No one who has been paying attention to the spate of drive-by shootings and recent acceleration of shootouts on our city streets can fault Mayor Bob McDavid, Chief of Police Ken Burton, the City Council and the public at large for proposing an increase of police officers for the Columbia Police Department.
It is no secret that crime, particularly of the violent and barbaric type, is on the increase and that the criminals have become increasingly emboldened, perhaps in some measure because of the "street cred" derived from the publicity. In the immortal words of Mayberry's Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife, it is time to "nip it in the bud."
Nevertheless, the mayor's proposal to fund the additional law enforcement personnel with a special 20-cent property tax increase is a particularly terrible one for at least two reasons, both of which are related. Any time priorities are manipulated so that the end is justified by the means, it becomes increasingly easy to rig the system.
First, regardless of a perceived shortfall, the levying of a special tax to cure an ongoing problem sets a dangerous precedent that can only render future picking of taxpayers' pockets for other similar taxes infinitely easier to justify. Secondly and most importantly, funding public safety must be the No. 1 priority of the City of Columbia's (or any other municipality's or state's) revenue expenditure. It is axiomatic that the Police and Fire departments must be the first in line when the budget is prepared and revenues divided; funding public safety comes off the top.
Accordingly, special tax assessments, donations, bake sales, walk-a-thons, et al., are not proper venues, even in situations deemed emergencies. Once a special tax is levied, it becomes increasingly difficult to rescind, and the others, while perhaps initially popular, provide a false sense of security as they are not sustainable.
Admittedly, as I am not very knowledgeable of the city's budget and the revenues that govern the process, I don't have any easy answers. I do understand firsthand property owner reluctance to pile on yet another tax burden; consequently, some tightening of belts and sacrifice are to be expected.
Understandably, with the need for additional police, the mayor and some of the City Council members do not enjoy being reminded of the $326,000 appropriated to fund restoration of the interior of the Blind Boone home. Nevertheless, citizens who actually pay taxes cannot be expected to be particularly elated over the city's generosity in the name of diversity and political correctness.
One source of funding for the hire of additional law enforcement personnel might include a budget reduction of perhaps 1 percent across the board for each of the city's departments — that percentage to be altered up or down as defined by need. Most of us have had to adjust our family budget to account for unexpected expense or emergencies.
For example, within the last week, the city of Columbia announced the appointment of a new cultural affairs manager. Knowing that I am risking the wrath of the arts community along with that of devotees of other cultural pursuits, I must admit that the need for a "cultural affairs manager" escapes me. I am certain that funding for sustainability of the arts is important, but more so than another policeman on patrol?
The mayor, the City Council and the members of the newly appointed Anti-Violence Task Force have their work cut out for them, as this has been a festering wound on the city. For the task force to report findings and recommendations by November as the guidance states is a monumental task — one that will require cooperation, original thought, setting aside preformed notions and, most importantly, input from the public.
For the task force to be successful, it must go beyond the easily obtained and likely non-relevant opinions of the more affluent, better educated and visible and instead dig for answers among those most affected by the violence — the victims.
It is hardly a secret that most of the violent crime takes place in the First Ward, where the majority of the victims also reside. As they have a larger and more personal stake in the success of this venture, the input of the Almeta Craytons must be solicited and heeded. When the task force wraps up its business and goes on its way, those who live among the criminals are still at risk.
Much is riding on this effort to rid Columbia of crime, particularly of the violent and increasingly deadly strain. And while the findings and recommendations are expected to call for more funding, the special property tax should not be a consideration.
J. Karl Miller is a retired colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps living in Columbia.