COLUMBIA — The Columbia City Council approved a $440.9 million budget for fiscal 2017 at its council meeting Monday. The new budget includes an increase in utility and park fees, as well as the addition of a new police officer.

Under the budget taking effect Oct. 1, fee increases will tack on $3.59 per month to the average utility payer's bill. The increases were approved 6-0, with Fourth Ward councilman Ian Thomas not present.

Storm water fees will increase anywhere between 21 and 42 cents, depending on the square footage of the building’s main floor. Rates for commercial properties will increase by a minimum of $1.25 per hundred square feet of impervious surface. This is the second of five increases approved by voters in April 2015.

The sewer utility fee will increase by 5 percent overall. It is a combination of a 4 percent voter-approved increase and a percent increase to cover operation and maintenance costs. This brings the residential base charge from $11.01 to $11.56. The highest base charge increase, for locations with a 12-inch water meter, will increase by $118.36.

The residential rate for sewer connection fees will rise to $2,000 as part of a proposed four-year connection fee increase. That increase will ultimately see rates reach $2,400 in fiscal 2018.

Revenue from water utility fees will increase by 2 percent, while the monthly residential rate charge will increase between 6.6 percent and 50 percent, depending on the size of the meter. The general size for residential meters is five-eighths of an inch, which will have a minimum 55 cent increase.

Revenue from electrical utility fees will likewise be increased by 2 percent.

Columbia Access Television

Columbia Access Television continued to dominate parts of the conversation as the council debated uses of its reserves to fund the station. CAT received $35,000 in funding, consisting of $25,000 from the general fund and $10,000 from the council reserve. This drew concerns from some council members that the structure for funding the station was too disjointed.

Citing the council's declining financial support of the station over the past four years and recurring debates in past budget meetings, Fifth Ward councilwoman Laura Nauser said: "We need to decide: Are we going to fund this? To what level are we going to fund this? And where are those funds going to come from?"

Second Ward councilman Michael Trapp said he was not opposed to financing the station from the general fund in future fiscal years, but that it should not take precedence over government programs.

He mirrored Nauser in calling for a permanent verdict on the group's funding.

"Somebody needs to make a hard decision rather than saying, 'We might find 50 grand,'" he said.

Construction projects

The Discovery Parkway project was shot down 5-1, with Nauser arguing other construction projects are being ignored unfairly.

"I understand you wanting to get ahead of construction, but we're getting ahead of construction on Gans and New Haven where Providence and Nifong have been neglected for years," she said.

Funds were earmarked for a street and sidewalk closure fee policy, a plan which has been debated over the past few months.

Some council members expressed concern at the earmarking of funds without a set policy in place, including Nauser and Sixth Ward councilwoman Betsy Peters.

When asked if the budget could be amended later if the funds were not earmarked in the budget, City Manager Mike Matthes said: "It's really council's preference. This was established merely as an endorsement of the content."

Other construction projects, including improvements to the intersection of Fairview and Chapel Hill and the construction of bus shelters, passed unanimously.

Boys & Girls Clubs Grant

The Boys & Girls Clubs received a one-time $500,000 grant from the general reserves.

"This is a worthwhile investment that is consistent with our strategic plan and our social equity plan," said Mayor Brian Treece, complimenting the group's effectiveness with low-income youth.

The city's 2016-2019 strategic plan aims to increase social and economic equity among white and black residents in Columbia.

"It makes sense to me in terms of social equity across the board in this town," said Third Ward councilman Karl Skala.

Skala expressed unease at the amount of money gifted to the program, but said he thought it was a worthwhile investment. 

An amendment to add another police officer, bringing the total of new hires for fiscal 2017 up to four, was approved 5-1, with Trapp dissenting.

While Trapp said he supports hiring new police officers, he was concerned about the funding source for the amendment's hire. The money to hire the officer will come from street maintenance funding.

"We're robbing Peter to pay Paul," Trapp said.

The council also approved changing police lieutenants from classified to unclassified workers under the federal Fair Standards Act. Matthes said the amendment came up due to insubordination in the department. The measure passed, with only Treece dissenting.

"That job is hard enough for them to come to work every day with their badge in one hand, their life in the other, not knowing which one they're going to lose at the end of the day," Treece said. "I'm not sure we want, you know, seven lieutenants worried that they're going to lose their job due to a split-second decision they make."

  • The council voted to move the management of Columbia Regional Airport from the Public Works Department to the Economic Development Department. The Airport Advisory Board will also be dissolved and reformed under the Economic Development Department.
  • The purchase of Naloxone, and opioid overdose preventer, with council reserve money was the first discussed amendment. The use of the reserves instead of the general fund was questioned by a few members of the council, but the measure ultimately passed.

"Congratulations, you can keep the lights on," Treece said as the council moved on to other business.

  • Assistant City Editor, foodie, political junkie and graduate student from Louisiana. You can reach me by phone at (318) 758-0799 or by email at johntsadler2014@gmail.com

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