The Smart Growth Coalition in Columbia isn’t very big — attendees at last week’s meeting could have all piled into the back of a developer’s pickup truck — but it has become a force in the ongoing debate over growth in our community. My guess is that its influence is going to increase.
One piece of evidence for that proposition showed up at last Monday’s City Council meeting. The Columbia Daily Tribune reported the next day that the council had voted unanimously to increase modestly the connection fees for new homes to hook up to city water and sewer lines. Don’t let the unanimity fool you. Under previous councils and previous city administrations, there most likely wouldn’t have been a vote, or an increase, at all.
Council members Karl Skala and Barbara Hoppe, two of the key players in what we can only hope marked a change of philosophy, turned up two nights later at the Smart Growth meeting. No surprise there. Both were elected on platforms that called for reining in Columbia’s runaway growth and advocated finding fairer ways to pay the costs of that growth. Ms. Hoppe is past president of the Coalition.
We fortunate few who gathered Wednesday in the County Commission chamber got a preview of another reason for the Coalition’s clout. That was provided by Ben Londeree, a retired MU professor who has turned his research skills to the issue of infrastructure. Ben describes infrastructure as “the long-lasting, expensive stuff,” especially roads and sewer and water lines.
I can sense your eyes glazing over already, and I sympathize. Journalists have a term for topics such as infrastructure. “DBI,” we call them — Dull But Important.
The dullness is self-evident. The importance is illustrated by council member Skala’s alternative definition as “everything that supports growth of the community.”
Ben’s latest study shows that, by comparison with the policies of similar cities across the Midwest, Columbia has been giving developers pretty close to a free-ride. He identified 26 comparable communities — including the homes of Big 12 universities, other fast-growing university towns and such Missouri cities as Independence, Joplin and Chesterfield — and found out what they charge developers to hook onto essential services.
When he ranked the cities according to the amount of those development fees, only three charge less than we do. When the full $300 increases approved by the Council are phased in over three years, we will have moved all the way up from 24th to 23rd on the list, jumping over College Station, Texas, but still well below Fayetteville, Ark.
Columbia currently charges $1,200 per residential unit toward the cost of providing roads, sewer and water lines. The median charge for the cities is $2,660. The national average for 271 cities in 2006 was $8,868.
A meticulous researcher doesn’t go beyond his data, so Ben didn’t point out that even the higher fees don’t cover the full costs of providing the services nor that infrastructure is only part of the cost of growth. And he refrained from stating the obvious. That’s my job.
What the developers don’t pay, the rest of us do.
George Kennedy is a former editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.