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Matthes proposes property tax to hire new police officers, firefighters

Columbia PD is urging people to take caution before leaving the city before spring break.

City Manager Mike Matthes is proposing that the city ask voters to approve a property tax increase and to renew the Capital Improvement Sales Tax in order to fund Columbia police and fire departments. Matthes announced this when presenting the proposed 2015 fiscal year budget at a press conference Friday morning.

The police department is currently 30 percent underfunded. Matthes explained recent city growth caused this deficit. "The staffing level has shrunk in comparison to the city over the last ten years and that is because the city grows and the staffing level didn’t," he said.

The property tax increase would allow for an addition of 30 police officers, 15 firefighters, and new equipment. The tax would be phased in at six cents a year for five years for a total increase of 30 cents per 100 dollars assessed valuation. Matthes would like the issue to be on the November ballot.

Matthes also says the city should ask voters to renew the capital improvement sales tax in April 2015. The one quarter cent sales tax is set to expire in December 2015. The renewal of the sales tax would add police precincts around Columbia, update fire equipment and stations, and improve and maintain roads and sidewalks. Matthes says the precincts scattered throughout Columbia will help officers respond to different areas of the city quickly.

"Well this concept is let's try to make three offices. Put one on the north side, put one on the south side and keep the one in the center of town," Matthes said.

The budget is calling for a total of five ballot measures over the next two calendar years. These include approving a development fee for new construction on roads,  and approving two seperate projects to replace and modernize the electric infrastructure and storm water drainage projects, as well as the property tax increase and renewal of the one quarter cent sales tax.

Construction on roads has been the number one priority for Columbia residents, according to surveys sent out by the City Manager's office. With the development fee, and quarter cent sales tax renewal, Matthes plans to address these transportation needs.

The storm water drainage projects will start in April, 2015 if approved by voters. The current funding for these projects only allows the city to fix current problems, not preventative projects. Matthes said the city wants to plan ahead but needs voter approval.

The total budget would spend around $428 million with revenue around $399 million. Matthes said this difference between spending and revenue is normal.

"Almost all of that is in utilities and other enterprise funds, and that is designed to operate that way, where they build up funds over time and spend them down on projects. So it is okay if you spend more than you bring in when you have a big savings account," he said.

This budget also plans for a 2 percent pay increase for permanent employees.

Matthes also stressed the impact on customers. This impact includes a $4.26 increase in utilities per month, a $5 increase on parking meter violations, enforcement of parking hours change from 9 am to 7 pm, and fee increases.

Matthes also said he fears the city might be putting too much on taxpayers.

"It is precisely why we are looking at our portfolio of revenue and we have really not done anything with property tax and we have heavily emphasized the sales tax. We are concerned that we are reaching a threshold with sales tax that is negative and that is why we are looking at property tax," he said.

The city is also trying to enhance customer service through new bus routes and through better communication with citizens.

City Council members will work on the budget until the end of October, with meetings open to the public throughout August and September. The budget is available for review at gocolumbiamo.com.

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