Former Council member pans new City Hall plan

Former Columbia City Council member Sharon Lynch has joined a chorus of protests against a plan to bypass the public on over $20 million in funding for a new City Hall.   Her editorial appears in the Columbia Business Times and is reprinted here with permission. 

Government center project, an extraordinary expenditure, is worthy of taxpayer scrutiny

By Sharon Lynch (former city councilperson)
June 19, 2006

The City Government Center renovation and expansion project is a $21 million dollar taxpayer expenditure. Although this major expansion has been discussed by the city manager and city councils for at least 15 years, there is little, if any, public awareness.

Why would the City Council authorize spending $21,000,000 without a vote of the public? They tell us the project is needed, it will not cause an increase in fees/taxes and they have the authority.

A review of the city budget for the last six years and information from the city of Columbia verifies that at least $700,000 per year for several years has been transferred from its General Fund (property taxes) to the Capital Projects Building Fund. A conservative estimate will show there is a minimum of $4 million "set aside" for this project.
There is a shortfall of approximately $17 million. Why isn't this issue on the ballot in August? Many of the City Council members and the mayor have stated they believe a vote of the people would fail.

Our leaders have a solution: alternative financing. This involves transferring minor amounts of money ($700,000+) over a period of years from the General Fund (which normally pays for streets, public safety, maintenance, etc.) to a 'reserve fund' for this project.

It has been suggested that a majority of the shortfall comes from special obligations bonds, because "this type of bonding does not require a vote of the people." Further, the interest rate charged to the taxpayers is usually higher on special obligation bonds, because there is no specific tax revenue source for backing these types of bonds. To augment any additional funding needs, the plan is to charge city enterprise departments (revenue-producing utilities) additional "rent" for their use of the building on a prorated basis, depending on how much space they use.  Departments or revenue-producing utilities prorate charges.

Will there be "new fees/taxes/charges" on our sewer, water, lights and trash to cover this additional charge to the departments?

In the last few years, there was a 9 percent increase in electric rates, 7.5 percent increase in water rates and 4 percent increase in sewer rates. On August 8, we will be asked to approve a $60 million bond issue to improve Columbia's electric distribution system and make improvements required by federal and regional governmental bodies. We will soon need to address improvements to our water source and sewer improvements.

These rate increases and bond issues are necessary in order to meet the growing needs of the community, improve efficiencies and are less expensive in the long run than the Band-Aid method. These expenses are legitimate, basic services and the thoughtfulness and expertise to plan these projects calls for experts, consultants and several years of study before bringing the issues to a vote of the public.

Our elected City Council is responsible for providing these basic services. We all benefit in improved infrastructure and thus we should all share in the additional cost. Please vote "yes" on these issues!

But should we allow our elected representatives to add additional cost to the utility customers in order to pay for a building?

City government is a business totally funded by taxpayer money. Although we are fortunate to live in a vibrant and prosperous community, it is not immune from financial problems. Many Columbia citizens would be startled to learn that the city of Columbia was essentially broke in 1985, with less than $100,000 in cash reserves.
Why? Leading up to that time, several City Councils and city managers had wonderful, progressive ideas for spending money on major projects above and beyond providing the basic services.

Unfortunately, they had little appreciation for the need to balance perceived city "needs" with the ever-growing tax burden on citizens.

Although I am not necessarily opposed to the City Government Center project, I do take issue with the attitude and statements made by the majority of our city elected officials and staff in suggesting they do not need public input to make this decision. Our elected city leaders feel that this $21 million project would not receive the voter's support and therefore have chosen to move forward without voter approval.

A longtime Columbia city manager stated publicly back in the late 1980s after the defeat of a tax increase ballot issue that it is the responsibility of the council and staff to convince the voters, through education and information, that a tax increase issue was thoroughly researched, well thought out and would benefit the entire community. The recent arrogance of some elected officials calls into question why the council would bother asking the citizens to vote on any tax increase issue.

Having served on the City Council for six years, I believe these elected representatives should be held to the highest standards of serving the best interest of the public. They serve long hours at no pay as a board of trustees for public tax dollars. The mayor and council depend on the city manager to run the day-to-day business of the city of Columbia. They are responsible for making good policy decisions.  Have we become such a large city that a $21 million city government building project is considered an "ordinary business expenditure"?

Is your council member representing you?

If you understand the facts of this issue you will likely say "no"!

Contact your Council member and demand full disclosure of the facts on this $21 million project.

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