Tax hike would fund more police and firefighters

The Columbia City Council is considering a ballot measure that would hike the city's property taxes to pay for more police. "File"

Voters may soon decide whether to increase this city's property tax by 30 cents to pay for more firefighters and police officers.

The Columbia City Council introduced a measure Monday night that over 5 years would phase in a property tax increase of 30 cents per $100 of assessed value. Mayor Bob McDavid told KRCG 13 that would be enough to let the city hire an additional 55 public safety personnel once the tax is in place, most likely more police officers than firefighters. The tax would add about $6 million to city coffers. That extra money could only be used to hire, train and equip additional public safety personnel.

The measure reaches city lawmakers almost a year after McDavid called for such a tax after five people were murdered in the first 7 months of 2013. City documents show Columbia has fewer police officers and firefighters per 1,000 residents than it did in 2009. Columbia police receive 6.5% more calls for service than they did in 2010, while the share of people who wait more than 4 minutes for a fire department response after calling 911 has gone up from 8.5% to 12.6%. Assaults and homicides are down markedly this year, but McDavid said the police department in particular is "nearing a crisis point" due to inadequate numbers.

"Our police officers essentially spend their time answering 911 calls, with very little time for what we call community or proactive policing," he said.

McDavid said the city relies far too heavily on sales taxes to fund its public safety needs and a property tax would be far less vulnerable to economic downturns.

Reaction on Columbia's streets to the proposal was mixed, although residents said if the city was going to raise taxes, a property tax was the best way to do it. John Fry said if more police officers and firefighters are needed, a property tax makes the most sense since public safety involves protecting property. Nick Drysdale said the lack of safety personnel couldn't be swept under the rug. He said he does not feel safe biking through the streets at night. Fry and Drysdale both said the city should spend its money wisely. Drysdale said if more police are hired, they should work on serious crime problems rather than parking violations and alcohol possession.

If the city council approves the measure, it will appear on the November 2014 ballot. The tax would become effective on January 1, 2015 if voters approve it.