Matt Pitzer knows his way around a city budget.
The Fifth Ward Columbia councilman on Monday night cherry-picked money from obscure parts of the proposed budget for fiscal 2019 to cobble together the estimated $2.5 million it would take to build a new fire station in the southwest part of the city, which he represents.
Pitzer has made that fire station a priority. Even city Finance Director Michele Nix seemed surprised by some of the innovative suggestions Pitzer made.
Pitzer backed off a previous pitch for fire station funding that suggested using department savings from previous budget years. The plan he proposed Monday uses only one-time funds to avoid affecting any department’s operating budget.
Pitzer proposed taking $678,000 from general fund excess reserves, $850,000 from investment revenue in the capital projects fund and $147,000 that was previously allocated to Job Point from 2016 general fund savings. He would draw the remaining money from the $2.7 million contingency account in the capital improvements sales tax fund.
A new fire station in Columbia would reduce average fire response times in the area to four minutes, according to a presentation the council heard at its Aug. 13 budget work session. In 2017, it could have resulted in reduced response times for more than 180 calls.
Pitzer’s suggestions proved popular among his council colleagues. He and City Manager Mike Matthes said they will work together to draft a budget amendment that the council will consider at its Sept. 4 meeting, when a third public hearing on the budget is scheduled.
Homes for officers?
In other action Monday night, the council discussed a proposal to begin a program that would provide homes and cars for police officers as an incentive for them to live in neighborhoods with low police presence.
Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp suggested allocating $800,000 from the 2017 general fund savings to buy four cars and four homes. Officers would pay low rent to live in the houses.
Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton said at the Aug. 13 work session that a similar program was quite successful in another city where he worked.
“The house was purchased by the city. The officer lived in that neighborhood and was a support mechanism in that neighborhood,” Burton said. “Having the officer live there, the presence of the vehicle, the visibility of the officer in the neighborhood, was a definite benefit.”
The council, however, decided to phase in the program with a budget of $400,000 to determine officers’ interest and what results it might yield. Pitzer was interested in hearing feedback from council members, the community and officers about which areas of the city the program should focus on.
Paratransit Service fees and bus system cuts
Several members of the public attended the meeting to speak about a proposal to raise Paratransit Service fares from $2 to $3, to reduce the area Paratransit Service accommodates and to curtail bus service.
Rene Powell told the council that mobility is often taken for granted.
“Transportation enhances our abilities, it provides options that we don’t have, and increasing the paratransit fees particularly will revoke personal autonomy for people,” she said. “When we talk about social equity, I hope that includes disabled people.”
Powell said she was speaking only for herself, although she serves on the Disabilities Commission and the Public Transit Advisory Commission.
The Rev. Sarah Klaassen of Rock Bridge Christian Church also spoke in opposition to transit cuts.
“We urge you as you make these changes to prioritize the most vulnerable people in our community,” Klaassen said. “Many transit users are people who are disabled or low income, and we all know that transit is a vital part of their lives. It is not equal nor is it just to ask those who rely on transit to bear the same cost burden as those who do not.”
The fiscal 2019 draft budget calls for eliminating neighborhood bus routes, altering the most popular black and gold routes, ending service at 7 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. and, eventually, eliminating Saturday service and shuttles to events such as MU football games and the Roots N Blues N BBQ festival.
She suggested funding the transit system “and shifting the burden of our revenue challenges to those who can better afford it” by redistributing sales taxes or implementing a $5 airport parking fee.
The council will vote on approval of the entire budget on Sept. 17.
Supervising editors are Scott Swafford and Sky Chadde.