Changes to public safety funding and defunding the city's TV station were among the hot topics at a budget work session Saturday.
City manager Mike Matthes briefed the city council in detail about the city's budget situation for next year. He said next year's budget will be the city's first balanced budget since 1989 and added the city can expect surpluses in its general fund in the years to come. Finance Department director John Blattel added this year's budget had predicted a deficit but was able to return a surplus after the city's departments found ways to save money.
The prospect of expanding Columbia's police force has been a major point of discussion among city leaders in the wake of this year's rash of shootings. At a press conference early this month, mayor Bob McDavid said the police department needed 35 more police officers and proposed a 20-cent property tax hike to pay for them, only to back away from the idea a week later. Matthes said next year's budget has enough money to hire three additional police officers. He said the city is also facing a firefighter shortage but received a grant allowing the fire department to hire five additional personnel. After that, Matthes said the city could hire an additional one or two police officers and firefighters each year. If the city wants to add safety personnel at a faster rate, he said new funding sources such as the proposed property tax would be necessary. When Matthes discussed planned increases in the city's parking rates, McDavid noted the city could use those to help pay for more police.
Matthes' decision to defund Columbia Access Television has drawn substantial criticism from that station's supporters, who packed a city council meeting on August 18 to urge the council to restore its funding. At Saturday's work session, supporters again turned out asking the council to reconsider. Matthes stood by his decision.
"I could not find anywhere to cut to find money for CAT-TV" he said.
Matthes left the door open for compromise on the station's funding. When he told the council about savings resulting from the city's new incentive-based budgeting strategy, which allows city agencies to split any year-end savings with the council and use them for projects, Third Ward councilman Karl Skala asked if such savings could be directed to CAT-TV. Matthes did not give a definte yes or no answer, but called the idea "a perfectly acceptable use of [the council's] purview."