Saturday, June 18, 2011

STUCK! A former Columbia Councilwoman's warning comes back to haunt City Hall

The true cost of a grand new government building starts to emerge

COLUMBIA, 6/18/11  (Beat Byte) -- Just five years after a former Columbia City Councilwoman and other groups warned that City Hall's big-spending plans for office space expansion could create future financial problems, city leaders are finding themselves stuck in a widening budget rut, facing a long-neglected list of critical infrastructure projects without the money to get them done.

"Why would the Columbia City Council authorize spending $21,000,000 without a vote of the public?" asked former 2-term Sixth Ward Council representative Sharon Lynch in an August 2006 Columbia Business Times editorial entitled Government center project, an extraordinary expenditure, is worthy of taxpayer scrutiny. 

The editorial would become a centerpiece of criticism about the planned expansion of Columbia's Daniel Boone City Hall building with neither public vote nor taxpayer scrutiny -- and with other voices, a prescient warning of woes to come.   

"$700,000 taken out of city funds annually for 20 years to pay for this project could deprive residents of other services they need, causing a tax increase or loss of services," wrote Rebecca Shedler, Stacy Applebee, and Elaine Hartley in the Columbia Tribune.   "So which city services might be cut back or eliminated because of this large expense?" 

Now, it seems, we have our answer:  streets, sidewalks, stormwater, and other critical infrastructure.  In April, "City may ask voters to raise stormwater rates," blared a Columbia Tribune headline, about rate hikes ostensibly required to repair and replace a stormwater system that has been falling apart for years, but was strategically forgotten during the push to expand City Hall. 

This month, "we believe there is an overwhelming need in the area of streets and sidewalks in the city of Columbia," announced Phebe LaMar, chairwoman of Columbia's Infrastructure Task Force.  "We are underfunding...major maintenance to streets, as well as expansion, addition of streets, that sort of thing, by almost $14 million."    

Secret fund transfer 

The massive expenditure on the new City Hall represented a secretive, unauthorized transfer of public funds starting in 2002 and scheduled to continue for decades.  

Former Columbia city manager Ray Beck quietly arranged to squirrel away -- with virtually no public notice or knowledge -- $700,000 per year from Columbia's all-important General Fund to pay for the expansion.  The non-transparency would continue as Columbia's City Council -- at the urging of establishment types loathe to piss off Beck and his city management minions -- rammed the City Hall expansion through without a public vote roughly four years later.

Beck's transfer would eventually create shortfalls that could wreak budgetary havoc on Columbia, wrote Lynch, a well-regarded banker who used the lessons of history as her guide. 

"Many Columbia citizens would be startled to learn that the city of Columbia was essentially broke in 1985, with less than $100,000 in cash reserves,"  Lynch wrote.  "Several City Councils and city managers had wonderful, progressive ideas for spending money on major projects above and beyond providing the basic services.   Unfortunately, they had little appreciation for the need to balance perceived city 'needs' with the ever-growing tax burden on citizens." 

By now, Beck's transfer has diverted nearly $6.3 million from the General Fund -- "which normally pays for streets, public safety, maintenance, etc." Lynch wrote -- to the new City Hall, which has a final price tag pushing $30 million.   More importantly, city leaders now claim they are short of money to improve long-neglected stormwater systems, pothole-pocked streets, crumbling sidewalks, and over-stressed sewers.  

Public ignored 

Lynch was hardly alone in her concerns about the new City Hall.  A long line of protestors virtually begged Council members to put the project to a public vote.  Other people and organizations warned about its potentially negative impact on budgets and services.  Lynch -- a well-known conservative -- was joined by liberal groups such as Grass Roots Organizing (GRO). 

"Columbia residents care about how our money is spent.  After all, it’s our $22 million you propose to spend on this project," Shedler, Applebee, and Hartley opined in the Columbia Tribune.  "The public has a right to be skeptical when we don’t have the facts.  We want to know the details and have our questions answered.  We want public suggestions to be listened to and incorporated." 

Apparently both Council and staff figured that the public has a short memory and would be willing to approve higher taxes and fees after a few years passed.   The talk is now everywhere of the need for more "investments" in infrastructure -- code word for rate and tax hikes. 

"Contact your Council member and demand full disclosure of the facts on this $21 million project," Sharon Lynch insisted.  "If you understand the facts of this issue, you will likely say 'no'!"  



  1. Oh Mike, if only you folks would devote the same excellent coverage to our corrupt and unaccountable police department and their misuse of public funds as well.

  2. Follow the money trail.. Who got the money & what relationship did they [& their friends, kin & colleagues] REALLY have with Beck & the supporting council members. ALL of those folks need their finances scrutinized in excruciating detail.