Columbia facing list of expensive decisions

cleblanc@thestate.comAugust 5, 2013 

THE STATE

  • If you go Columbia City Council holds its first meeting in nearly a month on Tuesday. The work session agenda is full of big-ticket items and a proposal to create a city policy that would ban city administrators, appointees, employees and council members from active crime scenes.

    When: 2 p.m.

    Where: The Eau Claire print building, 3907 Ensor Ave. at Monticello Road

Columbia City Council’s agenda on Tuesday is top heavy with financial decisions just one month into the fiscal year.

Council is scheduled to decide on $1.5 million in requests from organizations seeking financial help from the city as well as whether to spend $850,000 on a children’s splash pad at Finlay Park and how to deal with a new, nearly $200,000 bill for running the fall election.

Further, council is to hear city manager Teresa Wilson’s recommendations on the size and project list for a second meal-tax bond that likely would commit restaurant and bar patrons to a 20-year payback.

This will be council’s first meeting in nearly a month since the highly contested vote to use $31 million to $70 million in public funds as seed money for the construction of the sprawling Bull Street neighborhood.

Council and City Hall staff have been struggling to find a way to manage requests for money that come from all quarters land on the desk of the city manager and are in addition to the 2013-2014 budget council already has adopted.

Council members also have been talking for months about issuing another bond that would be repaid from 2 percent meal taxes, known technically as “hospitality taxes.”

Council has not settled on a list of projects nor how large of a bond to approve. Some members have discussed figures of $20 million.

The single largest request of the $1.5 million is coming from a group that organizes soccer tournaments in metropolitan Columbia. It’s asking council for $500,000 to help build a professional-size field in North Columbia near I-20 and Monticello Road.

Other six-digit requests are from the Urban League, an advocacy group for the homeless and the Greater Columbia Community Relations Foundation.

Council has discussed how to convert the “Busted Plug” sculpture along Taylor Street by Columbia artist Blue Sky into a splash pad for children at the large, downtown park. At first, council put a $450,000 cap on the project. But after a consultant devised a grander plan intended to make the pad a destination site, city staff is now recommending the consultant’s design at nearly double the cost.

Normally, the city spends about $60,000 on its municipal elections, according to the clerk of council’s office. For this year’s first fall election, council approved $120,000 in an effort to avoid the fiasco of the November 2012 election in Richland County.

But in early July, the county Elections & Voter Registration office upped the budget to $191,269, including the cost of a possible runoff. The city and county are working on a five-year agreement to have the county office run Columbia’s election.

Another big-ticket item on Tuesday’s agenda is council’s authorization of $2.3 million of the $9 million city staffers project that Columbia will get in meal-tax revenue for the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2014.

A citizen’s committee suggested that 92 organizations that asked for $9.2 million should receive $2.3 million. Council must decide whether it will accept the committee’s recommendations.

Council separately makes direct allocations of meal-tax money that is not reviewed by the committee. Altogether, council is budgeted to spend $9.8 million this fiscal year, which includes transferring $3 million of that total to the city’s General Fund.

Council also has budgeted $1.3 million to pay down the debt from the $20 million meal-tax bond it issued in 2004. The city still owes $13.8 million of that bond.

If a second bond is approved, additional money would have to be allocated for debt service.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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