Local clergy voiced disappointment with Columbia’s fiscal 2019 budget at a news conference on Thursday afternoon in front of city hall.
“We want to express our disappointment that moral implications of the city budget did not play a larger role in the conversations this year,” said the Rev. Sarah Klaassen of Rock Bridge Christian Church.
Klaassen and the Rev. Brad Bryan of Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church implored the Columbia City Council and City Manager Mike Matthes to consider marginalized communities when discussing the budget.
The news conference was organized by Faith Voices of Columbia, an interfaith organization aiming to fight social injustice. Standing behind Klaassen and Bryan were representatives from different Faith Voices congregations.
One of the main issues they addressed was public transit, a city bus and paratransit service mainly used by people with lower incomes and people with disabilities.
Klaassen and Bryan both stated their displeasure with transit cuts the council and Matthes made to public transit for fiscal 2019, which began on Sunday. Most of the route changes and cuts in service will take place June 3, giving the city time to meet requirements of the Federal Transit Authority. On Sunday, though, evening service began stopping at 7 p.m. rather than the previous 8 p.m.
Public transit was one of the more controversial topics during budget discussions, as many residents complained about the potential fallout from the cuts.
Klaassen applauded the council’s decision to preserve paratransit, which provides transportation for people with disabilities who are unable to use regular bus service, but criticized the cuts to the overall system.
Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas, who has repeatedly advocated improving the public transit system, attended the news conference. Thomas failed to win his council colleagues’ approval of several attempts to boost support for the bus system.
Thomas believes Faith Voices will be able to increase public awareness for public transit.
“I think they represent a large group of people,” Thomas said. “I think they come at all of these issues of public policy with the ideal framework of how we should be governing the city.”
Thomas also touched on the importance of morality in budget discussions.
“Without a moral voice to articulate the need (to protect vulnerable residents), it’s very easy for a government to not pay attention to that need,” he said.
As for public transit, Thomas still has hopes for improvement the future, despite council inaction.
“I always have a positive outlook. I wouldn’t be working on it if I didn’t,” Thomas said.
To sway the rest of the council, Thomas believes it will take a lot of voices from the community. Faith Voices is trying to round up those voices.
“Our priorities are voter engagement and public presence,” Bryan said.
Since the 2019 budget has already gone into effect, Faith Voices’ plan going forward is to declare its own moral agenda in January. It will focus on different issues such as disproportionate poverty in the African-American community, affordable housing and community policing, which Faith Voices supports.
Klaassen also said the group plans to engage voters with these issues as part of their Faith Votes program.
“We are going to continue to work to build the voting power we need to keep our elected officials accountable to the moral agenda and to the stated goal of social equity in the city of Columbia,” Klaassen said.
Going forward, Bryan wants to see what the council’s spending priorities are. “We are here, we are listening and we are paying attention. We are going to notice these priorities.”
Engaging and educating citizens is integral to Faith Voices’ plan to put pressure on city officials.
“Together we will make sure social equity is not just a buzzword in city hall, but a lived reality for all families in Columbia,” Klaassen said.