Is a parks tax a good idea in the face of Columbia's crumbling infrastructure -- streets, sidewalks, sewers, storm drains, and the like? Is it the right priority now? To answer that question, start with this multiple choice quiz.
Who said, "We have a lot of infrastructure we haven’t maintained as well as we should. This isn’t necessarily growth related. We just haven’t been maintaining this system very well."
A. Columbia sewer supervisor Bill Weitkemper
B. Former City Councilman Karl Skala
C. Columbia Tribune environmental columnist Ken Midkiff
D. Columbia city manager Bill Watkins
E. Inside Columbia publisher Fred Parry
Answer: D. Columbia city manager Bill Watkins, in a February 2008 Columbia Tribune story entitled Sewer repairs to force hikes, council learns.
Two years ago, it was the same story it is today and has been for years. All around the lofty heights of our town's new city hall -- and the growing shadow of that monstrous parking garage -- citizens are grumbling about the problem Mr. Watkins himself laid out: crumbling infrastructure.
Given the money it collects in taxes, fees, and rates, City Hall has skimped on police, fire, roads, sewers, stormwater, sidewalks, and so forth.
Instead, city administrators have spent millions on new and renovated office buildings and parks -- lots of wonderful parks and trails -- a nice plus, but not when the basics struggle.
In Columbia's North Central Village, a woman many regard as a "patron saint" of civic affairs is in the fight of her volunteer civic life about crumbling infrastructure.
Faced with a new asphalt parking lot that will direct runoff toward her home on top of a long-dead stormwater drainage system, Pat Fowler has taken up a tireless crusade to get City Hall and Columbia Public Schools to listen -- really listen -- to someone who can't afford a Craig Van Matre or a Skip Walther to plead her case.
"We know about all the bad infrastructure," said public works employee Shane Creech at a meeting about the parking lot. But that's where he left it.
Liberal, pro-environment commentator Ken Midkiff made the case for a crumbling Columbia in a recent Trib column.
About $8 million in sewers for new developments, "the city council approved of this project, which will only add to the problems associated with the old and crumbling system," Midkiff wrote. "It is likely there will be more sewage in basements, more manhole covers vomiting raw sewage, more problems in Hinkson Creek, and more overloading of an already-overloaded wastewater treatment plant."
No one would accuse conservative publisher Fred Parry of being any Ken Midkiff. And yet, Parry has made almost the same argument recently. Streets, sidewalks, and sewer systems "have suffered as a result of years of deferred maintenance," he wrote in a recent issue of Inside Columbia. "It has been difficult for the city to keep up with some of its most basic forms of infrastructure during good economic times, and now nearly impossible in this economic downturn."
Making things worse: public trust in the city's financial management is lagging, Parry noted, citing "the peculiar transfer of funds that allowed the city to build a $27 million city hall without a bond issue or voter approval.
"When a city that is dipping into reserves to fund basic obligations suddenly finding millions of dollars to fund unanticipated pet projects, it makes armchair accountants scratch their heads," he added.
Scratch their heads -- and wonder why millions more for parks now, when so many basic necessities go wanting.
(Photo credit Duck Cover, 2008)