Budget faces criticism, questions from City Council

Saturday, August 23, 2014 | 9:39 p.m. CDT; updated 12:55 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 25, 2014

COLUMBIA — The Columbia City Council asked questions and offered criticism and amendments to the city's proposed budget during a scheduled budget discussion Saturday.

The proposed budget, which would take effect Oct. 1, includes more than $428 million in spending and more than $399 million in revenue. City Manager Mike Matthes said the spending included in the budget proposal was "very fiscally disciplined."

To make up the budget shortfall, council members debated several cost-saving measures, such as eliminating the trash bag voucher program and revenue-generating policies, such as raising city utility rates.

Matthes said that although the city's economy has officially recovered from the economic recession of 2008, it is still facing the challenges of diminishing sales tax revenue, deteriorating infrastructure and a solid waste program in jeopardy.

"During the recession, we postponed several projects, but now is the time to address those issues," Matthes said.

The council will discuss the budget again at its next meeting at 7 p.m. Sept. 2 at the Daniel Boone City Building.

Sewer connection rates

The meeting was not without its tense moments as Mayor Bob McDavid and Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas debated just how much a sewer connection should cost. McDavid said he was opposed to the idea of increasing Columbia's sewer connection rate. The proposal would make Columbia far more costly than regional cities like Jefferson City or Boonville and even more expensive than St. Louis and Kansas City.

Thomas countered the mayor's arguments against increasing sewer connection costs by saying that to the best of his knowledge raising the rates would allow the city to recoup some of the cost of its expanding system to the tune of 70 to 80 percent.

McDavid said if "Thomas and his anti-growth stance" had the final say, they would price the city out of contention for future job creation and the attraction of new industry.

Thomas said with all the sewer projects on the city's to-do list, now is the time to address those issues.

In an interview after the meeting, Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe said this discussion was one of the most interesting of the day.

"We have to make sure we find an equitable solution for everyone where we are able to keep the rates down, while also making sure we can maintain the current system," Hoppe said. "We cannot really compare ourselves to other communities' rates since they may not even have begun addressing their sewer issues."

Solid waste management

The proposal that would halt the city's practice of providing vouchers for black trash bags drew criticism from all sides, with Director of Public Works John Glascock defending the cost-saving measure.

If approved, the measure would save the city more than $300,000 and space in the city's crowded landfill. Critics say it would result in yards being strewn with waste and garbage.

"Environmentally, we are dealing with a landfill that is quickly approaching capacity, a decrease in the amount of residents recycling and an increased cost to consumers," Glascock said.

Glascock said the city would soon be using its Department of Natural Resources' approved space within the landfill and if consumers want to keep the black bags, they will do so with higher residential rates.

McDavid encouraged each city council member to reach out to constituents over the next week and to seek input on the issue.

Parking fines and parking meters

The council discussed at length a proposal that would raise the meter rates in Columbia, excluding those at MU, by 15 cents an hour.

Parking tickets might become more expensive. The city's current policy is that each parking ticket is $10 for meter violations. If left unpaid after 30 days, the fine increases to $25. The current budget proposal would increase fines by $5.

First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick said she was concerned by the number of unused meters in the neighborhoods west of Providence and that raised rates would further clog the streets of the East Campus and Benton-Stephens neighborhoods as more students and commuters to MU would park for free instead of downtown.

Matthes assured the council members that the discussions held last year regarding an organized parking tag system for East Campus and Benton-Stephens had not been forgotten.

"The best way I can describe the answer to that issue is that it is not yet ready for primetime," Matthes said.

Other parking issues in the budget proposal include establishing a three-hour minimum for parking meters that accept credit cards and a 50-cent surcharge on each transaction at those meters, known as a convenience fee.

The City Council also discussed adding an additional hour of enforcement. If it passes, the meters would be operational between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. starting Jan. 1.

As previously reported, the changes would boost city revenue by $328,000. Those funds would be used to hire one new firefighter, an investigator and two new police officers.

Other issues discussed included increasing the development fee for road construction, an upcoming ballot measure that would renew the city's capital improvement sales tax, the conversion of the city's transit system from diesel-fuel to natural gas vehicles and increasing rental rates at Reichmann Indoor Pavilion.

Allison Wrabel contributed to this report.

Supervising editor is Seth Klamann.

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