Columbia approves budget

The Columbia City Council hosted a public hearing prior to its special meeting Monday night to approve the city’s budget for the fiscal year ending in April 2022.

There was no input during the public hearing, but there were several points that required clarification before the budget ordinance was officially accepted by unanimous vote.

During the public hearing, Columbia City Administrator Doug Brimm reviewed main points of the budget.

The city will be operating at an over $2.6 million deficit, with projected overall budget revenues at $16.7 million and expenditures at $19.3 million. As he explained during an April 12 committee meeting, part of the deficit is from projects in the capital development budget that were slated to begin last year but were put on hold due to COVID-related delays.

Brimm also noted that just over $1 million of the deficit is from the “closeout of the Admiral Parkway TIF district” with another  deficit coming from reduced motor fuel tax receipts and increased material costs.   

During the special council meeting, Ward IV Alderman Mary Ellen Niemietz credited Brimm for “excellent” work preparing the budget and providing breakdowns of spending schedules for FY2022, but she also had a few questions about specific items.

The first topic involved money being spent to update the city’s accounting and services software, which had become outdated. The process began last year, with the initial cost of $153,000 for purchase and implementation spread over two years.

Columbia Director of Information Technology James Mitchell confirmed that the budget contained the “last large investment” in this new software. Brimm clarified the future budget numbers reflect annual maintenance and technical support for the software.

He also noted the city incurred an $8,500 “overage cost” when a staffing shortage at City Hall last June caused a delay during the time the company’s software team was scheduled to install the new system.

Niemietz also asked for clarification about the potential “new hires” on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. As former chairperson for the city’s personnel committee, she recalled a general process when considering adding city staff, pointing out the committee “really never had that session” for proposed staff additions in the budget.

While she did not necessarily oppose the additions, she stated that she would like more information to share if asked about the budgeted positions, specifically the new city planner position, a consultant for the city’s comprehensive plan, and police and EMS staff additions.

Brimm began by addressing the city planner position, which is a permanent, full-time city position. He explained that he and Columbia Director of Community Development Scott Dunakey had already drafted a job description for the proposed position.   

He continued by summarizing the city planner’s role as taking care of “day-to-day details that may not be the best use of Mr. Dunakey’s time,” adding he had been “bogged down” with matters that have “detracted from the big picture” of community development that is Dunakey’s primary responsibility as the department head. 

The proposed consultant position would be a one-time, contracted role in which someone would be hired to assist in developing the city’s comprehensive plan, a process that involves taking public input and developing a vision for the future of the city’s progress.

Brimm noted that compared to other municipalities he researched, the cost of $100,000 for the consultant was a “reduced rate” and that the money for the position would come from “leftover” funds from an economic development grant received in the 1990s and not from resident tax monies.

Columbia EMS Chief Kim Lamprecht then addressed the council with the rationale for needing a new full-time paramedic. 

Among the main reasons were that the amount of open shifts and lower pay for part-time employees in Columbia compared to other area companies and departments was leading to a “hardship” in keeping Columbia EMS staffed.

Lamprecht also pointed out that several part-time crew members have exceeded 1,000 work hours in the past year, which requires payment into IMRF and the employees must be offered insurance through the Columbia department.

Lamprecht acknowledged she has a solid core of part-time help and a “great full-time staff,” but response times increase when the department is staffed by part-time help only. Further, she said having a full-time position makes the employee “vested” in the community. 

Columbia Police Chief Jason Donjon addressed the council in regard to the need to add a full-time telecommunicator to the department’s dispatch team.

In addition to needing help with the city’s increased call volume, Donjon pointed out that having a third full-time employee would guarantee two people at a time during peak hours of 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Brimm also addressed the need for new police staff, stating the department was already down two officers, with a third anticipated to move to a federal position soon.

Niemietz thanked all for the clarification and added that further personnel reports would not be necessary for the potential additions to police and EMS.

The council voted to approve the budget in its last action before they seat a new mayor, city clerk and two alderman at its May 3 meeting.

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Scott Woodsmall

HTC web