The Columbia City Council members and city staff entered this weekend’s annual retreat with a thick agenda of serious issues likely to affect the city in the coming year. But after three days of presentations and discussions, they adjourned Saturday to the chipper sound from a Staples’ novelty button: “That was easy.”
It was a light moment concluding a retreat where the council discussed issues such as a proposed $65 million bond issue for sewer expansion and rehabilitation and possible after-hours city bus service.
The retreat at the Lodge of Four Seasons Resort in Lake Ozark started Thursday with a welcome dinner.
“(The retreat) gives us a chance to get acquainted,” Mayor Darwin Hindman said. “It gives us a chance to have input on the next year. It gives us a chance to have an impact on the budget.”
While the retreat greased the wheels for budget and agenda planning in the coming months, City Manager Bill Watkins said the council would not make any formal decisions.
Throughout the retreat, council members and staff presenters continually addressed encouraging greater citizen involvement in the civic process and how to improve efficiency in day-to-day operations. They also explored ways to better serve employees. Finally, the council set a tentative agenda prioritizing further discussion and implementation of major budget and policy items.
Two bonds, totaling about $105 million, were proposed and tentatively slated for the April 8, 2008, election.
Dan Dasho, director of Columbia Water and Light, presented information on a proposed $40 million bond financing a plan to improve existing water systems and address growth. But even if the bond passes, utility rates would increase by 18 percent, Dasho said.
“We could spread it out over a number of years, and it will probably only result in a $3 to $4 increase (in monthly utility rates),” Dasho said.
A proposed $65 million sewer bond was also discussed. Almost 70 percent of this money would go toward the first phase of the proposed Waste Water Treatment Plant expansion project. The other $21 million will go towards rehabilitating and extending sewers.
By the end of the retreat, the council scheduled a work session for further discussions on affordable housing, seeking input from the Affordable Housing Policy Committee.
“We have a good deal of community support to talk about this,” said Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala. “It’s almost like we have a moral obligation.”
Director of Public Works John Glascock presented a Columbia Transit Master Plan in an effort to increase ridership. The first phase of the plan will cost nothing and by January 2008 will introduce a Dial-A-Ride program where citizens can schedule rides during off hours. Phases II and III would take two to 10 years to complete and include the addition of commuter routes, a Park & Ride Lot and full integration with the MU campus.
“This master plan is really thinking outside the box,” Watkins said.
Glascock also presented ideas to revamp the Columbia Regional Airport.
“If we don’t do something, the airport will continue to lose customers and die a slow death,” Glascock said.
He said the Federal Aviation Administration has asked the city to “aggressively update” the airport’s master plan.
The council also heard plans to develop the recently purchased Crane farm to develop a 320-acre public park. Plans would be modeled after the Stephens Lake Park planning process, which encouraged public participation. A master plan could be ready for council approval in 18 to 20 months.
A biannual community survey presented at the retreat offered a perspective on the issues most important to 807 randomly-selected Columbia residents. The council referred to the survey several times, especially when prioritizing future work sessions.
“There is a lot of confidence that the community has in their local government,” Skala said. “We can use it, not abuse it, to continue discussions.”
Council members also looked at ways to better utilize citizens involved in commissions and subcommittees, who often don’t know what the council wants from them, Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said.
First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton said Columbia needs to attract people with their finger on the pulse of the community.
“We want people on commissions who have some idea where we want to go as a community and neighborhood,” Crayton said.
The councilmembers agreed that they would revisit the issue by the end of the fiscal year.
The retreat gave the council a chance to examine how it can streamline meetings.
“It’s extremely important for the City Council to continue to improve its efficiency and shorten meeting times,” Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said.
One possibility is beefing up the consent agenda. Watkins suggested “routine” items, especially planning and zoning issues, could be shifted to this agenda, chopping the length of council meetings. Citizens could still request that items be taken off the consent agenda to allow public discussion.
The Planning and Zoning Commission proposed combining zoning applications with the developer’s preliminary plan for a site. Wade said this could create a development “master plan” to ensure cohesive development.
“Each developer will need a clear statement of intent,” Hindman said. “Right now, there’s no requirement of interconnection and compatibility.”
Other ideas the city staff proposed were cost-saving options to better serve city employees. Margrace Buckler, director of human resources, presented a plan to redo the city salary merit system.
“The way that it’s done now is not considered serious by employees or supervisors,” Buckler said.
Paula Hertwig Hopkins, assistant city manager, also presented several proposals to change city employee health care benefits. One possible change would be to take benefits away from retired employees eligible for Medicare, which would reduce city expenses from $70 million annually to $9.8 million.