Columbia city staff backs tax increase for police despite mayor's about-face

Saturday, August 17, 2013 | 5:24 p.m. CDT; updated 6:19 p.m. CDT, Saturday, August 17, 2013

COLUMBIA — City staff still likes the idea of increasing property taxes to pay for additional police officers despite Mayor Bob McDavid's decision recently to withdraw his support for the proposal.

McDavid held an Aug. 5 news conference in which he proposed a ballot measure that would seek a 20-cent increase in the city's property tax. That move would generate $3.5 million per year. Early Wednesday, the mayor withdrew his support after the Columbia Police Officers' Association held a public forum where representatives called the tax unnecessary.

A bill that would place the property tax on the Nov. 5 ballot still appears on the agenda for the Columbia City Council's regular meeting on Monday night. That meeting also includes the first public hearing on the proposed city budget for fiscal year 2014. 

Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said Friday that he and the city staff continue to support the property tax increase. He said a 20-cent boost wouldn't be too onerous for most property owners and would be enough to provide the number of officers the Police Department needs.

A 20-cent increase in the city's property tax, which now is 41 cents, would cost the owner of a $150,000 home $57 per year. McDavid said at his news conference that the increase would pay for 35 new officers.

Police officers generally cost about $100,000 a year when salary, benefits, training and equipment are included.

St. Romaine said that the city has had a historically low property tax relative to other comparable cities in Missouri and the Midwest and that increasing the tax seemed like the most viable option. The city's sales tax, he noted, has risen substantially after voters approved new taxes for 911 emergency management operations and to provide mental-health services for young people. 

St. Romaine said he was unsure how Monday's council conversation would go, but options include amending the ballot measure to call for a smaller tax increase and/or fewer officers.

Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp said he wants to be cautious. He wondered whether a tax proposal for police might make it less likely that voters would support the $32.3 million sewer bond issue that's already on the ballot. 

“I only want to move forward with a tax to fund police officers if it has a reasonable chance of success,” Trapp said.

Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said he doesn't expect the police tax to make the ballot. He said most constituents he's spoken with are against the idea.

“The general feeling is that we definitely need more police officers but that we’re going to need a more thoughtful discussion," Thomas said. "Rushing something through isn’t the answer.”

McDavid said in an interview Thursday that he has heard substantial resistance to his initial proposal.

“The resistance is that some just don’t want to pay more taxes," McDavid said. "Other people believe we’re not using money efficiently and responsibly, and those are messages we have to overcome before we can be successful in asking for more tax revenue."

Members of the Columbia Police Officers' Association during its Tuesday forum said the city could pay for new officers by reducing the amount of overtime the Police Department pays and by using money the city is saving on 911 and emergency management operations. Both McDavid and St. Romaine said that's infeasible.

“I wish CPOA would have talked to city staff about this before they produced those numbers and put them out as facts," St. Romaine said, "because once you actually dig into the actual numbers themselves, you find out the fact. Sometimes there’s more behind a number than meets the eye."

City Manager Mike Matthes' proposed budget for fiscal 2014 calls for the city to spend about $1.97 million on Public Safety and Joint Communications, down from the $2.79 million it will spend this year. The budget for emergency management operations also is down; the city budgeted $226,309 for emergency management this year but only $15,000 for fiscal 2014. 

The city will spend far less on those operations because voters in April approved a three-eighths-cent sales tax that will pump $9.3 million a year into them. Control of the 911 system also will transfer to Boone County government once the sales tax begins coming in.

Altogether, the city will save about $1 million. McDavid, however, said the city can't funnel all that money toward more police.

“It’s over-simplistic to think that not paying 911 costs creates a pool of found money that can be used immediately to buy 19 to 20 police officers. It’s just over-simplistic," he said.

The mayor said the Columbia Police Officers' Association must recognize that there are other budgetary needs. City workers have not received significant raises, he noted, and the budget also calls for subsidizing city pension funds by more than $1 million.

City budget officer Laura Peveler said the savings on 911 did allow the city to include two new police officers and a sergeant in the budget, although the spending plan doesn't call for hiring them until the fourth quarter of the fiscal year. St. Romaine said that's because much of the budget relies on sales tax and the associated cash flow.

“If it looks like sales tax revenues are coming at a faster rate, there’s a possibility that we could potentially move that up to third quarter," he said.

McDavid said it's up to residents to help the city decide how to address police staffing.

“The number of police officers we have in the city of Columbia is a choice ... determined by how many we’re willing to pay for.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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