COLUMBIA — Exactly where the conversation about staffing in the Columbia Police Department will go is a mystery to members of the City Council after Mayor Bob McDavid withdrew his support early Wednesday for a property tax increase that would pay for new officers.
McDavid announced on his Facebook page and his Twitter account that he no longer supports a property tax to pay for hiring more police officers. He said his decision was “based on comments made by the Columbia Police Officers Association” at a public forum Tuesday evening.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said Wednesday she was surprised by McDavid's statement and by the fact that he made it using social media.
“That was news to me this morning, just like everyone else,” said Nauser, who is co-moderator of the Mayor's Task Force on Community Violence. “It seems like an interesting way to discuss policy.”
The mayor wrote the Facebook and Twitter posts several hours after the three-hour forum ended. He withdrew his support a little more than a week after he floated the idea of a property tax increase at a news conference.
McDavid had proposed a November ballot issue calling for a 20-cent property tax increase that would pay for 35 additional police officers. The tax would generate about $3.5 million per year.
On Tuesday night, representatives of the Columbia Police Officers' Association said the tax is unnecessary. Instead, they said, the city could hire 17 new full-time officers with money the Police Department spends on overtime pay and another 19 with money it is saving on 911 operations.
Boone County voters in April approved a new three-eighths-cent sales tax that will raise about $9.3 million for 911 and emergency management operations. With that tax in place, the city will save about $1.7 million per year.
An analysis of city salary data obtained by the Missourian through a Sunshine request showed the Police Department spent a total of $1.89 million on overtime pay in fiscal years 2008 through 2012. The highest overtime expenses came in fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2012, when the department spent $531,292 and $557,123, respectively, on overtime.
Dale Roberts, executive director of the Columbia Police Officers' Association, repeated Wednesday his group isn't opposed to the tax. “We just saw no need to make a decision in that the money was already in the budget.”
Roberts also noted there are more than two sides to the issue. A vote against the tax wouldn't necessarily mean Columbia voters don't want more police officers.
“It’s like blackmail. They’re backing us into a corner on this,” Roberts said. “We felt like we were being held hostage.”
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said Wednesday that he is skeptical the association's strategy would work.
“I think it’s a misunderstanding from CPOA that all this money is just available, ” Skala said.
Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp agreed. “I haven’t looked at numbers, but that doesn’t appear at face value to be realistic. Everyone wants more staff, but there has to be dollars to pay for those."
The Police Officers' Association's suggestion about using former 911 money for police was a big concern to Nauser, who said the council has not yet officially decided on any budget issues.
“It’s not easy to take money from one department and put it in another,” she said.
Skala said he's unsure where the discussion will turn. "It’s going to be very difficult to reconcile a proposal that was put forward, then rescinded. It puts us in an unusual position.”
“I think it’s unfortunate that we don’t have unity in an approach to add more officers," Trapp said.
McDavid did not respond to requests for an interview Wednesday.
Sgt. Joe Bernhard, spokesman for the Police Department, said Chief Ken Burton would not comment because he did not attend Tuesday’s forum and because he had not talked to the mayor by Wednesday morning.
It was unclear whether McDavid's original property tax proposal would be discussed at Monday night's City Council meeting. Council members, however, agreed the public has the right to express its opinion on the issue, whether it does so at a public hearing or at the polls in November.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.