When city leaders forget the public in favor of the powerful

COLUMBIA, Mo 8/29/13 (Beat Byte) -- Buried on page 71 in Columbia's 2012 financial report are two debts totalling $38.6 million that speak to the power of powerful people.  

The debts cost Columbia residents roughly $4.2 million last year, in payments that won't completely go away until 2028

Though taxes, fines, fees, utility rates, and other public monies pay the debts, the public had little say when city leaders took out the loans.  

Instead, Council members, bankers, city administrators, and entrenched special interests shoved the public aside for two men nobody dared question:  then-city manager Ray Beck and one of Beck's buds, developer Bob Lemone.

Beck retired and Lemone passed away, but they left Columbia with a debt hangover that represents not one public priority.   It doesn't represent more police officers or firefighters.  It doesn't represent better roads or sidewalks or stormwater drainage.  It doesn't represent higher pay for city employees or lower taxes and utility bills for average Columbians.

Instead, the debt is paying for the new city hall ($27 million) and an empty, dated building purchased from Lemone's trust and remodeled for IBM by Lemone's company, Little Dixie Construction ($11.6 million).   

The rush to approve these projects laid waste to transparency, ignored public concerns, and proved beyond a doubt that money is available at City Hall for those people -- or special interests -- who have the power to demand it

The Columbia City Council's long debate over whether or not to have a public vote on how to pay for the new city hall brought out scores of vote proponents.   It also generated one of the longest comment lines at a City Council meeting this writer has ever seen, with the vast majority demanding a public vote. 

"Why would the Columbia City Council authorize spending $21,000,000 without a vote of the public?" asked conservative former Council member Sharon Lynch in a Columbia Business Times editorial entitled Government center project, an extraordinary expenditure, is worthy of taxpayer scrutiny.

But because Beck and friends were behind it, Council members voted unanimously to approve the 55,000 square foot structure without a single ballot. 

Part of the financing "would be paid over 20 years through annual transfers of $700,000 from the city’s general fund," the same fund used for cops and firefighters, then-city manager Bill Watkins explained

But isn't robbing from the Peter fund to pay for Paul's project taboo?   Apparently, only when the public wants to know why its money isn't being spent on its priorities.

This writer had hoped the new city hall would be a symbol of security amidst "increased crime, rising taxes and sagging infrastructure"   How ironic these problems have worsened in the five years since, as money drained from city services pays the giant mortgage. 

Council members unanimously approved the IBM/Lemone project despite public misgivings then-First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz articulated.   Sturtz called the lack of transparency during the process "disquieting." 

"It was a secret to 99.9 percent of our citizens," Sturtz explained

City officials "were not even close" to keeping Council members "in the loop," Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala agreed

No wonder.   Special interests descended on the project like flies on you-know-what, feasting on contracts for everything from flooring to lending, all while slyly selling it as a treasure trove of "good jobs".   The last thing these businessmen wanted were the public's representatives made aware of how they were enriching themselves at the public's expense. 

So why did both Skala and Sturtz vote to approve the project, making Bob Lemone's family at least $2.5 million richer and sticking the city with a $9 million mortgage?    Chalk it up to the power of powerful people -- and the weakness of ill-informed taxpayers.   

"I had some very real questions and concerns that I voiced," Sturtz told the Heart Beat in Oct. 2010.   "I ended up voting for it because I would have been run out of town to not vote for something that had the potential to bring in 800 jobs, even if I thought the economic devolopment claims were overrated."

-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat