While his neighbor waited for a police officer to investigate why his home alarm system activated, Caleb Jones questioned Columbia’s political system.
“I don’t think that this is a police issue, but I believe this is more of a police funding issue.”
Jones, who represents parts of south Columbia in the state House of Representative’s 50th district, said his neighbor’s home alarm system went off on his way home around noon Saturday. The Republican lawmaker said police arrived on scene in the neighborhood off Scott Boulevard an hour later to investigate.
“Somebody could have been in there, waiting to harm them and their family, waiting to come home,” Jones told ABC 17 News in a phone interview Monday. “It took an hour for the police to arrive.
“I think it’s the duty of our governance, at least here in Columbia, Missouri to make sure we have enough police force out there available to protect the citizens of Columbia, and also to make sure the citizens of Columbia feel safe,” Jones said.
The 2016 city budget passed last week by the Columbia City Council calls for three new civilian hires in the police department. Those three would work positions currently held by sworn officers, who would begin working in the field, City Manager Mike Matthes said in his budget presentation in August. The budget also includes four new firefighters, who will work at Station #2 in central city Columbia.
Jones said Columbia’s city manager position needed more public accountability. The chief of the city’s staff, the city manager writes the budget, which the city council and mayor finally approve, as well as drafts ordinances for passage, sometimes upon request of a council member. Only the city council can hire, or fire, the city manager. Jones said the minimal growth in the police department from Matthes’ budget deserved more public oversight.
“I think the city of Columbia has a city manager who is not accountable or elected by the citizens of Columbia, Missouri, that makes up the entire budget priorities for the city,” Jones said. “And that, I have a very strong issue and concern about.
“It’s quite clear we’re not prioritizing the budget to make sure that we have enough police officers, safety officers available for the citizens of Columbia.”
The 2016 budget features a $41 million allotment for public safety, a 2% increase over last year’s estimated spending. The new hires, though, remain well below Mayor Bob McDavid’s expectations of a fully staffed department. The addition of three officers only grows the department by two percent – the same ratio he expects the city to grow each year. McDavid said the slowing collection of sales tax – a major funding source for the city’s General Fund – due to online shopping also slows the growth of the police and fire departments.
To pay for the new hires, McDavid said the city paid a higher amount of its police pension debt payments, and restructured its agreement with the Boone County Fire Protection District on the departments’ service area.
“The new budget, in spite of having no additional money in the general fund, has added seven public safety officers,” McDavid said. “That’s going to be very difficult to reproduce next year.”
Mayor McDavid proposed in 2014 a six-cent property tax increase for five years, earmarked for public safety. Voters rejected Proposition 1 by nearly 60-percent.
When asked if he felt sales tax erosion had hurt the potential growth of the Columbia police and fire departments, Jones said he felt Columbia’s city leaders needed to focus on prioritizing public safety with the budget they had.
“The city council, the city mayor and the city manager all feel they can just tax the citizens of Columbia, Missouri more,” Jones said. “And whenever that doesn’t happen, supplying adequate protection against people who could potentially harm them is not a priority anymore.”
Mayor McDavid invited anyone to look at the chart of where Columbia’s General Fund goes to suggest what to cut for the estimated seventy public safety employees needed to adequately staff.
“You could cut all social services and get ten [public safety employees],” McDavid said. “You could cut all the budget for Cultural Affairs and get another four. So now we’re up to 14, still nowhere near 70.”