Just over a week after introducing the idea of a new property tax to fund the hire of 35 new police officers in Columbia, Mayor Bob McDavid has decided it's not necessary after all.
The Columbia Police Officers Association hosted a public forum Tuesday night to discuss the proposal, and crime in the city. The CPOA and many attendees questioned whether the property tax was even needed, given the amount of money the Columbia Police Department spends each year in overtime pay for its current officers. It's estimated that money alone could be used to hire 17 new officers.
After the meeting, McDavid posted on facebook and twitter that he took the feedback to heart:
Based on comments made by the Columbia Police Officers Association, I no longer support an increase in property... http://t.co/wKMJya4qbM
— Bob McDavid (@bobmcdavid) August 14, 2013
City Council members Karl Skala and Ian Thomas were among the 50 people gathered for the forum, held by the Columbia Police Officers Association to discuss the need for more police officers. McDavid did not attend the forum.
Association director Dale Roberts said at the forum that some of the money could come from what the police department already spends on overtime.
“In overtime, the department is spending enough money roughly to cover 17 full-time officers with benefits,” Roberts said.
He also said there should be some money in the city’s public safety budget, thanks to a shift in funding for Joint Communications, or the 9-1-1 center.
The city allocates about $2 million to run the 9-1-1 center each year. But the center is moving to the county level, and a new sales tax was voted in this spring to help fund it.
Roberts said that means the city should have about $2 million available in the public safety budget.
“And that is enough easily to fund 20 new full-time police officers,” Roberts said.
Between that and what the department could cover, Roberts says Columbia could afford almost 40 new police officers – without the proposed property tax.
Citizens at the meeting voted to pose questions to the city about that $2 million, where it is and what it is being spent.
Even with overtime, The Columbia Police Department doesn’t have enough officers to go around. For Patrick Corcoran, that’s heartbreaking.
“Going to calls that I know have been waiting for over an hour, sometimes over two hours – I went to an accident that waited over three hours – I come from a customer service background, I see the citizens as my customers. It breaks my heart to have to go there and apologize on our behalf. Because I feel like I’ve let you guys down,” Corcoran said.
A larger police force could not only address these basic needs, but it would also mean a more visible police presence, which could help curb crime rates. Officers could spend more time building rapport with residents – and stop working 16-hour days just to keep shifts covered.
The property tax increase would have needed to be proposed and passed through the city council to be placed on a ballot for public vote. The mayor originally said he hoped to see it on the ballot this November. McDavid originally discussed a property tax increase of .20 cent per 100 dollars valuation, which he estimated would raise $3.5 million a year.
Dale Roberts said he learned of the Mayor's change of heart the same way everyone else did Wednesday morning - through McDavid's posts on social media.
Roberts said he still feels the city administration recognize and support the need for new officers.
"There doesn't seem to be any doubt on that issue," Roberts said.
But he wanted to clarify some of the reports on the feedback at the forum, saying it was essentially the same information the CPOA presented at a press conference more than a week before the Mayor originally announced the idea for the property tax.
“CPOA never said we opposed the tax. But CPOA has said first, we need the officers, it’s up to the city to determine how to pay for them. And second, we already have the money in our budget, our being the public safety budget," Roberts said.
But he does say, if the city embraces the ideas put forth at the CPOA forum, this will be a positive outcome.
“Without exception, the citizens have opposed another tax, and really, from the feedback we’ve got, without exception the citizens have supported the need for additional officers... To some extent, we feel like we’ve saved the citizens of Columbia $3.5 million in property taxes that they now will not have to face in order to receive the public safety protection they need”
Roberts says he feels confident the city council will follow through on what he called its "pledge" to put the $2 million in the public safety budget toward police and fire personnel.
McDavid did not respond to KBIA's requests for comment Wednesday.