Written by Mike Martin
A corrupt status quo decades in the making
COLUMBIA, Mo 9/4/14 (Beat Byte) -- A few years ago, then-Columbia city manager Bill Watkins recommended City Council members cut a city-funded recreation program at Paquin Towers -- a public housing residence for people with disabilities -- to "balance" the budget. "About 20 people, half of them in wheelchairs, stationed themselves outside the Daniel Boone Building to protest the proposed elimination," the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.
The City Council's so-called "reserve account" -- a piddly piggy bank and the only City Hall money Council members feel free to control -- was on the chopping block a couple years later.
Along with a list of teeny-tiny budget items that mostly help John and Jane Q. Public and our volunteer representatives, the Council Reserve Account would lose $75,000, leaving only $25,000. The Council's food budget would be chopped $11,500, leaving $3,500. The Citizens Police Review Board would lose $18,600, leaving $4,600; and so forth.
City manager Mike Matthes wanted to cut CAT TV -- the city's public access television station -- last year. And he's after the beleaguered group again this year, prompting a Council scramble to save the progressive fave.
But this year's show stopper is black trash bag elimination, which has stolen the spotlight -- as Mr. Matthes and his ol' boy developer bosses surely hoped it would -- over an unsupported idea that trash hauling will run in the red in 2015. As residents protest black bag banishment, it becomes another distraction from the real inequities in the city's $430 million annual budget.
Busy fighting over relatively small but emotionally-charged line items, the public takes its eyes off crony capitalists and their minions at City Hall as they tether down the big stuff, like hefty electricity and sewer rate hikes for homeowners but small if any rate hikes for big business.
The media chases the diversions with blaring headlines and breathless broadcasts, ignoring the budgetary shenanigans that have finally caught up with a corrupt status quo decades in the making.
Citizens are in full revolt over Columbia's decrepit infrastructure, and they're about to get more bad news. Turns out city administrators have violated the City Charter again, this time by failing to establish and maintain a so-called Depreciation Fund with millions of dollars especially set aside to replace aging -- i.e. depreciated -- infrastructure!
Instead, for years the city manager's office has stashed the money -- some $85 million so far -- in so-called "Unrestricted Funds" that can be used for anything, like buying the old Ameren site for a park to service all those student apartments, or developing "shovel ready" land north of town.
The City Council-appointed Downtown Leadership Council discovered the missing Depreciation Fund -- a gem of petty corruption -- by reading the Charter, where Section 102 mandates it; studying the city's financial reports; and questioning Matthes and Water/Light director Tad Johnsen.
Their responses -- included in a July report to the Council from the DLC's Infrastructure Committee -- remind of Bill Clinton's, "It depends on what the definition of 'is' is," over the Monica Lewinsky affair.
But with trash bags and CAT TV in the headlines, the public is likely to yawn over this grievous misappropriation of public money -- or at least, so must Mr. Matthes and his crony bosses be hoping.
"It has come to my attention that the proposed budget for the City of Columbia fiscal year 2015 threatens an important communications option...The city government recommendation is to defund Columbia Access Television (CAT)."
That's Historic West Broadway Neighborhood Association communications director Louis Wilson, in a Sept. 1 email to association members.
"Maybe I missed something, but before you put out an 'official' statement on behalf of the Historic West Broadway Neighborhood Association endorsing the continued funding of CAT-TV, it might be a good idea to call a meeting and poll your neighbors on the issue."
That's Inside Columbia publisher Fred Parry, in a testy response to Wilson.
"Heh heh heh." That's Mr. Matthes, his developer bosses -- and their lawyers, of course -- rubbing their mitts over cigars.
"Matthes -- you buy that Ameren site, you hear? Don't care what it costs! It might have been a toxic waste site, but we got lots of student apartments going up and my clients are gettin' pretty darned tired of payin' for all the amenities themselves. And keep those darn fool taxpayers fightin' amongst themselves, understood?"
"Yes Sir! Mr. van Matre. We're gonna cut the Humane Society next."
"Here here! Mr. Matthes. Here here!"