The city of Columbia has kicked off its annual budget process, and the new city manager is pointing to some of the same old revenue challenges.
Consumers are making more internet purchases, and the city is heavily sales-tax dependent. That means revenues are expected to be down another 1-2% next fiscal year.
After a few years of this revenue trend, in an otherwise strong economy, some spending restraints are being put in place, such as preparing for small budget reductions in all departments.
Other departments, meanwhile, have been slighted for a long time.
The Columbia Fire Department, for one, has simply not been allocated enough resources to keep up with the growth of our community.
Fire protection for many newer neighborhoods on the edges of town was contracted out to the Boone County Fire Protection District, until the city withheld payments and then abandoned the deal altogether.
Remedying this patchwork situation one way or another should be a top priority.
The Columbia Police Department has been understaffed for years. Part of that was apparent mismanagement, which fostered a “toxic” work environment for police officers, led to unnecessary turnover and turned off potential applicants.
The traffic unit has been disbanded. There's no way to invest in the popular community policing initiative.
I've even heard there might not be a police officer available if someone calls 911.
A new police chief is a step in the right direction, as is rebuilding trust in the community. Hopefully police officers will feel appreciated, trust with the public can be rebuilt and police funding can become a top priority.
City employees at large had been denied even annual cost-of-living increases, which hurts morale and leads to turnover. A recent minimum wage of $15/hour will provide a boost for some, but how does that not risk reducing staff or other expenses to make up the difference?
Still, the city manager’s report still puts city staff turnover at about 13%, and a surprising 38% for workers with one-to-five years' tenure — so over one-third of workers get experience on the job, then bail.
Turnover has been particularly alarming with skilled electric utility workers. Their pay is sorely below market, so good people have left for better paying jobs elsewhere, and now the utility here is chronically understaffed.
This pay gap was perplexing because our municipal utilities do not depend on general revenue (which is down), but rather fees from ratepayers (which should be at least stable). Come to find out the city was playing politics — if some can’t get a raise, nobody gets a raise.
The worst might be trash employees. As described in a fine Missourian article a few weeks ago, trash workers have long days and are regularly required to lift overweight bags of trash and frequently oversized items like furniture and big rolls of carpet. This has led to injuries and workman’s comp expenses. Not only is their pay crap, conditions are downright dangerous.
Government needs to perform certain functions of society (like public safety and streets), it can do some things (an electric utility, gym), and should stay out of other functions (church, restaurant). Trash service is lower on that list, so maybe it would be best for our municipal government to declare this setup is not the best, and get out of the trash business.
Municipal government is important. Some say the budget is a statement of values, or even a moral document. We clearly have needs and we have wants. Our police and fire departments have not been properly funded or organized for years now. Fixing these is Job 1.
Our streets have more traffic congestion and potholes than many longtime locals can ever remember. Playing catch-up is a multidecade process and should be near the top of every city budget and agenda until our local network is up to snuff again.
But instead, the advocacy groups (however well intentioned) grab the spotlight for their projects. Initiatives that may be beneficial, but are frankly of secondary priority while the performance of local government’s core missions of public safety and infrastructure are yet somewhat insufficient.
Everything else being equal, to demand more funding for this (say, reinstating marginally utilized bus routes or building new lacrosse fields) is to necessarily demand cuts for that (emergency response or safe and efficient infrastructure).
It is time get back to basics. Let’s focus our time, attention and resources on the things we all truly need City Hall to provide for the community at large and have the guts to say sorry but no to secondary wants which detract from the organization’s core mission.
Let’s pursue excellence in the things we can generally all collectively agree upon, and otherwise seek creative solutions separate from the politics of City Hall.