Columbia City Council to have second public hearing on proposed budget

Includes proposed utility rate, transit fee hikes

Columbia City Council to have second...

COLUMBIA, Mo. - This month, the Columbia City Council will need to make a decision regarding City Manager Mike Matthes' proposed budget for fiscal year 2018.

Some proposed suggestions have drawn questions and criticism from council members and the general public.

First, the proposed budget recommends raising paratransit fees from $2 to $3 and eliminating three routes with the lowest ridership: pink, light green and dark green.

The Public Works Department is also proposing cutting bus service for events such as Roots N' Blues and the True/False Film Festival, saving the department about $20,000.

Many departments are suffering revenue shortfalls due to low sales tax growth.

At their work session on the budget two weeks ago, council members discussed alternatives to cutting the bus routes. By the end of the discussion, most said they were leaning toward a flex system. 

"I'm uncomfortable with cutting service," said Ward 4 Councilman Ian Thomas at the meeting. "Although those three routes have low ridership, the people that are riding it really need it and it's going to cause chaos in their lives and further undermine our efforts to move toward the transit service we want."

By implementing a flex system, the service would be on demand. Exact details need to be worked out, but someone who needs a ride could call a number and then a van would show up to take them to another bus route.

Cheryl Price, chair of the Public Transit Advisory Commission, said that she hopes the council will consider not increasing the fares a whole dollar. She also recommended the flex system.

The Utilities Department also proposed utility hikes across the board. Some council members were concerned about the increases to water and electricity rates, which have not been approved in some capacity by voters.

According to the department's director, Tad Johnson, it needs to raise the water rate to pay for planned capital improvement projects. The water revenue goes into the department's cash reserve when the city isn't paying back loans on a bond.

Mayor Brian Treece said he didn't think it was appropriate for the city to ask customers to pay more to help the department "stockpile cash."

Ward 2 Councilman Mike Trapp said he thought the department needed the money because if it didn't have the money right away, it would have to postpone those improvement projects, which would make them more expensive. 

"We'll deplete our cash reserves, which could jeopardize our bond rating," he said.

Thomas said he had concerns about cost-burden inequities between current and future customers as well as between low-usage residential customers and higher-usage commercial customers.

Ward 6 Councilwoman Betsy Peters said in an email that she thought it was a complicated issue and planned to continue studying the recommendations and questions if needed.

"Hopefully between the information the city provides and the questions from citizens, we can make a well-founded decision regarding this potential rate increase," she said. 

The council will discuss these issues as well as other budget proposals at Tuesday night's council meeting. The public is welcome to make comments on any of the proposals listed for public hearing.

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