The need to provide public transportation to marginalized Columbia residents was the primary focus of public comment during the first public hearing on the proposed city budget for fiscal 2020 on Monday night.
Interim City Manager John Glascock, who released his $485 million spending plan in late July, presented it to the Columbia City Council on Monday for the first time. Glascock’s budget is largely focused on increasing employee wages.
The budget projects revenue of $455.6 million, which is an increase of 4.3% over the current year. Glascock, however, expects sales tax receipts to decline by 1.75%, or $813,205.
Glascock’s budget calls for no increases in monthly electric, sewer or solid waste bills, but it does reflect a 3% increase in water bills and a 20% increase in stormwater bills. Together, those voter-approved increases would cost the average household about 82 cents per month.
Glascock ended his presentation by saying the public needs to inform him and the City Council what it wants Columbia’s priorities to be.
“Residents need to tell us,” he said.
Beyond scheduled comments from the chairs of various advisory boards and commissions, the council mostly heard about public transit as a priority the budget should address. Beth Hastings was the first to address the matter.
Hastings formed CoMo Transit Justice after the council made several cuts to the Go COMO bus system in the fiscal 2019 budget. Those cuts eliminated several routes, ended bus service an hour earlier each day and eliminated some special shuttle services for events.
As the leader of the coalition and someone who is unable to drive because of a disability, Hastings said public transit is a lifeline for people like her and that adequate funding is essential.
“Stabilization of the transit budget is not enough when people who have no other option can’t get to their jobs or do shopping,” Hastings said.
The Rev. Sarah Klaassen of Rock Bridge Christian Church followed Hastings. Klaassen, along with other members of Faith Voices of Columbia, protested cuts to the bus system’s budget in front of the the Daniel Boone Building in 2018.
Klaassen told the council that she had collected 280 signatures thus far from people calling for full restoration of last year’s transit cuts.
Klaassen quoted Fannie Lou Hamer, voting and women’s rights activist, saying, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
“We are not yet free,” Klaassen said.
Before the comments on public transit, Human Services Commission Chairwoman Amy Camp offered a report on poverty levels in Columbia, saying poverty could be anywhere in the city.
Citing the data gathered by the commission, Camp said around 23 percent of Columbia residents, including 16% of children, are living in poverty.
Camp also noted that Columbia’s income inequality is higher than the state and national level and that African Americans are more likely to experience poverty, unemployment, morbidity and mortality.
Camp said it’s hard to escape poverty in Columbia because its rate of economic mobility ranks in the bottom half of communities in the U.S.
“The issues of poverty and inequity still conspire to keep too many of our community members from realizing their true potential,” Camp said.
The council also reviewed a letter from the Human Rights Commission on Monday night imploring it to boost public transportation as a means of helping people rise out of poverty.
“For many in the City of Columbia, the challenge of breaking the cycle of poverty begins with reliable transportation,” the letter said.
Inspired by Camp’s presentation, Grace Vega urged the council to fully fund public transit so people can get to their jobs. She resurrected Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas’s idea of charging for parking at Columbia Regional Airport as a way to raise money for the bus system.
“What happens if we start funding things like transportation, start making transportation for everyone a priority, not just the folks who fly into the airport who maybe don’t want to pay $5 a day to park?” Vega asked. “That’s absurd. Who among any of us who can go anywhere in the country and not pay something to park in the airport. It’s absurd, and it’s wrong.”
Thomas, who has tried for years to champion the idea of a stronger bus system, encouraged his council colleagues to discuss the issue in depth at their budget work session scheduled for this coming Monday.
Thomas said a convenient and fully developed bus system would be for everyone, not only for those who do not have a car. Regarding a fee for parking at the airport, Thomas said free parking is a “really unjustifiable benefit.” Charging $3 a day, he said, would generate $250,000 a year for the transit system.
Later in the meeting, the council discussed a report Thomas requested that compares the operating costs of existing transit vehicles with potential alternatives. It shows that city-owned electric buses and those fueled by compressed natural gas cost more to buy but less to maintain and fuel than diesel buses. Shuttle vehicles that were converted to natural gas, however, spend more time out of service for repairs.
Thomas said that while the report showed it is more expensive to own and operate larger buses than smaller ones, the difference is not overwhelming. The report also showed that it would cost the city more to buy hybrid vans but that they would be more efficient and reliable.
Autonomous, fully electric transit shuttles could be a choice in the future but also would cost more, the report said.
The council’s budget work session is open to the public and is scheduled for 9 a.m. this coming Monday. Public hearings will be held at the council’s regular meetings on Sept. 3 and Sept. 16.
In other action Monday night, the council approved a contract with Glascock for the permanent city manager job, for which he’ll be paid $180,000 per year. Glascock, however, will retain the interim label until he moves into the city limits. His contract gives him until Jan. 1 to do so.
Missourian reporter Morgan H. Smith contributed to this report.