One woman buys a house in need of love in a neighborhood in need of care. Then she meets City Hall, the School District, and a parking lot only a bureaucrat could love.
COLUMBIA, 11/15/10 (Beat Byte) -- When Columbia City Hall decided to boost its monopoly-driven utility rates this Fall, Patricia Fowler immediately saw the long-running irony: If rates keep going up with oodles of promises attached, why does utility infrastructure continue to lag all over town?
Ms. Fowler, you'll recall, was swept into the bureaucracy when Columbia Public Schools decided to build a parking lot for Jefferson Junior High School (left) next to her home. Various city government waivers let them off the hook on storm water, water quality, and design regulations in the midst of notoriously poor storm water and sewer systems.
Fowler addressed the Columbia City Council about the problem during their rate hike deliberations. Before going into the meeting, she was nervous, even rattled. But soldier on she did, despite realizing that -- if she, as an average person -- said too much, she might suffer the marginalization that so often befalls well-meaning community advocates here.
"It's hard work to be a good citizen," she said. "But it's even harder work to be a good Columbia citizen."
The Great List of Infrastructure Deficiencies
"Thank you for the opportunity to comment this evening on the proposed sewer utility rate increases," Fowler wrote in a delicately pointed presentation to City Council members for their September 17 meeting. "My research has introduced me to other citizens who experience storm water and sewage in their basements, and storm water in their crawl spaces and their yards."
Armed with extensive research -- "reports, ordinances, studies, city staff reports, emails, lists, spreadsheets, and manuals" -- even a sewage treatment plant tour with Council members -- Ms. Fowler laid out a roadmap of insufficient infrastructure that affects every person in Columbia and parts of Boone County besides. It was part argument for pro-activity in the face of negligence; part argument for equity in the face of unfairness; and a long-overdue wake up call to a city government that has turned away basics in favor of luxuries, and average citizens in favor of powerful constituencies.
"Current funding for storm water and sewer repair is insufficient to address substandard, inadequate conditions in the First and Fourth Wards," Fowler explained. "Given that I live in a flood plain and my street regularly experiences flooding in excess of the capacity of the storm water system to handle it, this is not acceptable to me."
"The 2010 budget created a funding plan but not a repair schedule. We are yet another year behind in preventative and proactive maintenance."
"If you would fairly bill large institutional customers their multiple base charges, sewer increases could be lower, especially for seniors and low income families."
"City documents indicate that as recently as last year, Jefferson Junior High School was in violation of city sewer and stormwater ordinances."
"Raising revenue and allocating it to the replacement of insufficient sewer pipe and bringing storm water systems up to the job would be a more direct and appropriate response."
"The storm water utility needs to be more fully functioning."
"Exempting large institutional customers from individual billing to account for the runoff from roofs, driveways, sidewalks etc. undermines the city’s ability to deal effectively with inadequate storm water systems."
"While your newly created sewer equity task force does its work, please identify and create additional funding streams (no pun intended) to devote more resources to the inadequate sewer and storm water structures we currently have."
Ms. Fowler concluded her presentation as she often does: by offering to help. "I can afford to pay the modest increases you are proposing, even on my modest salary. I am willing to pay more, for both sewer and an expanded storm water utility."
But she also asked for a basic fairness that continues to elude much of our top-down local leadership culture. "I fear that large institutional customers will continue to enjoy a delay in making equitable payments," Ms. Fowler said.
"Please do not enable that further...Just as I can afford to and should pay my fair share, so can they."
Columbia City Council takes up the issue again tonight
Next time: Brush offs and bulldozers