COLUMBIA — Saturday was a crash course on city government processes, projects and ballot issues for Columbia City Council's candidates for First Ward.
The orientation highlighted main points of city procedures and introduced the candidates and members of the public to current concerns and issues facing the city.
"This is not an easy job," City Manager Mike Matthes said to First Ward candidates Tyree Byndom, Ginny Chadwick and Bill Easley.
Two ballot issues were addressed with the most attention: tax increment financing and a proposed use tax.
Rick McConnell with Gilmore & Bell P.C., a public finance law firm helping the city prepare the redevelopment plan needed for a TIF, explained the purposes of using TIF.
Chadwick said several residents had already approached her with concerns about TIF projects. She said the two concerns she kept hearing were that residents would be taxed more heavily and that the developer would get a tax break.
Matthes said these are common concerns. He explained that a TIF cannot raise tax rates; it helps to build an infrastructure to allow growth and is funded by the growth it creates. Matthes said it is essentially "lending ourselves the money" to enable building. Developments pay taxes that pay back the money used for the TIF.
"TIF enables investment inside the district that wouldn't otherwise happen," he said. Matthes said this TIF proposal will not benefit the developer with tax breaks.
The orientation also addressed another ballot item: a proposed use tax.
A use tax is the equivalent of a sales tax for purchases online and from out-of-state vendors, Matthes said.
Matthes cited statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau that showed online purchases took up 5.9 percent of all retail sales in the third quarter of 2013. Online and out-of-state sales do not include a sales tax, which is a primary source of funding for police and fire services.
Revenue from sales tax per person has fallen 13 percent in 10 years, Matthes said. He calculated that 5.9 percent of the local sales revenue in 2012 would equal about $2.5 million. Half that money could be allocated to the city's general funding and used to hire approximately 15 more police officers or firefighters. City communications director Toni Messina said the city's public safety was understaffed by 30 percent.
Currently the city could pass a use tax for out-of-state sales, but federal and state action must be taken before the city could effectively tax online sales, Matthes said. Online sales tax is a nation-wide conversation, he said.
The orientation was broken down into sections about city processes and upcoming and current issues. Heads of each area led the presentation and subsequent discussions. Here are some of the issues they brought up:
- Nancy Thompson, city counselor, described the city's administrative functions and how a council member's position is connected to those processes.
- Carol Rhodes, assistant city manager, listed the city's "seven strategic priorities": customer-focused government; financial health; economic development; growth management; health, safety and well-being; infrastructure and workforce.
- Messina provided the candidates with the statistics of citizen surveys and trends from these surveys. Her results showed the First Ward's responses in comparison to the rest of the city on satisfaction with utilities, public safety and street conditions.
- John Blattel, financial director, explained city revenues and expenditures and overviewed city funds.
- Tim Teddy, community development director, described the three main areas of community development: planning and zoning, building and inspections, and neighborhood services.
- John Glascock, public works director, described other ballot issues, including CoMo Connect, the Columbia Transit project to overhaul the city bus system, and storm water utility and water quality issues facing the city.
The four-hour orientation was followed by a short period for the candidates' questions and concerns. Easley said one of his main concerns was the amount of vacant properties in the First Ward.
Although the amount of information Chadwick received during the session was extensive, she said it was helpful for setting up initial connections for follow-up meetings and additional information.
"I think it was an invaluable experience," Chadwick said.
Byndom said it was an honor to have everyone from the different departments there. He said their voluntary presence was a "testament" to their commitment to the city, and the administrative preparedness to educate the candidates would help them "hit the ground running."
Byndom also said the orientation would be good for the community to witness and to listen to the dialogue.
"I left with good feelings about it," he said.
Supervising editor is Edward Hart.