COLUMBIA — Raises for city employees, new funding for road projects and more attention to Columbia Regional Airport are among the priorities City Manager Mike Matthes outlined in his first State of the City address.
Matthes posted the address on the city's website rather than holding a news conference and fielding questions. He addressed his written remarks directly to Mayor Bob McDavid and the City Council.
Matthes noted that sales tax revenue — an important source of income for the city — has risen 2 percent so far this fiscal year. That's a jump over fiscal year 2009, when sales tax revenue fell by 4.2 percent, according to the city's 10-year trend manual.
Materials presented to the council at its mini-retreat last weekend project another 2 percent increase in sales tax revenue in fiscal 2012, which begins Oct. 1.
Matthes said the news is good, but the city isn't yet out of the woods.
"We are still not at (the level we were at before the economic downturn), but we are getting closer to it," Matthes said in an interview after he posted the address. "This happens because people buy more things in Columbia. We want to encourage that. The whole community benefits from that."
Matthes also cited the increasing value of commercial permits and decreases in unemployment as signs of economic recovery. He said the city could reach financial equilibrium during fiscal year 2014.
He plans to look for new money sources for road projects citywide and to make Columbia Regional Airport a greater priority. He said he plans to increase regional partnerships for the airport and to arrange for flights to different hubs.
"There are a lot of people working to make the airport more successful," Matthes said. "I think almost everyone realizes that it is critically important to developing the region. An airport in Columbia that has a flight to an international hub would be an even greater asset."
Matthes also wants to emphasize tourism. He said he plans to introduce tourism-oriented policing, a strategy that uses police to help tourists feel more welcome.
"They are here to serve and protect, and that includes visitors," Matthes said. "It is an effort to fully engage all of our employees in that approach."
He also plans to increase the salaries of government employees, who have not seen raise in almost three fiscal cycles.
"I am absolutely going to be looking for some kind of a way to give a raise to employees," Matthes said. "It won't be very big… I will be working hard with (Finance Director) John Blattel to find some way to do that."
Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl said he agrees with many of Matthes' priorities, including a salary increase for employees, improving the city's customer services and making employees more accessible to the public.
"It's hard to decide what (the public's) best interest is," Kespohl said, "but we have to decide, and we work for them."
Kespohl also agrees with Matthes' plans to elevate the airport's importance. He said he wants to see another carrier fly to larger cities such as Chicago and Dallas. As it stands, Northwest Airlink provides passenger flights between Columbia and Memphis.
Regarding the economy, however, Kespohl said he worries about fiscal year 2012, when he foresees Columbia losing some federal grants and funding. He said it will be important to spend prudently in the coming years.
"The city's financial state is in pretty good shape compared to most cities," Kespohl said. "If we want to keep up our quality of life, we need to find funds elsewhere."
Neither McDavid nor other councilmembers could be reached for comment.