Like most of you, I have watched with mounting frustration as the drama of our city's financial woes has played out in the media. Each new revelation of irresponsible spending, shoddy accounting, and ballooning debt has further reinforced my conviction that an underlying culture of carelessness has entrenched itself in our City Hall.
Nowhere is this development more disturbing than in City Council's neglect of our city's public safety.
The city of Columbia has slashed public safety funding by almost $9 million over the past two years, and the consequences of these decisions are as far reaching as they are dire. Still, too many of our leaders are refusing to see these hard truths.
The truth is that, as public safety resources shrink, emergency response times grow as evidenced in a recent study released by the Columbia Firefighters Association showing that fire response times have dropped to well below the national standard.
The truth is that these lengthening response times will affect us all unless something is done quickly because when response times grow, so do insurance rates.
The truth is that rising insurance costs drive down home sales, put unnecessary strains on small businesses, and restrict the flow of capital into our local economy.
The truth is that recruiting first-class industry and creating jobs is impossible without first-class public safety because business owners will not invest in a city that cannot protect their investments and companies will not relocate where insurance rates are skyrocketing.
The ripple effects are endless, but still the most poignant danger is that posed to our lives and the lives of our loved ones.
Ask any firefighter and he or she will tell you that, in an emergency, the difference between life and death is measured in seconds. Ask any police officer and he or she will tell you that manpower and training is the difference between investigating crimes and preventing them.
Every society's most basic organizing principle is safety, and it has always been understood that the city's most sacred duty is to protect its citizens. Unfortunately, by neglecting our police and fire services, City Council has abandoned that duty. As a result, we are all in harm's way.
I say enough is enough.
I have fought to bring common sense back into our city finances and ensure that, as the people's safety is every city's first responsibility, funding Columbia's police and fire services must be our budget priority.
Let me be clear: This city has lost its moral authority to raise taxes and every council member should make a "No Tax Increase" commitment. But the money necessary to accomplish our goals can be found easily enough by eliminating waste, limiting non-essential spending, instituting a hiring freeze, and consolidating several services with Richland County in order to run a more efficient and effective city.
We don't have to increase fees or taxes. We don't have to limit services. We don't have to layoff additional city employees. We simply have to find the courage to act.
Earlier this month I reiterated that position at a news conference in front of the Devine Street Fire Station, protesting the closing of two fire engine companies stationed there and on Atlas Road.
At that time, I said that closing those two companies showed a misplaced set of priorities, and highlighted the need for new leadership. I called on the mayor and City Council to fully fund our first responders and immediately bring the two closed engine companies back on-line.
Today I am not only repeating that call, I am asking you to join me by going to my Web site www.stevebenjamin.com and signing our petition telling City Council to "Put First Responders First."
These are difficult economic times and we have some tough decisions to make. But we must remember that nothing is more important than protecting the lives and property of our citizens.
These men and women put their lives on the line for us every day. It's time we stood up for them.