COLUMBIA — The city's budget for the next year is finalized.
The Columbia City Council unanimously approved a $441 million budget for fiscal 2016 at its Monday night meeting, which also featured Columbia Access Television members lobbying to maintain the channel's $50,000 stipend from the council, arguments over raising sanitary sewer connection fees and plenty of esoteric discussion on closing certain Personnel Advisory Board meetings.
The budget also parceled out $2.1 million from 2014 savings to help build housing for homeless veterans and low-income families, improve the city's energy efficiency and support early childhood learning programs.
Columbia Access Television
Mayor Bob McDavid's amendment to take $50,000 from CAT and $100,000 from strategic planning to fund community policing efforts died when his motion failed to receive a second.
The $50,000 appropriation to CAT was down from $100,000 in 2015 and $200,000 in 2014.
More than a dozen residents and CAT members spoke in defense of the public access channel, including Shawna Johnson, executive director of nonprofit organization Access Arts, and David Wilson, co-founder of Ragtag Cinema and the True/False Film Festival.
Johnson said hiring professional videographers is financially difficult for her organization, "but purchasing a membership with CAT is well within our means."
Wilson told the council how CAT helped his friend, Kim Sherman, go from someone who "didn't think she could ever do anything with a camera" to a producer with a dozen independent movie credits.
But council members remained divided on CAT's future funding.
Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp suggested lowering CAT's funding to $25,000 for fiscal 2017 to give the channel more time to become self-sustaining.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said the city should honor its current contract with CAT and give it $50,000 for 2016, but said she worried the channel was being prized over other council priorities.
"I don't like taking out of our council reserves for this," Nauser said. "I think that CATV should compete on a fair basis with other cultural organizations in our community."
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala and Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas spoke in support of CAT. Skala noted that in addition to being a cultural resource, CAT could also be seen as job training for some of its members.
"This ought to be a discussion of priorities," Skala said. "And this can be seen as supporting economic development, which we certainly support."
Sewer connection fees
The council also approved a second $400 increase in sanitary sewer connection fees in as many years by a 5-2 vote, bringing the total cost of a sewer hook-up to $1,600.
McDavid and Nauser dissented.
Last year, the council raised the fee from $800 to $1,200 and decided to gradually increase rates to $2,400 over four years.
McDavid reiterated his fears that raising sanitary sewer connection fees would drive up the cost of growth in Columbia and deter potential developers and homebuilders.
"If you want to slow down growth in Columbia, the best way to do it is to spike fees for new houses," McDavid said.
Nauser said she wouldn't support raising fees higher than $1,400, or $25 more than Boone County's connection charge.
Thomas disagreed. Low connection fees lower the value of new homes and make it more difficult to sell existing homes, he said.
He responded to McDavid's contention that fee increases could stifle construction of low-income housing by suggesting an exemption for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.
Personnel advisory board hearings
The council unanimously approved changes to its personnel policies, including an ordinance that closed meetings of the city's Personnel Advisory Board to the public when it is considering employee grievances. Previously, city code allowed any city employee appealing a fine or suspension to the board to make his or her hearing public.
City Manager Mike Matthes said closing the meetings removed the public component of an otherwise private disciplinary process. He mentioned also that if employees did not agree with a decision, they can appeal to the legal system, where proceedings would be public.
McDavid said having a way to privately discuss personnel matters was beneficial for both the city and its employees.
At first, Skala said, he saw keeping hearings public as a way to restore public trust.
"I agree with the mayor that I wouldn't want an open session either, but that doesn't matter," Skala said. "What matters is our attempts to re-establish the public trust that seems to have taken a beating over the last few years. I don't see any reason to lean toward a more secret process."
However, Matthes and city counselor Nancy Thompson said there might be some cases in which employees or their attorneys could turn public hearings into spectacles. Matthes said one such case would be if an employee were accused of sexual harassment and the accuser wanted to remain anonymous, the accused could require his or her accuser to testify in a public setting.
The example gave Thomas and Skala pause.
"This is more difficult than I thought because there is potential for harm," Skala said.
Thomas made a motion to table the measure, but his motion was defeated 6-1, with Thomas casting the sole vote in support.
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