Public works at forefront of Columbia meeting

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Pictured is the Titan Spartan Pro Plus Vacuum, recently acquired by the City of Columbia for use by the Department of Public Works for leaf pickup services in the city.

The Columbia City Council meeting last Tuesday evening shifted the city’s philosophy concerning its public works department. 

During the meeting, Columbia City Administrator Doug Brimm addressed the council with a sense of urgency regarding the city’s upcoming tree limb and leaf removal program. 

Instead of contracting the work to an outside company at a cost of $90,000-plus for each of the next two years, Brimm suggested city funds “may be better spent investing in ourselves, investing in the (Columbia) Department of Public Works.”

Brimm explained that he, along with Columbia City Engineer Chris Smith and Assistant City Engineer Tim Ahrens, researched the possibility of the city purchasing its own equipment that could be used for vacuuming leaves in the fall, among other uses.

The vehicle, a Titan Spartan Pro Plus Vacuum, was offered to the city for purchase at a cost of $89,634.04. 

While Columbia action items on the agenda are usually introduced at one meeting and not voted upon until ample time has been given for council consideration, Brimm gave several reasons for acting quickly.

He explained that in addition to the equipment being available at a time when vehicle inventory is low nationwide, the vehicle available for purchase was scheduled to be leased to another municipality in October.  

Brimm and Smith both expressed a need to act quickly if the council decided to buy the equipment.

Both also reported multiple benefits of having an in-house street vacuuming vehicle. In addition to saving money immediately compared to employing contracted work, Brimm noted the limb pickup program in the spring, completed by city personnel, had the least amount of complaints in recent history.

Brimm called the spring limb removal project a “great success” and noted that city workers are more “invested” in keeping Columbia clean than outside help.

Smith echoed Brimm’s sentiment, adding that having its own equipment would allow the department to have more control over resident services.

While Brimm said the only item that could be voted upon during the meeting was the purchase of the equipment, he let it be known the purchase of the leaf vacuum would also require examining the “significant challenges throughout the city” regarding Department of Public Works manpower.

Smith explained there are 13 full-time workers in the department currently, down from 17 in 2012.

Columbia City Treasurer Linda Sharp offered some clarification about the decrease in staff. She said that once the city switched from manual to electronic utility meter reading, the process of gathering billing data became much less labor intensive. When employees retired from the department, there was not a need to replace them at the time. 

Brimm noted that the Department of Public Works is in need of more full-time employees once again. 

He addressed Columbia residents, saying “we hear you,” regarding public works issues, “but we only have a finite amount of manpower … we know we have challenges.”

Adding more staff would also allow a “more proactive approach to water and sewer infrastructure … to improve service and efficiency,” Brimm said.

He added the city’s population and size has grown significantly since 2012, requiring more personnel to address public works issues.

Further, Brimm noted that having a “full strength” department could provide “dedicated personnel for a baseline level of maintenance” at the city’s parks.

The city is currently accepting applications for one vacancy in the Department of Public Works. Brimm estimated there would need to be three more staff additions if the city were to take over the leaf and limb program as well.

Additionally, Brimm noted a future need for staff in light of future and planned developments in Columbia. A larger public works department would allow the city to perform more “in-house” infrastructure work rather than hiring contracted labor.

During discussion, Ward I Alderman Doug Garmer expressed a desire to act quickly and called the equipment purchase a “no brainer” due to the immediate cost saving compared to a two-year leaf pickup contract.

Garmer also liked the idea of the city being able to control its own services, adding as an analogy, “I cut my own grass.”  

Columbia Mayor Bob Hill agreed with Garmer’s comments and added that a discussion of adding personnel would be added to the agenda of the Sept. 20 council meeting if the motion to purchase the equipment passed.

The council voted unanimously in favor of the action. The leaf vacuum was delivered to the city on Monday.

In other business, the council voted to approve an agreement with the Gedern Village Homeowners Association to lease a portion of the GM&O Heritage Trail that passes through the subdivision.

The lease agreement is for 20 years and will automatically renew unless revisions are requested six months prior to renewal date.

Discussion last September about public use of the trail in the subdivision bounds came to a head when the city council voted to install a six-foot fence on the trail section in Gedern Village. 

The fence was never erected, as the Gedern HOA and City of Columbia agreed to negotiations – and eventually a lease agreement.

Brimm said he was “excited that we finally have a resolution to the matter,” adding that section of trail within Gedern Village was the “last piece of the puzzle” to connect the various sections of the trail that runs throughout Columbia.

Work is currently being planned for the trail to extend from Cherry Street south to Centerville Road.

At the beginning of the meeting, a change was made to formalize how public input at council meetings is conducted. 

The ordinance establishes formal rules for public input, limiting speakers to three minutes. It also removes the stipulation that those wishing to address the council notify the city of intent by 2 p.m. the day of the meeting. 

In administrative business, the city approved an ordinance to amend the offices of appointed city officers. 

Hill appointed the law office of Bruckert, Behme & Long, P.C. to the office of city attorney. The ordinance also amended the part-time Emergency Management Agency director position, making Columbia Police Department Sgt. Josh Bayer the director. Bayer takes over in that role for Columbia Police Chief Jason Donjon.

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