As Opus goes, so goes Columbia
COLUMBIA, Mo  8/7/14 (Analysis) -- Will Columbia city manager Mike Matthes and Opus Group's Gang of Four City Council supporters -- First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick; Second Ward Councilman Mike Trapp; Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser; and Mayor Robert McDavid -- let the Minneapolis-based developer go ahead with a 256-unit downtown student apartment? 

That question has so dominated local political discussions this summer, it's widely credited with driving angry voters to this week's August primaries, where residents voted against government in unusually large numbers. 

Down went the EPIC fairgrounds tax; down went the state transportation tax.  

About the Opus question, Repeal 6214 issued a statement last week condemning Matthes and the Gang for their "flagrant disregard of the views and rights of their constituents," while placing "the private needs of this out-of-state developer ahead of the public health and safety of the citizens of Columbia." 

For months starting last December, Matthes and his senior administrators announced Columbia was "out of infrastructure."  No more sewer, water, electric, police, fire, roads, and city staff time for work on developer plans. 

"The city's infrastructure can't handle any new downtown or central city building," Matthes said.  "The pace of development in the area has outstripped the electric and sewer capacity, which is 100 percent utilized." 

Hence, the public health concern.  "At the February 17 Columbia City Council meeting, Public Works Director John Glascock said, 'When it rains one inch, we have a sewer manhole downstream at Katy Trail that overflows," explained Repeal spokesperson Jeremy Root.  "At the same meeting, Matthes said, 'You have to do a project that delivers less sewage or uses less electricity to be considered.'" 

But Opus delivers more -- a lot more -- sewage, and its student renters will use a lot more electricity.  Nonetheless, Matthes and the Gang approved two development agreements granting Opus the right to access citizen-owned infrastructure:  Bills 62-14 and 130-14A.   The Repeal group, which takes its name from the first bill, has delivered enough signatures to overturn them both.    

"The Referendum Petition to Repeal Bill B130-14A now contains the signatures of a sufficient number of City of Columbia registered voters," Amin wrote in a letter to Root last week.  "The City has determined the amended petition submitted by you contains signatures of 3,512 City of Columbia registered voters."

The day of Amin's announcement, Matthes issued a press release approving Opus' plans.  Opus will build downtown, KOMU news reported.  The city manager's move seemed a huge "in your face" to his constituents. 

"The City of Columbia clearly timed their press release regarding the Opus project to interfere with citizens' rights to participate in government," Root said.   "They knew that the second repeal petition was successful, so they decided to send a message:  your rights don't matter to us and we don't have to respect them."

Whether or not Columbia taxpayers and ratepayers will be forced to provide infrastructure to Opus and other private developers is the crux of the opposition movement.   Opus is a bellwether for several other projects.  

American Campus Communities proposes an even larger, more taxing 700-unit apartment for a sliver of land near the corner of Providence and Stewart Roads.  Campus Housing Partners is building over 200 units nearby.  A New York-based developer wants 22 stories of student apartments across from Peace Park.   

As Opus goes, so goes Columbia.   So far, where we are going is evident:  a property tax increase to pay for more Columbia police will be on the November ballot, and large utility rate increases are in the works

"Citizens should not be stuck with a bill for millions of dollars in sewer upgrades so that Opus can make a short-term profit from building luxury student apartments in the center of our downtown," Root explained.  "Since the Council and city staff have shown no interest in protecting our rights, we use all available means to protect them ourselves."

-- Mike Martin