Despite slower sales tax growth and higher city spending than expected in Columbia, City Manager Bill Watkins remains “bullish on the future of Columbia,” he said during his state of the city address on Wednesday morning.
That optimism, however, is balanced with a “big dose of prudence” and the realization that city government will have to restrain itself as it assembles a budget for fiscal 2008 and resist the urge to take on new initiatives. Watkins predicted the coming year’s budget probably will focus on continuing initiatives begun this year or before.
“In any government there are many, many, many more wants and desires than there are resources,” Watkins said. “This council particularly has a lot of ideas.”
Watkins’ speech is mandated by the city charter and acts as a setup for the annual City Council retreat, which begins tonight at the Lodge of the Four Seasons at the Lake of the Ozarks. The council will outline its goals and priorities for the coming year, giving guidance to Watkins and his staff as they begin the task of developing a spending plan for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The city charter requires that Watkins submit a draft of the budget to the council by the end of July.
The budget news this year, however, has put a damper on expectations for 2008. Watkins reported that sales tax growth is lagging behind projections and that city spending is over budget, largely because of the extra money it spent clearing streets after major snow and ice storms over the winter.
The budget for fiscal 2007 projected sales tax revenue of $39.2 million, up 4.5 percent from 2006. Actual sales tax revenue thus far, however, has grown by only 3.5 percent. If that trend continues, the city would collect $38.8 million, or about $400,000 less than expected.
“In general, the overall revenues were more prudent,” finance director Lori Fleming said. She pointed to an overall slow economy as a main contributor and noted that there is still time for improvement before Sept. 30 and that other sources of revenue might help make up for the loss.
Watkins cited several other factors, including bad weather that kept people from shopping, high gas prices that reduce disposable income and a decline in the sale of building materials as a result of fewer homes being built.
City spokeswoman Toni Messina said the city has postponed some larger equipment purchases, including that of a street sweeper, multiple dump trucks and support vehicles for the fire and police departments.
Other issues Watkins discussed included building on the planning partnership suggested by the Sasaki plan for downtown; bettering public safety with road improvements and new fire stations; opening clearer channels of communication between people outside City Hall and those inside; and increasing energy independence and conservation.
The Sasaki plan is a blueprint for redeveloping the southern half of downtown Columbia. The city is partnering with MU and Stephens College on the effort.
“The central city is full of smaller-scale activity that is directly meaningful to the people who live in its neighborhoods, both in the downtown and adjoining it,” Watkins said.
Watkins cited the pending construction of Fire Station No. 9 in north Columbia as a boost for public safety and said the city is continuing to work with the Missouri Department of Transportation to see major highway projects get done.
“Nothing will make me happier than to eventually see gardens of orange cones at West Stadium Boulevard, at the Gans Road interchange, on Missouri 763, and yes, at Scott Boulevard and at other key places where MoDOT and the city work together,” Watkins said.
Watkins said he hopes to work more closely with Columbia residents, creating a cooperative environment so that he can better incorporate the community’s ideas into city hall initiatives.
“It took us awhile to fully see that communication, cooperation and coordination are in the public interest,” Watkins said. “Now that it’s becoming a common practice here at city hall, we demonstrate progress.”
Regarding energy independence and conservation, Watkins noted that Columbia is the first Missouri city to have part ownership in a wind farm and that its plans to harness methane gas produced at landfills are ready to go if and when Gov. Matt Blunt signs legislation authorizing the practice.
Finally, taking a page from presidential State of the Union addresses in recent years, Watkins singled out a handful of exemplary city employees and divisions for their work in the past year.
He praised Columbia Water and Light and public safety workers who aided in southwest Missouri’s ice storm recovery; George Garing, whose innovative ideas on housing new centrifuge machines saved a half million dollars; the Columbia/Boone County Animal Control Division after being recognized statewide for improving the life of companion animals and exceeding industry standards; police Officer Mike Hestir for his quick thinking off-duty that directly contributed to survival of a local mother; and Mark Grindstaff, who moved a bus stop 100 feet so a visually impaired patron and her service dog could safely use the service.
Told that Watkins had mentioned him in his speech, Grindstaff was humble.
“It wasn’t me; it was the whole team at transit,” Grindstaff said. “I work with a staff that makes me look good. Any credit goes to the team as a whole.”