Columbia City Council approves $362 million budget

Monday, September 17, 2007 | 11:30 p.m. CDT; updated 9:01 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — After weeks of work sessions and public hearings that followed months of work by city staff, the Columbia City Council on Monday night unanimously approved a $362 million budget for fiscal year 2008.

The budget includes a host of expensive capital projects, a series of utility-rate increases that will boost monthly bills for residential customers by an average of nearly $11 and the addition of several new city employees. But it is by all city government accounts a tight budget, devoid of new programs and many equipment purchases that are being delayed by lagging sales tax collections.

The budget, which will take effect with the new fiscal year on Oct. 1 requires the city to spend $6.5 million from its reserves, City Manager Bill Watkins said at an August news conference, where he unveiled the proposed spending plan.

At Monday’s meeting, council members acknowledged that limited money resulted in tough choices.

“Our goals should be reflected in the budget,” Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said. “We want to add new programs, better programs, but we just can’t.”

In the end, approval of the budget came down to a debate over how the City Council would divvy up the $75,000 worth of discretionary money it was given to play with.

One of the proposals passed by the council, requested by Mayor Darwin Hindman, was for $10,000 to be set aside as seed money to repeat the Roots ’N’ Blues ’N’ BBQ festival. The planned one-time event, hosted by Boone County National Bank, attracted more than 50,000 people to downtown Columbia Sept. 7 and 8.

Terry Woodruff, a member of the festival’s planning committee, thanked the council for its support.

“We’re trying to find a way to make this exist year after year,” he said. “According to the Kansas City Barbecue Association, this was the largest first-year barbecue festival in their history.”

Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade’s proposed naturalist program, an after-school program designed to teach young students about nature, was the most debated issue Monday night. Wade had requested $7,500 for the program, but other council members balked at earmarking the money without more specifics and rejected the proposal.

“I wholeheartedly approve of the idea,” Hindman said. “The thing that worries me is starting a program without really getting a handle on how it will be budgeted out. I just think this is a really tight budget. ... But, it’s like voting against your mother.”

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala recommended Wade return to the council after he compiled a business plan.

“It’s not our money, it’s their money,” Skala said. “I want it to happen, I really do, we just need a little more information.”

A big chunk of the 2008 budget is targeted at street projects that have been in the planning stages for some time. Those include major reconstructions of Brown School Road ($3.75 million), Clark Lane ($3.24 million) and Range Line Street ($2.3 million.)

The city will also spend about $8 million on parks, recreation and trails projects; much of the money will come from the parks sales tax and from a federal grant for nonmotorized transportation projects.

The budget also includes $2.2 million to construct Fire Station 9 at Blue Ridge and Providence roads and $13.4 million for renovation and expansion of public buildings, primarily city hall.

The budget will hit residents in the pocket book through utility bills beginning this fall. Residents will see an average increase of $10.69 on their monthly bills. Electricity rates will rise 9 percent, water rates 8 percent and sewer rates 6 percent. Portions of those increases were approved by voters in the form of bond issues. In addition, a 9.5 percent increase for refuse collection was approved. First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton was the only council member to vote against the utility increases, and she suggested the council look into other methods of covering utility expenses.

“I morally cannot support this,” Crayton said. “This is going to be a hardship on some people.”

While city officials may face a tightened budget, their work force is growing. The budget calls for 19 new jobs, including three firefighters and three police lieutenants. City workers will get pay raises of 1.05 percent, or 30 cents per hour, whichever is greater.

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