It’s hard to think of anything more boring – or more important – than a budget.

That truism occurred to me again Monday night as a room full of us listened to City Manager Mike Matthes outline the proposed city budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

He was presenting “a picture of fiscal discipline,” he said, noting that the budget includes no layoffs or program cuts, no new or increased taxes and an across-the-board raise of just 2 percent for the planned 1,449 city employees.

Discipline is desirable, of course, especially when the governmental entity being held in check is the one that most directly affects our lives on a daily basis.

I was more intrigued, though, by a term the manager used several times and that I don’t recall ever hearing in similar presentations by his predecessors.

That term was “social equity.”

Curious as to just what those words might mean in the context of a city budget, I’ve enquired of several of Mike’s bosses, our council representatives.

My takeaway from those conversations, and an earlier session with Mike, is that we’re seeing a small but promising first step toward addressing the disparities, painfully associated with race, that result in what he called “a tale of two cities.”

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser put the gap between the two into numbers. Drawing on census data, she told me that the average household income in Columbia is about $43,000 a year. In the First Ward, where black Columbia is concentrated, the average is $18,800. In the adjacent Fourth Ward, overwhelmingly white, the average is $84,000.

As she put it, those numbers result from a whole set of gaps: an academic achievement gap, an employment gap, an opportunity gap.

“We do very well for our upper-class citizens,” she noted dryly.

What we do for the rest is the social equity issue.

Ian Thomas, my Fourth Ward councilman, responded to my questions in an email.

“I very much appreciate the strategic focus on social equity that Mike Matthes has emphasized,” he wrote. “While the City of Columbia cannot solve all these problems, there’s a lot we can do; and the first step is to recognize the problem and commit to doing what we can.”

In this budget, which calls for spending $442 million, doing what we can looks pretty modest. By tapping half of the $4.2 million saved from the current year, the plan for 2016 includes $500,000 for housing for homeless veterans, $100,000 for first-time home ownership, $50,000 for a cradle-to-career jobs program in cooperation with the Columbia Public Schools and a few other initiatives.

There’s also a proposal to use a vacant tract of land to try to lure back some of the lost manufacturing jobs and a goal of focusing infrastructure improvements, public transit and community policing on what can be euphemistically called underserved neighborhoods.

Another way to express social equity might be “equal opportunity,” Mayor Bob McDavid told me. Providing such opportunity, he said, will require action on every level from early childhood education to the recruiting of jobs that will support families.

He also pointed out the reality that the bulk of city government spending must and will continue to go toward paying for “a lot of nuts and bolts stuff,” such as streets and sewers, fire and police protection. He also warned, as he had Monday night, that the city’s general fund, which includes most of the nuts and bolts, is under severe and growing threat from online sales and low property tax rates.

Still, as Ian put it in a phone conversation following his email, the budget is “a declaration of values.”

If our values as a community really do include equal opportunity and social equity, we may some day look back on the budget presented this week as the boring document that gets us started toward putting values into practice.


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