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CITY-OWNED UTILITY PROFITS: Must fund CoMo public safety, law says

Millions more for police, fire

COLUMBIA, Mo 4/19/16 (Op Ed) --
Where will newly-elected Columbia Mayor Brian Treece find money to hire more cops and firefighters?   

Missourian editorialist George Kennedy asked that question right after Treece was elected.  
"That’s not clear," Kennedy answered. 

If city officials followed the law, it would be clearer.   


The City Charter -- Columbia's constitution -- mandates that profits from the city's mammoth water and electric utility be used to fund public safety -- specifically,  Article XII, Section 102.

The utility made nearly $23 million last year (image), no surprise given the
rate increases City Council members have approved every year since city manager Mike Matthes took office. 

Instead of following Columbia's top source of law and order -- the City Charter -- city officials keep pushing higher taxes.   
Deputy Columbia city manager Tony St. Romaine last week promised yet another property tax increase. 

"We need more money to make sure they have the safety resources they need," St. Romaine told KOMU, in a report that blamed "lost holiday sales taxes" for City Hall's ongoing failure to fully fund public safety.   
"Compared to cities of comparable population and size, CPD is short 50 officers," St. Romaine said. 

He pegged the price for new officers at $5 million -- only 25% of the Water and Light Department's 2015 profit of $23 million. 


Instead of spending Water and Light profits on public safety -- or lowering utility rates, another Charter-mandated option -- city officials deposit the money in local banks, for loans to developers and land speculation.

Money from local government "is a great source of local deposits for loans to people in the community," Landmark Bank regional president Matt Williams told the Missourian for a story about Boone County's deposits
 
St. Romaine pushed a controversial 2013 move for City Hall to buy 100 acres using $3 million in Water and Light Department profits.   He bragged about how much money the utility takes in -- $127 million that year; $148 million in 2015 -- and how large its savings account was. 

Five years earlier, then city manager Bill Watkins wanted $1 million to $2 million from Water and Light Department profits  "to buy land and extend the necessary infrastructure to make it ready for manufacturing or industrial uses," the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.  

"The money would essentially act as a city investment in real estate, Watkins said. 

Since City Hall has never used Water and Light's profits to fund more police or reduce utility rates, Mayor and Council might consider having a look at where those profits have gone.   The city showed nearly $300 million in cash savings as of the last CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report), up almost $50 million in a year.

There's a good chance some of that money is a few decades worth of Water and Light profits, socked away for a rainy developer's day when it should go back to residents and ratepayers. 

-- Mike Martin

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