COLUMBIA — Mayor Bob McDavid has asked city staff to write an ordinance to increase property taxes by 30 cents per $100 valuation, citing it as a possible solution to the city's relatively small police and fire department staffs.
"One thing we think is true is that we have the smallest police-officer-to-population ratio in the state of Missouri," McDavid said Wednesday in an interview. "We also can't find a city that has a lower property tax."
McDavid’s proposal, at the City Council meeting Monday night, came just three days after City Manager Mike Matthes’ State of the City address on May 16, where Matthes said that now is the time to introduce the tax increase to voters. During that presentation, he said that the city’s police and fire staff are 30 percent understaffed and that the city needs at least 30 new police officers. McDavid also said that the city would need to pay for 15 more firefighters in the coming years and that the additional public safety officers were "an absolute necessity."
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said citizens would probably find the property tax to be more palatable than a sales tax increase.
"There are so many sales tax initiatives coming to the voters, and we're going to be pushing the outer limits of what our sales taxes can handle or what people will accept," Nauser said.
Last year, Boone County voters approved a three-eighths-cent sales tax to pay for upgrades to 911 dispatch and emergency management services. In 2010, city voters extended a one-eighth-cent sales tax to help fund projects in Columbia's parks for five years. The sales tax in Columbia was budgeted for 7.6 percent in the 2014 fiscal year.
Dale Roberts, executive director of the Columbia Police Officers' Association, said he would give McDavid's proposal a "preliminary endorsement."
"If we continue to add only two or three officers per year, we are not addressing the problem. We are simply treading water," he said. "The (association) actively supports the city's efforts to do what needs to be done to add the 40 new officers that are so desperately needed."
Because property taxes are relatively stable, Nauser said, they are the ideal revenue source to fund the police and fire departments.
"Even in tough economic times, the police and fire (departments) are two important functions," Nauser said. "They are the two most important functions we can provide."
The city’s property tax stands at 41 cents per $100 valuation and has remained unchanged for decades. The city is budgeted to receive $7.3 million in property tax revenue for the 2014 fiscal year, which is less than 2 percent of the city’s total budgeted revenue. If the council and voters approve the legislation, it would be phased in over the course of 11 years, beginning with a 5-cent increase next year and increasing by 5 cents every other year thereafter for 11 years, ending with 71 cents per $100.
In August, McDavid proposed a 20-cent increase in property taxes to pay for new police officers. He later withdrew support for the increase when the Columbia Police Officers’ Association suggested alternative ways to fund the department.
Roberts said that the association never opposed the previous proposal but that it wasn't ready to endorse it until all other options had been exhausted. Since that time, he said, the association and city have reviewed the budget and found that it does not have the flexibility to pursue alternative options.
McDavid said that the earliest that citizens would be able to vote on the proposal is in November and that it would probably appear in front of the council in July.
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