Expensive projects, more meal-tax borrowing on Columbia Council agenda

Columbia firefighters would get 150 new air packs to replace aging ones like those pictured in this scene from a fire earlier this month.
Columbia firefighters would get 150 new air packs to replace aging ones like those pictured in this scene from a fire earlier this month. FILE PHOTOGRAPH

A raft of big-ticket projects are up for discussion Tuesday at Columbia City Council, including further talks about floating a meal-tax bond to help pay for some of requests that total $34.8 million.

Council will not approve anywhere near the 39 projects on the city’s five-year capital improvement plan, based on earlier conversations among members.

But City Hall administrators are advising council to authorize $1.4 million for 150 up-to-date air packs for firefighters, replacement of playground equipment at Finlay Park and $250,000 for sidewalk construction.

As council wends its way through the 2016-217 fiscal year budget, it has not decided which projects it would authorize. Most projects call for construction, but some are to purchase equipment or vehicles.

Some council members have advocated approval of projects such as $1.5 million for the Historic Columbia Foundation, $1 million for renovations at the Columbia Museum of Art, about $500,000 for a new exhibit and a outdoor water exhibit at EdVenture Children’s Museum.

Some of the other high-dollar proposals on the list include a rebuilt Finlay Park as well as upgrades at Hampton, Southeast and Hyatt parks. Also on the to-do list are a new police department/community center complex and a range of improvements at city buildings.

The proposal for the fire department would allow replacement of air packets designed to 14-year-old national standards, construction of a new Olympia fire station and a firefighter training facility off Bluff Road, deputy chief Harry Tinsley said.

Altogether, those improvement for firefighters would cost an estimated $7.2 million, of which council had previously approved $1.1 million, according to city budget director Missy Caughman.

Mayor Steve Benjamin has led the discussion about approving a new bond for meal-tax eligible projects that would be repaid from the revenue the city gets largely from patrons of restaurants and bars.

Attorneys, city administrators and council would have to decide which projects are eligible for the funds, which state law calls “hospitality taxes.” To be eligible, the projects must help attract visitors to Columbia.

Some of the requests for meal-tax money include $20 million to overhaul Finlay Park, $1 million for a Girl Scouts of America leadership center and a total of $550,000 to help pay for a new facility for Workshop Theatre and renovations at Trustus Theatre.

Council financed the bulk of the $37 million new professional baseball stadium with a meal tax bond as older bonds used for other tourism-related projects are paid off

In another issue related to meal-tax spending, council is to consider whether to spell out that any questionable expenses would be examined item-by-item by the city attorney’s staff and that no expense authorization would constitute blanket approval for similar requests.

That change apparently grew out a recent dispute over how the arts advocacy organization OneColumbia had been paying for all its expenses with meal-tax revenue. It based its practice on a 4-year-old legal opinion from a former city attorney.

At its last meeting, council approved taking about $84,000 from its general fund to pay for that much spending by OneColumbia this fiscal year that was not eligible for meal-tax funding, city staffers said. An independent audit turned up problems with spending eligibility.

Clif LeBlanc: 803-771-8664

If you go

Columbia City Council holds two meetings Tuesday. The agenda for the first meeting includes discussions about expensive brick-and-mortar projects, ways to pay for those projects as well as a proposed change in how meal-tax money is spent.

WHEN: 2 p.m. for the work session; 6 p.m. for the regular council meeting.

WHERE: A second-floor conference room for the 2 p.m. meeting; council chambers on the third floor of City Hall for the later meeting. City Hall is at 1737 Main St.