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Council addresses homeless warming issues

The Columbia City Council took two actions at its meeting Monday that aim to assist the homeless community for the upcoming winter.

Council approved both the purchase of VFW Post 280 and an amendment to provide additional funds to Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church for an overnight warming center through its Turning Point operation.

Turning Point's overnight warming shelter will replace the services that were offered at Wabash bus station last year.

The center plans to be prepared to open seven days a week 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. from Nov. 27 to closing in April. However, the warming shelter will only be open when the weather is forecasted below 25 degrees.

There were several calls at the meeting to adjust the opening temperature to factor in wind chill or push it up to 32 degrees. The city last winter raised the temperature requirement from 9 degrees to 19 degrees, and again to 25 degrees in February.

Turning Point plans to have at least two staffers ready every time the center is activated, according to city documents.

Funding for the shelter has already been placed on the budget for the 2023 fiscal year.

“Turning Point has a professional staff and they will run this in a professional manner,” said John Trapp, co-founder of 4-A-Change.

The VFW Post 280 is located at 1509 Ashley St. and includes the main building, parking lot and picnic shelter. The city will pay a negotiated price of $865,000 for the post.

The city plans to house Room at the Inn in the VFW Post. Normally, Room at the Inn moves between churches during the winter months to provide shelter for the homeless population. The city's purchase will give Room at the Inn a more permanent home with a convenient size and location.

"If this isn't a proper site, then there isn't a proper site within city limits," Trapp said.

While Room at the Inn is waiting for permission from the city to move into VFW Post, it will be operating out of a Columbia Housing Authority building at 7 E. Sexton Road.

The main building at the VFW Post is approximately 13,500 square feet and includes a large meeting room with a seating capacity of 300. It also includes several smaller rooms that contain a game room and lounge, offices and a commercial kitchen. The picnic shelter, located on the east end of the property, is 3,000 square feet.

The city also has several planned repairs and improvements for the VFW Post, but only the HVAC improvements are immediately needed to use the building as an overnight shelter.

City staff estimate that site improvements will cost a little under $500,000 to meet city inspection requirements, according to city documents.

  • Security: $81,500 to convert lights to LED and install new locks and 12 security cameras with recording capability.
  • Fire alarms: $25,000 to upgrade fire alarm and detection systems.
  • Roof: $175,000 to fix the roof or $75,000 to coat it.
  • HVAC: $75,000 to $300,000 depending on the approach to improve the system.
  • Bathroom/Shower/Laundry: $50,000 to convert extra bathroom spaces into shower and laundry space.
  • Commercial kitchen: $17,500 to repair walk-in fridge unit, kitchen hood and other appliances.
  • Miscellaneous: $13,500 for a water heater, cleaning equipment, bike racks, ceiling tiles and signage.
  • Fees: $52,500, which is 12% of the total budget, is set aside for professional services fees such as architectural and engineering.

The city plans to allow Turning Point and other groups to use the VFW Post as early as this summer. Council members also floated the idea of Room at the Inn using the post this summer to test run a city cooling shelter, but nothing past this winter is official.

“How wonderful will it be to have one location where we consolidate our services,” said Rebecca Shaw, head of CoMo for Progress.

Water and Electric Bonds

Council unanimously approved a resolution which gives staff, the city municipal advisor and the city bond attorney the ability to issue water and light bonds.

The approval allows the city staff to issue $27 million in bonds. This is the final portion of a bond issue voters approved in 2018. Staff said the bonds will be sold in December or January.

Due to an increase in construction prices, the bond will not be able to cover all the projects initially proposed.

City staff said that the Council's Dec. 5 meeting will be the final date to set the bond sales. Sale of the bonds will trigger a $2 increase in base fee for water rates, which was approved by Council at the Sept. 6 meeting and formalized when Council adopted the FY2023 budget.

Debate over camera technology

The city will not purchase the FUSUS technology that would allow the Columbia Police Department to access cameras until after Chief Geoff Jones comes back to council with a detailed plan for its implementation.

Ward 1 Councilperson Pat Fowler said she emailed Jones a list of stakeholders he should be speaking with about the potential impacts of technology that some are concerned could be used for harmful surveillance. Her concern, she said, was that the city was not considering the consequences before moving forward on the proposed purchase.

City Manager De’Carlon Seewood said staff was hesitant to move forward with public engagement and using resources if the Council could end up denying the purchase in the end.

“We don’t have officers sit and monitor cameras 24 hours a day,” Seewood said. “We need something to support our businesses and keep people safe.”

Seewood added that the plan is not to abuse citizens and that the engagement process could be discussed when the purchase request comes back to Council.

One Columbia resident raised concerns that FUSUS could cause harm to the city’s Black community, noting racial disparities in local jails.

“What I'm concerned about is if we implement the system, that disparity will stay the same,” Jeanne Mihail said.

The FUSUS technology allows businesses and private individuals to register their security cameras with Columbia police if they choose, giving police a map of all registered cameras.

Camera owners may grant access to their cameras’ live video feeds, which police may access without further permission. Currently, officers must ask businesses or residents for permission to view their security footage.

Broadway to open to pedestrians Tuesday

A stretch of sidewalk on Broadway, which has been closed to pedestrian access since September due to construction, will reopen with a covered walkway Tuesday.

The council unanimously approved a nearly yearlong closure of sidewalks, parking spots and an alley at the corner of Broadway and Tenth Street on Monday night. This closure will accommodate construction at 1000 E. Broadway.

Developer 1000 East Broadway LLC is using the site to build a six-story, mixed-use building with retail and office space and one-bedroom apartments.

The developer initially requested a closure until Aug. 15, 2023, during the council’s Sept. 19 meeting. This closure did not include accommodations for pedestrians on Broadway.

Some council members resisted the proposed yearlong closure of the area to pedestrians, and Council asked the developer to return with a plan that includes a covered pedestrian walkway along Broadway.

The developer’s spokesperson, Jack Cardetti, had pledged that a walkway would be installed before Monday’s meeting, but Mayor Barbara Buffaloe pointed out that she had seen the walkway still fenced in Monday afternoon.

Shane Creech, the city’s Public Works director, said the developer has already built the walkway but is waiting until a Tuesday morning inspection to open it to the public.

Additional exits to Sake Japanese Bistro & Bar’s kitchen open out into a blocked section of the alley along Tenth Street, and Buffaloe asked Creech how the developer would accommodate the restaurant in its plan.

Jesse Stephens of Crockett Engineering spoke on behalf of the developer and said they will only close the alley “as needed,” but due to “extensive vertical work” at the site, the alley would often be unsafe to access.

Stephens said the developer would provide Public Works with a contact number the department could distribute to adjacent businesses, who could call the number if they had questions about whether they could use the alley.

Go COMO Goes Electric

The council also unanimously approved the city manager’s request to authorize the purchase of five new Go COMO electric buses to replace five diesel buses. The goal of this switch is to improve infrastructure, environmental management and accessibility, according to the council memo.

The buses will be paid for using a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) vehicle replacement grant and a low- or no-emission vehicle grant.

This was a competitive FTA grant under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, said Josh Ogan, Public Works Information Specialist for the city.

He also said Columbia and St. Louis were the only other cities in Missouri to receive the grant.

The grant gives the city over $5 million to purchase the five vehicles and combined with $1 million in city reserve funds will finance the purchase.

Harshawn Ratanpal is a senior at the University of Missouri studying journalism and economics. He is the current Print-Audio Convergence Editor, or PACE, for the Missouri News Network focusing on homelessness coverage.
The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.