Columbia’s budget

Higher court fines and fees to help Columbia’s bottom line

cleblanc@thestate.comApril 25, 2013 

Columbia police officers were out in force and very visible in Five Points Friday night. They walked the streets and made numerous traffic stops during the evening.



    Council is to take up the budget again Tuesday afternoon.

    The tentative schedule for public comment and votes on the 2013-14 budget is:

    •  May 21 for the public hearing

    •  June 4 for the first of two votes.

    •  No date has been set for the final vote, but it must be before June 30.

— If you haven’t noticed yet, you can no longer get a traffic ticket reduced by showing up in court in Columbia and pleading guilty.

Traffic violators are helping Columbia balance its budget.

That change in municipal court policy, instituted last summer, is expected to bring in extra $474,000 during the fiscal year that begins July 1, according to city budget documents.

That additional income – along with a handful of proposed new or increased fees – have cut a projected $4 million deficit in the general fund to about $222,000.

By law, council cannot adopt a budget that does not balance its income with its expenses.

For years, anyone who got a ticket in the city could go to municipal court and choose to plead guilty and pay a lesser fine than they might face after a trial. In August, city court discontinued that option. That change, plus the addition of more police officers on the streets is expected to generate a 47.5 percent jump in fines and forfeitures, budget documents show. The total is expected to rise to about $1.5 million from this year’s $998,500.

Other contributors to slicing the deficit include a projection of $597,000 more in property taxes without raising the tax rate, according to documents City Council studied Tuesday during its first budget workshop of the 2013-14 budget season.

However, council has yet to vote on any aspect of next year’s budget, nor has it decided on all the projects or initiatives it wants to fund, much less how it would pay for them.

“We’re really looking at all of our revenue streams and fee structures,” budget director Missy Caughman told council Tuesday.

The city’s administrative staff has not released details of some of the proposed increases.

But here are a few of the income producers the city manager’s office has proposed so far:

•  Raise fees to use or rent city park facilities for recreational leagues or arts classes and programs at parks. That is projected to generate $100,000 more.

•  Impose fees for the costs of special events at parks, including cleanup expenses. How much money that would produce has not been spelled out.

•  Impose a $750 fee for each time the city’s first responders, mostly firefighters, are sent to clean up spills. The fee would be charged to companies involved in the leaks, such as trucking or other transportation firms. That is expected to generate about $500,000 next year.

•  Charge a fee when firefighters or code enforcers have to follow up to be sure that corrections ordered after an initial inspection have been completed. That would generate about $100,000 next year. Currently, re-inspections are free to violators.

At least one council member has questioned the new fees. “I don’t know that that’s very business friendly,” said Councilwoman Leona Plaugh. “I tell you, I have pause with that.”

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