Columbia City Council puts brakes on property tax increase for more cops

Tuesday, August 20, 2013 | 9:12 a.m. CDT; updated 7:23 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 20, 2013

COLUMBIA - Led by Mayor Bob McDavid's recommendation, the Columbia City Council voted unanimously not to put a 20-cent property tax increase to pay for more police officers on November's ballot.

"Asking for a revenue increase is a fairly complex issue, and it was probably overly simplistic for me to throw it out there," McDavid said.

The mayor proposed the increase on Aug. 5, but withdrew support via Facebook last week after the Columbia Police Officers' Association did not take a position in support of the measure at a public forum.

Other council members agreed that the timing was not right to present the measure to voters so suddenly.

"We need to push the pause button," Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said. "In the heated response to some of the serious issues that have taken place in our community, we've been reacting rather than taking a step back and thinking."

Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp said he didn't believe this proposal was the best way to move forward.

"This situation doesn't lead itself to a quick response," Trapp said.

The mayor and council members addressed the fact that many questions wereraised as to the necessity of the tax as well as the council's handling of city funds.

"I don't think the citizens have enough confidence in us right now," McDavid said. "It's time we ask for recommendations from the city and from the population."

Six people spoke during the public comment section and all either outright denounced the proposal or raised questions about it. Discussion began on the proposed increase after midnight with about 25 people still in the room.

The mayor reaffirmed that hiring more police officers was still a priority for the city and that he expected the issue to be re-addressed soon.

"I think the city will get this done," McDavid said. "I'd love to have this on the April ballot."

Columbia Police Officers' Association Executive Director Dale Roberts said after the meeting that although he was encouraged everyone saw the need for more officers, action needs to be taken on the issue sooner rather than later.

"We would love to have seen this go forward and be successful," Roberts said. "On one hand, we hate to see any delay. But at the same time, we didn't want to see this go forward and fail, and to have that failure be mistaken for a vote against more officers."

Many alternatives to a straight property tax increase were proposed by the mayor, council members and the public. Suggestions included a sales tax increase, taxing future development projects, reallocating money in the budget or creating a hybrid proposal using multiple revenue streams.

"There's a lot of ways to get to the math," McDavid said. "A 0.2 cent sales tax increase will get us there. A 20-cent property tax increase. Half of each."

Although opinions differed on what funding sources to use everyone on the council agreed that more attention needed to be paid to the community's response to the proposal.

"The problem we have is more than just a lack of police officers," Nauser said. "I seem to be hearing misinformation, a lack of factual information and a lack of communication. I think it's important we just stop and gather ourselves, and start to have a conversation about how we want to move forward."

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said that he hoped more officers would allow the force to switch to a community policing model, and that it has become increasingly important to tap into ongoing public debate about the issue.

"The community is already involved in the discussion," Skala said after the meeting. "What we need to do is to get all the groups to sit down at a table together and air their dirty laundry so everyone can sort out fact from fiction."

City Manager Mike Matthes agreed that the need for more officers in Columbia is clearly evident, but stressed that money was not available in the budget to hire the number of officers the mayor proposed. Matthes also addressed that using overtime funds alone was not a realistic solution to the problem.

"That's basically the reality," McDavid said. "Police officers need to be paid. They need to be paid with money, and we don't have money in the budget now."

Council members said the community should get involved in the budget process to share its input on how to hire more police officers.

Supervising editor is Stephanie Ebbs.

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