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HOW CoMo BECAME: The Town that Cancelled Santa Cops

Renewed tax push hits holiday overdrive


COLUMBIA, Mo 12/20/16 (Beat Byte) -- Columbia Police Department leaders are under fire over a decision to cancel "Shop with a Cop," a Christmas shopping spree that pairs police officers with underprivileged kids. 

"Christmas has been cancelled!  Sorry kids," a Columbia Police Officers Association Facebook post explains.  "We simply do not have enough officers to pull it off!"  

"What a disgrace.  Using Shop with a Cop to push politics and punish kids," Aaron Gooch responded, mirroring dozens of similar comments. 

Restarting a push for a "public safety property tax" this week, city manager Mike Matthes and police chief Ken Burton insist the city can't hire more cops without more tax dollars. 

A similar tax proposal failed at the ballot in 2014.   Matthes is eyeing a 2017 ballot measure. 
 
"Shop with a Cop has been cancelled because the current staffing crisis means there are not enough officers available to host the event," Columbia Police Officers Association (CPOA) director Dale Roberts explained in a press release.   CPOA sponsors the annual event, which this year would have paired 16 on-duty officers with low-income children from district elementary schools for "all expense paid Christmas shopping".

The Christmastime cancellation -- and other police leadership moves, such as ending a traffic unit -- feel like political punishment to many Columbia residents, who see city leaders spending millions on parks and developers while letting public safety languish.

"If the city can afford a million dolllars to buy land for a park downtown, plus spend millions to develop it, priorities need to be reviewed, with maybe a few resignations," an online Trib commenter noted under a Dec. 18 story about the renewed public safety tax push.  
 
The comment refers to City Hall's widely-criticized $1.1 million purchase of land at the intersection of Providence Road and Broadway to extend Flat Branch Park.  

Several residents spoke against the purchase at the City Council's Oct. 17 meeting, citing the city's use of a mysterious $3 million funding source -- the "capital projects interest fund" -- Matthes seemed to pull out of thin air. 

"I do have some concerns about the funding source," said 4th Ward Councilman Ian Thomas.    "I didn't even know this 'capital projects interest fund' existed.   I think you said, Mike [Matthes], it's got $3 million approximately in it?   I think it creates at least an appearance of non-transparency." 

Though he voted for the $1.1 million purchase, Thomas said he would have preferred the city use voter-approved parks tax money.  

As of June 30, city government had over $309 million in "pooled cash" bank accounts*, many held at the Union Bank of Switzerland/Swiss Bank Corporation (UBS), city spokesman Steve Sapp told the Columbia Heart Beat.

"As the officers say, 'They can afford parks but not police,'" Roberts told the Heart Beat.

*(Source:  Table 13, 2016 CAFR)

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