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Property Tax Rates, Water System Ballot, and Opinions on Growth and Development

August 5, 2018

Dear Constituent:

Property Tax Rate Ceiling

During tomorrow's City Council meeting, there will be a public hearing and Council vote on whether to raise the City of Columbia's "property tax rate ceiling" from $0.41 to $0.4329 per $100 of assessed value.

According to the Law Department, previous City Councils enacted "voluntary reductions" in the property tax rate ceiling prior to 2002. Apparently, since Columbia voters have in the past authorized the higher tax rate, it only requires a City Council majority to reverse those voluntary reductions. It would then take a separate act of Council to actually set the tax rate above the current $0.41 per $100 of assessed value, which has been in place for 16 years.

Please let me know your thoughts on this proposal, which has been recommended by City staff. If Council were to reverse the voluntary reductions and then set the property tax rate to the new maximum of $0.4329 per $100 of assessed value, the average home-owner would pay an additional $10 per year, adding about $470,000 to the City's general fund budget.

While I am open to this strategy, which will replace some of the sales tax revenues we are losing due to online purchasing, I have a concern about the specific staff proposal to use these funds to pay for a new fire station in South Columbia. Over recent years, developers have annexed farm land into the city and constructed low-density subdivisions in these outlying areas, creating longer response times for the Fire Department. This growth is the only reason we need a new fire station, and it seems to me that the logical and fair way to pay for growth would be to charge a "New Development Impact Fee" to cover the cost of expanding the capacity of our public infrastructure systems. While we have small impact fees for roads and drinking water, and a larger one for the sewer system, taxpayers and ratepayers currently subsidize the entire cost of expanding Fire, Police, and electric infrastructure for growth.

Do you think the City should levy impact fees on new development, to cover the cost of expanding public infrastructure? This is an important long-term policy decision, separate from the immediate question of whether to build a new fire station to improve fire protection for homes built in the last 10 years.

Vote "Yes" for Water System Improvements

On Tuesday, voters in Columbia will be asked whether the City should borrow about $43 million for improvements to the drinking water system. If approved, construction will start next year, and the debt will be repaid through a combined water rate increase of 11%, spread over the next four years.

As I discussed above, I do not support making current customers pay the costs of expanding the capacity of public infrastructure systems for growth. Since the projects funded through this process consist entirely of repairs and rehabilitation of the existing water treatment plant and associated infrastructure, I am happy to support this request and vote "Yes" on Proposition 1.

However, water utility staff are planning another ballot for 2022, in which voters will be asked to authorize further borrowing - this time to expand the capacity of the plant to serve more customers. I will not support this ballot unless a "cost of growth" study for the water utility has been conducted and an appropriate impact fee levied on new development.

More information about Tuesday's Proposition 1 ballot question can be found here, here, and here.

Results from "Opinions on Growth and Development in Columbia" Survey

Many thanks to the 264 of you who completed the "Opinions on Growth and Development in Columbia" survey, designed by my intern, Lily Kraxberger. An initial analysis of your responses has been completed - today, we present the first part of our summary report in this newsletter and on my web site.

Demographic Data

Survey respondents are predominantly white, wealthy, and highly educated - and most are older adults who have lived in Columbia for several decades. Here are some specific data points:

  • About 95% of respondents reported their race as "white"
  • Almost 50% have a household income of at least $100,000, and more than 50% have a post-graduate degree
  • Two-thirds are aged 50 or older, and respondents have lived in Columbia for 24 years, on average

Charts illustrating these demographic data are on my web site.

Population Growth

Constituents responding to the survey are evenly split on how happy they are with Columbia's growth over the last 10-20 years. Here is a summary:

  • Slightly more people report being "very happy" or "somewhat happy" than those who are "unhappy" or "somewhat unhappy"
  • Almost 60% of respondents feel there is an "ideal population" at which Columbia should stop growing, while one-third disagree with this proposition, and the rest don't know
  • For those who feel Columbia should stop growing at a certain size, there is a wide range of "ideal populations," but more respondents selected the "100,000 - 150,000" option, than any other (Columbia's current population is 120,000)
  • Slightly more than 50% of respondents feel Columbia should NOT grow forever, and two-thirds of those believe it is already too large or that it should stop growing within 10 years

A complete series of charts is online.

My next newsletter will include additional data and analysis from the survey on what people like and dislike about Columbia, what they see as the benefits and harms of growth, and their thoughts about "geographical growth" as Columbia annexes land and expands its footprint.

Constituent Conversations

I am holding Constituent Conversations today and Sunday September 2nd, 2-4pm at Dunn Bros. Coffee. Dates for Constituent Conversations are always available at my web site.

Cheers, Ian