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City’s planners failed to seek public input

Perspectives on Columbia's election
Sunday, November 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:25 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

Citizens for Timely and Responsible Road Infrastructure Financing is assiduously trying to inform the public about its opposition to road tax ballot Propositions 4 and 5 and its support for Proposition 6 as an appropriate small step forward. The justification for these positions are offered on the Web site, TARRIF.org. Suffice to say that if both Propositions 4 and 5 should pass, taxpayers can expect a resumption of “business as usual” from the city of Columbia administration. To some, that prospect might be reassuring, since it includes precious little public input and participation.

As a former Columbia Planning and Zoning commissioner, experience has taught me that process often determines the outcome. But what does process have to do with Tuesday’s tax proposals?

From my perspective, comprehensive planning must underlie all growth-related citywide development and infrastructure. For such planning to succeed requires considerable public education and participation. Unfortunately, there are no serious ongoing comprehensive planning initiatives in our community.

In the absence of a comprehensive plan, it appears to me that the city administration’s notion of “business as usual” means isolated city departments, devalued citizen panels and “invitation only” and “just leave it to us” deal-making. Since the notion of planning seldom enters into it, the results are reactive policies driven solely by potential revenue generation and, more often than not, by sales taxes.

So how did this flawed and exclusive process result in the road-tax and fee propositions on the ballot? The pattern is recognizable. Mayor Darwin Hindman, presumably in consultation with the administration, hand-picked a citizens’ committee to make recommendations to the council. For all practical purposes, Assistant City Manager Bill Watkins chaired the committee; I have never before seen a committee chaired by a nonmember. The committee was then fed the party line (sales tax increases) by a consultant, hired by the council with City Manager Ray Beck’s recommendation. That party line was established by a technical committee whose membership included Mr. Beck, Mr. Watkins, the city’s consultant and a few select others. The consultant eventually fell into disfavor by making some recommendations that conflicted with the party line (e.g., broad-based road financing linked to traffic generation and avoidance of excessive sales taxes, strategies that have been very successfully used in Springfield and Kansas City). He was summarily dismissed after an embarrassing error in his financial calculations was discovered.

Facing an election deadline, concerned committee members threw up their hands at the complexity of it all and their inability to reach a consensus and offered a more palatable recommendation that “everyone could embrace” (except for an unexpected minority report that is available on TARRIF.org).

Then the city administration went to work on shaping policy, apparently with council sanction. After all, Beck has many years of experience in these matters. Most of the policy decisions were floated, the city attorney drafted the proposed ordinance, and two public information sessions were scheduled to make the public aware of the city’s intentions. The council proceeded with required formal public hearings on the final ballot language, which had been revised after careful analysis of the latest polling data. The council then voted, and the party line was affirmed. Mr. Beck and Mr. Watkins made the rounds to pitch the city’s plan to various local groups and organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce. Finally, the mayor appointed another distinguished panel of 30 residents to promote the accepted party line in order to ensure passage of the ballot propositions.

Where was any meaningful public discussion in this sequence of policy proposals? And when did the public-education campaign begin? Certainly not at the beginning of the process, where it belonged. The process culminated in a council vote after taking testimony that blamed some concerned residents for being unwilling to share in the cost of our community’s very robust and very expensive growth. But let me be fair in my description of this process — each resident was certainly given an opportunity to influence the outcome of the vote with three minutes of serial sound bites; so much for public input. Frankly, this policymaking process is broken and in desperate need of repair.

So you might ask, why would TARRIF or any other concerned residents in our community even consider a road-financing public-education campaign complete with a discussion of comprehensive planning, knowing full well that anyone who attempts to discuss that concept will be accused of being “anti-growth?”

My answer is three-fold. First, as a former member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, I have a record of encouraging planned growth. Second, TARRIF’s position paper criticizes the council’s road-financing proposals for their inadequacy. Why would an anti-growth group suggest that our city was not investing enough resources in road infrastructure? I certainly support those who stand to benefit by taking financial risks, in order that they may reap the potential profits from overcoming those risks, as long as that risk is privately financed. That is the best of what our entrepreneurial system is about. But risk subsidized by the taxpayers is not risk, it is greed. Third, I have great faith in the ability of an informed citizenry along with the business and development community to resolve their differences if given the opportunity. I have seen it happen many times. But it will not happen if the passage of Propositions 4 and 5 guarantees “business as usual.”

Please send an important message to your City Council that cannot be ignored! Vote “no” on both road taxes (Propositions 4 and 5) and vote “yes” on development charge increases (Proposition 6). Ensure fairness, equity, accountability and a process consistent with shared bene­fits, not just costs.


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