Special Report: Columbia's Budget Breakdown

Special Report Columbias Budget Breakdown

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Residents in a 2017 citizen survey reported falling confidence in the city official's ability to balance the budget and spend money efficiently on priorities like public safety and infrastructure. 

In recent years, city staff said it's been more focused on budget cuts because sales tax revenue, the city's primary funding source for things like police and fire, has decreased significantly. In 2015, it increased 3 percent. In 2017, it barely hit one.

But despite the free falling revenue, city leaders said taking a fresh look at the budget process and getting more of the public educated and involved could help them be more efficient in addressing resident's priorities.

"This is your money, and these are your budgets," said Mayor Brian Treece.

The way city leaders prioritize where they spend money has come under fire the past few years. In the 2017 citizen survey, satisfaction with the city's efforts to maintain a balanced budget dropped seven percent. 

That declining confidence has prompted local leaders and organizations like the Columbia Police Officer's Association to call for a deeper dive into the budget by state auditor Nicole Galloway.

"If we come through with flying colors, the public only reinforces their confidence," said Treece. "If she finds areas of improvements, we can make those corrections."

There are some places in the budget where departments end the fiscal year with millions in leftover funds, but is addressing resident priorities as easy as shifting unspent money from one fund to the other?

The Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs director Jerry Dowell said it's not that simple.

"I do think that maybe there are handcuffs on how the city government is able to spend money where they need to spend it," he said. 

There's only about $80 million in the budget that isn't already voter approved for a project or tax. 

"That's where all our pain comes," said city manager Mike Matthes. "It's the smallest. We have 18 departments that use a piece of the general fund to operate.

That's where funds for police and fire come from. But of that $80 million, seven out of ten dollars actually does go to public safety. That includes the police and fire departments, and municipal courts.

Dowell and Treece said that money could be spent more efficiently. Money already allocated could be shifted if the public agreed to it, and it stayed within the same department. 

Treece said a recent public outcry against a roundabout near Chapel Hill in south Columbia prompted city council to move the money from the roundabout to the street maintenance fund.

But city leaders said changing the mindset about the budget is going to take public participation and some tough decisions.

"I want your ideas and I want your innovations if you think we can do something better, more effective and cheaper," said Treece.

The city's budget is an open book and taxpayers are encouraged to have a say.

"I think when you bring attention to budgets, you have an engaged and active citizenry that's going to make their voice heard," said Dowell. "I think sometimes that's going to make for better public policy making."

To view the budget and the city's financial reports, you can click here.

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