*UPDATE: McDavid reverses stance on new police hires.
COLUMBIA — Mayor Bob McDavid’s plan to raise property taxes to pay for 35 new police officers ran into opposition Tuesday night at a public forum hosted by the Columbia Police Officers’ Association.
The association, which represents about 80 percent of the city's police force, was represented by three active-duty officers and one retired detective, who joined Executive Director Dale Roberts to discuss their positions on police staffing and to respond to comments from the public.
While the association did not directly oppose the mayor's proposal to raise $3.5 million through an increased property tax, Roberts suggested that additional hiring could be made with currently available funds.
“The CPOA is not taking an anti-tax position,” Roberts said. “What the CPOA is saying is we don’t see why it’s necessary.”
The association presented documents suggesting the money now being spent on overtime could be enough funding to support the hiring of 17 new full-time officers without raising property taxes.
“The overtime money is already being spent, and that money could be transitioned into full-time people," Roberts said.
Roberts and the panel of officers cited extensive overtime, short turnaround between shifts and lack of officers per square mile as some of the reasons additional officers were needed. They said people often have to wait for extended periods of time while police respond to a backlog of emergency calls.
"As of 6 p.m. this evening, every officer was on duty and there were 16 911 calls waiting for a response," Roberts said Tuesday, citing a text he received from an on-duty officer.
The officers discussed the challenging conditions of working with anunderstaffed force.
“I went to an accident where they waited for three hours, and it breaks my heart," police Officer Patrick Corcoran said. "I feel like I’ve let you guys down. It's poor service, and there’s nothing I can do to change it."
Concerns regarding the mayor’s proposal extended past the property tax. If the proposal is not passed by voters, the association is concerned the public and city leaders will interpret that to mean the residents of Columbia do not want the officers, as opposed to not wanting the property tax.
“There’s more overtime that can be worked right now. We would love to see more officers in any capacity," Corcoran said.
Many of the approximately 50 residents in attendance also questioned the need for a property tax to pay for hiring new officers. Additional avenues of funding were also suggested.
“I don’t agree with the property tax increase,” Jim Duncan said after the forum. “Property tax is already extreme. Using a sales tax would soften the palate.”
The residents and Roberts agreed about need for more members of the force.
Roberts also said new officers could be funded with money that will be freed up after 911 call responsibilities are shifted to the county and paid for by a new sales tax that passed last spring. The tax will also pay for a new call center facility to be built near the Boone County Jail.
“That’s money that’s already in the public safety budget," Roberts said, referring to the overtime pay and the 911 response funding. "It was there last year, it’s here this year, and somehow it’s going to be gone next year."
“It appears that the city manager wants to take $1.9 million or $2.2 (million) out of the public safety’s budget today and then tomorrow ask you to pass a tax to put money back in for 35 officers,” Roberts said.
Earlier Tuesday, the mayor said his proposal was based largely on recommendations made by the police association.
“The CPOA has previously asked for more officers, so I’m basically responding to their requests,” McDavid said.
Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.