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GEORGE KENNEDY: City budget shows Columbia's improvements

Thursday, August 22, 2013 | 8:03 p.m. CDT; updated 9:14 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 23, 2013

Our City Council made plenty of news during its marathon meeting Monday, both in what members did and what they didn’t do.

They approved, 6-1, the construction of the Grindstone Creek Trail, pushed by the PedNet Coalition and hotly opposed by a number of its apprehensive neighbors. To me, the surprising positions were those of Laura Nauser, perhaps the council’s most tight-fisted member, who spoke and voted in favor of the $1.5 million project, and Barbara Hoppe, self-professed PedNet supporter, who voted No, as her Bluff Pointe constituents urged.

Later, council members unanimously walked away from a property tax increase to fund more police, the idea Mayor McDavid proposed, only to reverse himself a few days later. We need more cops, members seemed to agree; but just how to pay for them requires more study.

What didn’t make the news was the package of seven agenda items that will most directly affect every Columbian for the next year and beyond. Those items made up City Manager Mike Matthes’ budget plan for next year. Monday night was supposed to be a public hearing, but the public didn’t appear any more interested than the reporters.

True, when Mr. Matthes first announced his budget a month ago, there were several stories in both newspapers. They mainly focused on his plan to hire only three police officers (compared to the 35 the mayor wants), and a handful of fee hikes.

The budget is more than the sum of those parts – a total of $414,221,731, to be precise.

Beyond the numbers, as Mr. Matthes himself said in presenting it to the council Monday, a budget represents “our moral choices.” A little less elegantly, he added, “We put our money where our mouth is.”

I certainly haven’t read and don’t plan to read all 500-plus pages, but several noteworthy points emerge from his presentation and my scan of the first 20 pages or so. (You can find the whole thing on the city website, under “financial reports." Or you can buy a paper copy for a mere $137.)

For a lot of people, the most important change will be the reworking of city bus routes from a wheel with the Wabash Station as its hub to a grid that will serve more of the city for more hours of the day. Mr. Matthes used his own situation to illustrate. Now, he said, he would walk an hour from his home to the nearest bus stop. With the new routes, he’ll be five minutes away. He — and many of the rest of us — can commute by bus, just like a real city.

Increased parking fees and a federal matching grant will cover the costs.

The manager was obviously proud of the progress this budget continues toward adequately funding the city employees’ pension system. We’re entering year two of a 20-year process, so an extra $1 million goes into the fund next year. If you’ve been following the disaster of Detroit and the credit downgrading of Illinois, you know how important that is, and not just to the retirees.

He was even happier to point out that next year, for the first time since 1989, the General Fund budget will be balanced. A year or two out, he expects a surplus.

There’ll be no general pay raise for the 1,388 city employees, but more than 200 will benefit from a study that showed their salaries to below the market rate. And there’ll be a new floating holiday for all of them.

For the rest of us, this budget promises a one-stop service center staffed by actual human beings trained to answer our questions and empowered to find the answers they don’t have.

The budget proposes no tax increases, but modest revenue growth from both sales and property taxes we already have. There will be those increases in parking fees and a few others. Your Armed Guard license will cost $10 more, for example, and you’ll have to pay to reserve a shelter in Cosmopolitan Park.

The document doesn’t mention it, but if we approve the $32 million sewer bond issue in November, the average charge will go up $3 a month by 2019.

One more thing: Remember our vote in 2011 to pay council members? That starts next April. The mayor will be paid $9,000 a year and other members $6,000. They’ll earn it.

And if you’re looking for something to do Saturday morning, you’ll be welcome to join the council and staff for the first of three budget work sessions. I doubt you’ll see me there.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.


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Comments

Bill Weitkemper August 22, 2013 | 11:03 p.m.

I would like to point out that the City Managers proposed budget includes a 5% across the board increase in water rates that does not apply to all city water customers.

The proposed 5% rate increase in water rates is only being applied to city water customers that are individually metered for water with a 5/8 inch, 3/4 inch, 1 inch, 1.5 inch or 2 inch water meter.

At the present time city water customers that are supplied city water by a master water meter are not being charged anything for water service. Therefore, these city water customers water rate will remain unchanged – nothing.

There is also no rate increase being proposed for city water customers that are individually metered for water with a 3 inch, 4 inch or 6 inch water meter.

Although no increase in water rates would be needed if the owner or occupant of every dwelling unit and business being supplied city water by a master water meter was charged the minimum water service charge any across the board increase in water rates should be across the board and be applied to all water customers.

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