Columbia voters on Tuesday rendered split decisions on sales taxes for roads and parks but heavily favored higher development fees to pay for new streets and an extended sales tax for public safety projects.
About 24 percent, or 14,139 of Columbia’s approximately 58,000 registered voters, cast ballots on six city propositions. That was relatively strong for a November special election and at the upper end of a prediction by Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren that between 7,000 and 15,000 people would vote.
Three propositions dealing with money for roads and other transportation projects were the most hotly debated on the ballot. While voters, by a margin of less than 1 percent, approved Proposition 4, a seven-year extension of a quarter-cent sales tax that will generate $35 million, they soundly rejected Proposition 5, which called for a new one-eighth-cent sales tax that would have added $25 million to the street-and-sidewalk fund over the next 10 years.
Voters heavily favored Proposition 6, which authorizes the Columbia City Council to gradually increase the fee on new development from 10 cents to 50 cents per square foot. The higher fees will produce an estimated $19 million exclusively for work on arterial and collector streets.
Still, the failure of Proposition 5 will force city officials to review their list of street priorities and perhaps their strategies for funding them. The city had identified a total of $105 million in transportation needs between now and 2015; the measures that passed, combined with existing sources of revenue, will give them only about $80 million to work with.
“We won’t do as many streets as soon,” City Manager Ray Beck said during a gathering of city officials and ballot proponents at the Pasta Factory.
While city officials had argued that both the tax measures and the higher development fees were necessary to ensure streets keep pace with growth, opponents of Propositions 4 and 5 countered that those issues represented inadequate planning and placed a disproportionate share of the burden from growth on taxpayers.
Tuesday’s results brought mixed reaction from both sides.
“I think those that failed were the ones we expected to fail,” Mayor Darwin Hindman said. “There was a tremendous amount of organized opposition. ... The ability to sell new taxes is hard.”
At Buffalo Wild Wings, members of Citizens for Timely and Responsible Road Infrastructure Financing, TARRIF, celebrated what they felt was a resounding victory. TARRIF wanted voters to reject Propositions 4 and 5 but to accept Proposition 6 as a step in the right direction.
TARRIF member Karl Skala said the defeat of Proposition 5 was good enough. That, he said, was key because it represented a tax increase for roads that voters found unacceptable.
“I just wanted one of them,” Skala said. “Just one of them.”
Another TARRIF member, George Davis, said he was happy his group made a difference.
“The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter what side you’re on. We all love the city of Columbia, we want to make it better, and we want it to continue evolving, growing, enhancing our quality of life, and to do all that we all have to serve in that goal, all of us,” Davis said.
Parks proposals split
Meanwhile, the divided decision on the parks-tax measures produced mixed reactions. Propositions 1 and 2 both sought to extend a one-eighth-cent sales tax for parks that is scheduled to expire March 31. While 53 percent of voters supported Proposition 1, which will provide $12 million over five years for park improvements and new parks and trails, they rejected Proposition 2 by a margin of 53 percent to 47 percent. That measure would have raked in $5 million over two years for a multipurpose building that would have included space for volleyball and basketball courts, an ice rink and a permanent shelter for the farmers market.
The approval of Proposition 1 means the city will have plenty of money to continue expanding its parks system, but the failure of Proposition 2 leaves market vendors and skating enthusiasts out in the cold.
“It is what it is,” Dan Kuebler, chairman of Sustainable Farms and Communities, said after learning the final tally at Flat Branch Pub and Brewery. His group has been working with the city for years to come up with a way to build a market shelter.
Market vendor Kenny Duzan played down the defeat.
“We’ll just keep putting up our tents,” he said. “In a way, it’s no big deal.”
Ice rink advocates were less matter-of-fact. John Lamond, coach of the MU Hockey Club, lamented Proposition 2’s failure Tuesday night as his team made its regular late-night trek to practice at the rink in Jefferson City.
“It’s a real surprise,” Lamond said. “I don’t think the community realized the benefit. ... I don’t know what happens beyond this.”
Lifelong hockey player C.K. Hoenes said the results left him feeling hopeless.
“I don’t know if it’ll ever happen,” he said of a Columbia rink. “Three million dollars is a lot of money to raise on your own. ... It’s an absolute shame that people can’t see the importance to others of this non-tax raise.”
Columbia Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood was excited about the approval of Proposition 1, which he thought was crucial to maintaining and expanding the city’s parks and to continue developing its popular trails.
“We really appreciate the voters of Columbia supporting the parks department. We are very pleased about that,” Hood said. While he said the ice rink and market shelter would have been nice amenities, “the voters expressed their opinion, and we’ll certainly live with that.”
Public safety wins big
Proposition 3 was clearly the most popular of the ballot issues, gaining 64 percent approval from voters. The measure will extend the quarter-cent capital improvements tax seven years to generate $15 million for public safety projects. The bulk of that will be used to buy new fire trucks, to refurbish old ones and to build three new fire stations. The proposition also will provide about $1.2 million for a new police training facility and a little more than $300,000 for new storm-warning sirens.
Public safety officials expressed gratitude to the voters.
“Obviously we’re very pleased that this was passed,” Police Chief Randy Boehm said Tuesday night. “It was very important for us, and it was a significant need to have that training facility.”
Battalion Chief Steven Sapp of the Columbia Fire Department said the voters’ confidence is “humbling.” The department, he said, has already formed a committee to write specifications for new firefighting equipment and will begin looking for station sites in north-central and northwest Columbia, the two areas fire officials have said have the greatest need.
“We’re looking forward to being able to use this funding as we have outlined to replace our equipment,” he said. “Looks like we’ll be able to get busy and make those plans move forward.”
The net result of the election is that total city sales tax will remain at 7.35 percent for the time being. Approval of all five sales tax propositions would have boosted the total tax to 7.475 percent, while rejection of all five would have caused it to drop to 6.975 percent by March 31.
Missourian reporters Matt Graham, Frank Johnson, Lesley Long, Jamie Graham,Libby Lothman and Katie Bailey contributed to this report.