GEORGE KENNEDY: City's ballot will leave taxpayers picking up the tab

Thursday, August 14, 2014 | 6:39 p.m. CDT

You’ve no doubt read that our City Council voted last week to put on the November ballot two measures that will increase the costs of owning or developing property in Columbia.

One of those measures would increase the property tax by 30 cents per $100 assessed valuation for the expressed purpose of hiring more police officers and firefighters. That one was approved unanimously.

The other would change the way developers are charged for new roads by raising the fee and switching to a three-tiered charge based on how many trips each type of building is expected to generate. That one carried 5-2.

What you might not realize is that neither of those new charges is regarded, even by its backers, as adequate. An extra 30 cents won’t generate enough revenue to hire as many cops as needed to keep up with growth and permit more community policing. The compromise development fees will leave us taxpayers bearing 75 percent of the cost of new roads.

I mentioned in last week’s essay that the very structure of democratic government is designed to slow down rather than to facilitate important actions. Gridlock in Washington is a textbook example. But even here in the heartland, in a nonpartisan body of seven well-intentioned and intelligent decision-makers, change doesn’t come easy.

Take the tax increase. In introducing it, Mayor Bob McDavid noted that, by national standards, we don’t have enough police today. He added that, to address that problem and the growth-created requirement for more fire protection, an increase of up to $1 per $100 has been suggested.

He hastened to back away from that figure, concluding that he, other council members and city staffers have calculated that 30 cents is the most the voters will support. Even at that inadequate level, “It’s gonna be a hard sell,” he said.

He’s right about that, I suspect, especially given our consistently low crime rate, which one citizen referred to during public comments.

Another member of the audience brought up another complication. That is the 2012 study that found low morale, minimal training and “supervisory culture … approaching toxicity” within the Police Department. Have those problems been addressed, he asked. We’ll expect an answer before November.

The politics shaping the level of development fees was, if anything, more complicated. Most Columbia residents seem to agree that developers should pay a bigger share of the costs of growth. Over the past decade, their share has amounted to only about 12 percent, Councilman Ian Thomas has calculated.

So a council-staff committee cogitated and came up with a recommendation of a three-tiered charge for new roads that would replace the current flat fee of 50 cents a square foot with fees of $2, $3 and $4, depending on the number of trips expected to be generated.

However, the political imperative was to get the broadest support possible on the council. As several council members explained in email responses to my questions, the breakdown was this:

For the recommended fees: Karl, Ian and Barbara Hoppe.

Against any increase: Mayor McDavid.

Willing to support an increase, but at only half the recommended level: Michael Trapp and Laura Nauser.

In favor of the higher level but skeptical of the trip-generation model: Ginny Chadwick.

The compromise, half the original proposal for each category, won the votes of all but the mayor and Ginny, who opposed it for diametrically opposite reasons.

Both Mayor McDavid and Michael Trapp raised the fear that fees set too high would drive new development into the county. I thought a bit of fact-checking was in order, so I asked County Commissioner Karen Miller how city and county charges compare.

In an emailed reply, she explained that outside the city, developers already pay 100 percent of the costs of new roads.

She added, “Currently, there is more incentive to develop in the city than county due to the city’s subsidization of the infrastructure costs. ... The city fees would have to be pretty significant to have much of an effect on pushing development to the county.”

Come November, then, we’ll be voting on two inadequate propositions produced by the imperfect process we call democracy. Should be an interesting campaign season.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.

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