Columbia’s water customers will not pay more on their water bills starting next month, and capital city arts groups won back much of their budget cuts.
City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a $310.6 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. But Mayor Steve Benjamin and Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine objected to council rejecting a proposed 4.2 percent overall rate increase for water and sewer customers in the metropolitan area.
Both called the final decision short-sighted and said it will result in double-digit increases in the near future.
“It’s misguided. It’s a mistake,” Benjamin said of deferred investment that he noted will hinder growing the customer base and the income that growth would have brought the city.
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Rejecting a rate hike this year would result in an increase of 5.7 percent for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2017, and a 13.5 percent jump the next year, a consulting firm the city hired to evaluate the needs of the water and sewer systems told council this spring. Next year is an election year for the majority of council, which would put even more pressure to again resist an increase.
A 4.2 percent increase would have added $2.26 to monthly bills for a typical in-city homeowner who uses 800 gallons per month, the consultants said. The typical homeowner who lives outside the city limits would have paid $3.80 more each month.
Without the rate increase, the final water and sewer budget – the largest portion of the overall city budget – is $143.2 million, an increase of 7.1 percent compared to this year’s.
The general fund, which pays for most city services, was adopted at $138.8 million, a 5.8 percent increase.
Council approved a $11 million meal-tax budget because it added $200,000 it saved by delaying revenue that will go to the Columbia Museum of Art for a $1 million upgrade.
The museum was supposed to get $250,000 annually for five years. But the museum director agreed to restructure the yearly payments, said Devine, who negotiated the deal. The payment restructure will not delay the construction, she said.
Council came up with a total of $112,500 more in meal-tax revenue that some 80 cultural organizations may compete for during the fiscal year that begins July 1. Further, council promised them as much as $300,000 more by late August if tax collections from restaurant and bar patrons rise above projections.
After the vote, John Whitehead, director of Columbia Music Festival, which represents about two dozen small arts groups, said, “There will be cuts, but it won’t be at the knees.”
Whitehead also is chairman of a citizen’s committee that doles out much of the city’s meal-tax revenue. The committee will meet in September to recommend which groups would get any extra money.
Whitehead was among cultural leaders who pushed to reinstate $460,000 council cut earlier this month by transferring that sum to pay for downtown museum improvements.
Raj Aluri, organizer of the International Festival, was fighting to get back $5,000 council had cut from the event. His reaction to council’s olive branch was cautious.
“It’s a little hope,” Aluri said, “but not too much.”
Columbia City Council gave final approval to updated policies and procedures. Some of the key provisions are:
▪ Council members may not give city employees orders publicly or privately, and members may not contact city workers without going through the manager other than to ask questions or for the purpose of “investigations,” which is not defined.
▪ The city manager may live outside the city limits only with council’s approval.
▪ The mayor and council members will not receive per diem for meals, but may be reimbursed for actual expenses related to their official duties.
▪ It is illegal for council members or anyone who attends a closed-door session to disclose what was discussed.
Councilwoman Leona Plaugh, who is battling a resurgence of cancer, missed Tuesday’s meeting. She also did not attend a May 3 meeting, but participated by Skype at May 10 and May 17 meetings.