COLUMBIA — Several Columbia residents weighed in on the proposed $440 million city budget for fiscal year 2017 during the Columbia City Council's regular meeting Monday night.
The public hearing was the first of three that are planned on the budget before the council is scheduled to approve the spending plan in late September. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
The budget as written calls for a 3.16 percent decrease in spending from the current fiscal year, in response to a loss of sales tax revenue that City Manager Mike Matthes attributes to the increased popularity of online shopping. The budget anticipates the city will collect $47.5 million in sales taxes during the fiscal year, which would be only a 1 percent increase over this year.
Matthes released the budget in late July, and council members already have suggested several amendments, according to a document included with the Monday night meeting agenda. The council discussed those amendments Monday but will make no final decisions until it votes on the budget in its entirety.
More money for police
Mayor Brian Treece has offered one of the more significant amendments, proposing that the council shuffle money for streets to free up $351,000 for the Columbia Police Department.
Treece would take $351,000 in rebate money from the Boone County road tax that was budgeted for work at Fairview and Chapel Hill roads and put it in the general street maintenance budget. He would then take the same amount from the street budget and use it to fund 3 1/2 police officers' positions. Treece eventually would like to suss out enough money for four officers.
"Of course I would like for that number to be much more than that," he said.
Treece would put the Fairview/Chapel Hill work off until fiscal 2024. The project was tabled earlier this summer after residents protested plans for a roundabout at the intersection.
Treece said the move aligns with the results of the 2015 Citizen Satisfaction Survey.
"The top two priorities are more public safety dollars" to spend on "more police officers and increased attention on street maintenance." Those priorities have reversed from previous years.
Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas noted that while the rebated road tax money can replace one year's worth of street maintenance funding, subsequent years would remain unfunded.
The cost to outfit a new police officer, including training, equipment, salary, and benefits, is estimated to be just over $100,000, Matthes said. They become "fully operational" after five years, he said.
Bus shelters and road projects
In a separate budget amendment, Treece suggested the city accelerate the construction of new covered bus shelters in fiscal 2017 along commonly used routes to allow residents easier access to grocery stores, pharmacies and other services.
Treece also proposed moving the expansion of a connector between Route WW and Discovery Parkway up from 2021 to 2020 "to better reflect development that is already occurring in the area." The project is part of the capital improvements plan included in the budget but would not affect spending in 2017.
An elementary school, retail space and housing developments are all planned in the area over the next five years. Treece's amendment would require delaying the planned expansion of Nifong Boulevard between Providence Road and Forum Boulevard by one year, from 2020 to 2021.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, whose ward includes the west Nifong corridor, disagreed with the inverted priorities. She said residents there "have been waiting for years to have improvements, (and instead) we're building infrastructure for something new."
Fees for street and sidewalk closures
Treece also is recommending the city begin charging fees for street and sidewalk closures. Money collected from the fees would pay for capital projects as allocated by the City Council. The proposed fees are 20 cents per linear foot and 30 cents per linear foot per day for sidewalk and street lane closures, respectively.
Treece said the fees would be a repayment to taxpayers when public resources are used for private gain. "I think that it also creates an incentive for that developer to finish that project on time."
Matthes said he could provide an estimate of how much the fees might generate each year by Saturday, when the council is scheduled to have a budget work session.
Neighborhood parking program
Thomas had initially proposed a 10-cent-per-hour increase in parking meter fees to fund a neighborhood parking program, but he withdrew the amendment Monday night. The program would have been intended to alleviate parking congestion in neighborhoods around downtown through improvements in parking enforcement. Thomas plans to introduce a different proposal at a later date. He said that after meeting with the Downtown Community Improvement District board on Monday morning, he thinks it would be a good idea to let the Parking and Transportation Management Task Force take on the issue.
Columbia Access Television
Thomas also proposed doubling the $25,000 budgeted for Columbia Access Television, which last year received $50,000.
"I'm concerned that CAT TV will not be able to survive if we further cut this important component of their budget," Thomas said.
"This is democracy in action, this is giving the people a voice," he said of the cable access channel.
Funding for the channel has been cut in half year-over-year from a peak of $200,000. The continued reductions are part of a step-down procedure agreed upon when a five-year contract of $200,000 per year expired, Nauser said.
The proposed cut for fiscal 2017 drew a strong response from the community. Jennifer Erickson, executive director for Columbia Access Television, said the city is willing to support "the government voice, the City Channel, at a much higher level." It is budgeted to get about $444,000.
"We are asking the city to strive for equity in this matter," Erickson said, emphasizing Columbia Access Television's community focus. Erickson, along with a few other residents, proposed maintaining the $50,000 allocation.
Boys and Girls Club
First Ward Councilman Clyde Ruffin proposed allocating $500,000 for a planned expansion of the Boys & Girls Club. Ruffin said the club can't meet the needs of older children and children on the waiting list. There are 700 to 800 children enrolled in the program.
"By supporting this project, it is consistent with our plan for social equity," he said, referring to the ongoing effort by the city to address social and economic disparities between white and minority residents.
The Boys & Girls Club earlier this year began a $2.5 million fundraising campaign for the project, according to previous Missourian reporting.
Ruffin proposed taking the money from existing council reserves. Thomas, however, said it would be a good idea for the council and staff to establish a policy for doling out such large chunks of money.
Naloxone and parental leave
Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp proposed two budget amendments during the meeting. The first would provide police and firefighters with naloxone, a drug used to block the effects of opioid overdoses. Trapp said paramedics and EMTs already carry the drug on ambulances, but he noted that police and firefighters usually arrive at the scenes of medical emergencies about a minute faster than ambulances.
"That one minute, I've talked to doctors, is critical as to whether or not people will live or die," Trapp said.
Trapp also proposed offering city employees up to 10 weeks of paid parental leave.
The second hearing on the budget is scheduled for Sept. 6 and the third on Sept. 19. The council also will hold a budget work session beginning at 8:30 a.m. Saturday in the council chamber at the Daniel Boone City Building, 701 E. Broadway. The mayor said feedback from the public will be welcome at the work session.
Thomas pointed out that allowing public comment at budget work sessions isn't normal procedure but said the council could decide to do so this time around.
"If someone wants to come to a meeting on Saturday morning to discuss the budget, I'm inclined at the discretion of the chair to allow them to comment," Treece said.
"You are the chair," Thomas said.
"I am," Treece said.
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