the costs of required changes the city made to comply with new utility regulations. He said the ultimate decision on utility rates rested with the council.
“If you need to challenge us, we’ll live up to those challenges,” he said to McDavid.
Relief for joint communications
It’s not common for departments to refuse offers of money. But at the pre-meeting dinner, Burton requested that the money the council had found for an extra police officer be used instead for two 911 operators.
“We’re her customers,” Burton said, referring to joint communications director Zim Schwartze, who stood beside him. “I’d rather give her a couple of dispatchers so that services don’t have to be cut.”
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser raised the concern that the addition of one police officer and two 911 operators would cost more in the long run than the original proposal of two police officers and a police car: A new hire is a recurring cost, while a car is not.
The council accepted Burton’s request in the end.
The council will make final decisions on the budget Sept. 20.