Editorial: Columbia City Council must set spending priorities

February 2, 2014 

While Columbia's top obligation these days is upgrading its water and sewer system, it's essential for leaders to consider all the city's many needs and wants and to set priorities based on what taxpayers can afford.

TIM DOMINICK — TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.COM Buy Photo

— WHILE COLUMBIA is enjoying solid financial health and isn’t teetering at the edge of ruin — as some like to suggest — city officials should not forget from whence they came.

The last thing the city needs to do is slip back into some of the bad habits that helped drain the general fund and shook residents’ confidence in their elected officials’ stewardship of public money.

Given the debate over whether the city should spend $35 million to $42 million for a ballpark for a minor league baseball team, this would be an opportune time for City Council to take an in-depth look at Columbia’s debt, its pending projects and its seemingly endless wish list. The council owes it to taxpayers to do such a review and set realistic priorities based on what the city can afford.

While the finances are solid and the city boasts an AA-plus credit rating, it has substantial long-term debt, with many needs and wants yet to be addressed. In his Jan. 27 article exploring Columbia’s long-term debt and financial health, State staff writer Clif LeBlanc noted that the city’s “total long-term obligations” amount to $589 million and that an audit showed that its financial position had improved; increased revenue was attributed to a hike in water rates and the sale of a portion of the sewer system.

But with the city facing large projects that could balloon beyond $1 billion over the next 10 years, the council must spend wisely. Would a ballpark alone break the bank? No. But the city’s resources are finite: What will Columbia opt not to do if it chooses to build a ballpark?

The cost of the ballpark would be only a portion of what the city ultimately will spend to provide infrastructure for the planned Bull Street development. When City Council approved an agreement with developer Bob Hughes int July, it was projected Columbia would spend $31 million on water, sewer and roads as well as building two garages and possibly a ballpark, bringing the cost to about $70 million. That projection now has eclipsed $90 million.

Columbia has other, more pressing obligations. The most costly, of course, are the improvements to the dilapidated water and sewer system. While the city planned upgrades all along, the cost swelled when the Environmental Protection Agency ordered improvements to the sewer system. That work could total $750 million over the next decade; add in the water upgrades, and the total could eclipse $1 billion.

Other needs include a $10 million refurbishment of Finlay Park and an undisclosed amount for upgrades to public safety, including hiring more police officers and increasing pay for officers, firefighters and 911 dispatchers. The list also includes what could be a costly pay and classification study of the city’s 2,300 jobs and a recommendation to improve the city’s park system, among other things.

Columbia isn’t facing financial doom and gloom. It’s simply at a priority-setting crossroads. The direction City Council takes could affect the capital city’s finances and future for years to come.

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