The question of how to pay for Columbia’s ever-increasing need for newer, bigger and better streets has proved to be a persistent challenge for the City Council over the past several years.
And the answers from the council candidates on Tuesday’s ballot on how to meet that challenge vary greatly.
The 400 miles of streets that the city of Columbia already maintains is nearly double what it was 10 years ago, but it’s clear that major street needs remain. The City Council in 2005 identified more than $100 million worth of street projects it felt needed to be completed by 2015 and floated three ballot issues intended to help cover the cost.
One of the propositions on the November 2005 ballot sought the extension of an existing quarter-cent capital improvements sales tax for streets, while another sought a new one-eighth-cent sales tax to help the city catch up. The third sought a gradual increase in the fees paid by developers to cover the cost of streets made necessary, in part, by their projects.
Voters approved the first and third propositions; they rejected the second.
That was fine with Third Ward council candidate Karl Skala, who as a member of Timely and Responsible Road Infrastructure Financing, or TARRIF, lobbied hard to see the new sales tax defeated and the higher development fees approved.
“We’re addicted to sales taxes,” Skala said, arguing developers should pay even more to cover the cost of new infrastructure.
But Gary Kespohl, Skala’s opponent, said Skala and TARRIF undermined the city’s ability to complete all the priority street projects it identified.
“I think part of the reason we’re not able to do them all is because the road tax was defeated in 2005,” Kespohl said. “And I blame my opponent ... and the TARRIF group for that. They defeated the road tax, and now they’re saying ‘Let’s build roads,’ and we don’t have any money.”
Kespohl said higher sales or property taxes are the best way to generate money for streets, which he identified as a
challenge for the entire community.
“Columbia is a community,” he said. “We live together to do those kinds of things, to pool our money and do those things, and I think we need to revisit either a road tax or increase a real estate tax for roads. Residents of Columbia need to pay for that.”
Kespohl said saddling developers with the responsibility would drive housing prices way too high.
“If the community pays their part, we’ll be much better off,” Kespohl said.
Skala, however, said that argument might have worked when Columbia was smaller and nearly every resident used every street. In a larger community, he said, many people will never use the new streets they’re helping pay for.
“Everyone’s talking about cost sharing, but no one’s talking about benefit sharing,” Skala said. “That used to work when we were 30,000 people, but you don’t get any benefit from some of these developments that aren’t in your area. These developers are getting good deals on land way out in the boonies and expecting people to pick up the tax. I don’t buy that anymore.”
Skala suggests a tiered approach that would require higher fees for developments farther from the central city. He’d also like to explore the use of neighborhood improvement districts, in which residents choose to tax themselves for work to be done in their area.
In the Fourth Ward, candidate Mike Holden agrees that “developers should pay for new roads in new developments.” But he said a flat impact fee would be unfair and inequitable. He’d like to see a traffic study conducted on each new development to determine how it will affect traffic. The more impact, the higher the fee.
That, Holden said, could prompt more in-fill development rather than “hopscotch development” that springs up away from major roads.
Jerry Wade, who is running against Holden, said higher development fees are a must, but he also wants the council to explore other options, including neighborhood improvement and tax increment financing districts. The latter funnels some of the proceeds of property taxes generated by new developments into infrastructure to support those areas.
“We need to get as many options as we can think about on the table,” Wade said, adding there is “no painless solution.”
“I believe we are already seeing a decline in the quality of infrastructure and quality of life,” Wade said. “And the longer this goes on, the wider the gap between what the citizens expect and what it actually is.”
Mayoral candidate John Clark argues that the methods of financing public infrastructure that worked during moderate population growth are no longer adequate. He said new residents should pay up to three-quarters of the cost of the infrastructure new subdivisions demand.
“To be extremely blunt, the current citizens of Columbia have absolutely no moral obligation or financial interest in subsidizing people outside of Columbia to move to Columbia at rates of 2- to 3-percent population growth per year,” Clark said. “Until we change how we finance our local government responsibilities, every new body who moves to Columbia and every square inch of land that we add to the city increases our local unfunded mandate to provide services and facilities which neither the bodies nor the land will ever pay for.”
Mayor Darwin Hindman said the tiered development taxes mentioned by Skala are “excellent” in theory, but he fears they would push developers to build new neighborhoods just outside the reaches of the city.
Hindman also said sales taxes are the only way to extract revenue from people who work in Columbia and use its roads but live outside the city.
Ultimately, Hindman said, money for streets will have to come from a combination of sales taxes and development taxes.
“There’s not going to be enough money without both.”
Missourian reporters Sarah Koci, Conor McCann, Evita Timmons, Julie O’Brien, Brittany Darwell, Lindsay Toler and Kevin Crowe contributed to this report.