City manager whacks firehouse nestled between three elementary schools -- again! 

COLUMBIA, Mo 9/27/13 (Beat Byte) -- Columbia city manager Mike Matthes is deliberately short-staffing a central city fire station for the second time in three years, despite spending $14 million to pay for new city hall office space from the same account -- the General Fund -- that pays for firefighters.  
Fire Station 2, on West Worley St., has a full staff only 35% of the time.  To reach the 100% mark, the station needs six more firefighters.  But Matthes is telling reporters the city is too poor to hire them. 

The city manager's analysis is baffling.  The General Fund has nearly $26 million in so-called unrestricted, unassigned money,  exceeding a target balance the Council set last year -- by $11 million.    Legal considerations and city policy make that money free to spend on virtually any city project. 

But Council members have little control of the city budget, and are traditionally loathe to cross the city manager on larger budget issues. 

Nestled in a central city residential area that's home to many retirees on fixed and lower incomes, Fire Station 2 sits almost exactly between two public schools -- West Elementary and West Blvd. Middle.   A Head Start early childhood school that suffered a fire this year is two blocks up the street (KOMU news video here):   

City management has targeted Fire Station #2 before, a few months before the 2011 City Council elections. 

City manager Bill Watkins started a political firestorm when he threatened to shut down one of the station's two fire trucks because City Hall was too poor to afford them. 

Watkins' proposal became so divisive, it pitted firefighters, retirees, moms, City Council candidates, and entire neigbhorhoods -- those with adequate fire protection vs. those without -- against each other. 

Battalion Chief Brad Fraizer called whacking the station's staff "a significant public safety issue."   The neighborhood's many retirees -- 75% by some counts -- spoke out.   Fire Station #2 became Issue #1 in the First Ward Columbia City Council race.   It also pitted 5th Ward candidate Helen Anthony against a firefighters political action committee
Although Matthes says the General Fund is too poor to afford adequate firefighters, police officers, and most other critical city needs, City Hall is taking $14 million from it -- $700,000 a year for 20 years -- to pay down debt for the new City Hall.