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SHELL GAME: How CoMo elites take -- and keep -- your money

A sophisticated ruse designed to daze and confuse
 
 
COLUMBIA, Mo 9/22/13 (Op Ed) -- Of all the issues I've written about for the past eight years, Columbia's elites push back hardest over the city budget.
 
A major source of their power, the budget is one thing CoMo's ruling class cannot afford the public to fully understand.
 
Developer Bob Pugh curmudgeoned his way through half an editorial, bashing my portrayal of a City Hall awash in our money, including $143,158,626 in so-called "unrestricted net assets."   

Such monies are "not legally restricted by outside parties or by law," the city's accountants explain in the 2012 financial statement (pg. 50).   They are "net of related debt" [i.e. debt free] and "not invested in capital assets" (so they don't include buildings, roads, and such).  

What's more, the monies are only a fraction of the city's $1.3 billion total holdings and $900 million net worth, divvied up throughout the city's finances like shells in a shell game.  
 
"You can't always get what you want," wrote Fred Parry in Columbia CEO this month.  But he wasn't addressing his chief executive audience.  He was warning CAT TV supporters not to expect their $200,000 city subsidy;  and scolding certain pundits for daring suggest City Hall is awash in cash.

"To those who think the City of Columbia is flush with money -- I wish you were right," Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid wrote on his Facebook page last month.   Then he promptly confused things, trying to explain how city utility funds are different from city service funds. 

"Your water bill cannot pay for police officers; your trash bill cannot pay for fire fighters, your sewer bill cannot build roads," he wrote.   But no one is asking that their utility bills pay for police, firefighters, and roads. 

What many are asking is that their utility rates stop rising every year, and that long-overdue utility improvements -- most notably sewer and stormwater repairs -- get completed without city management's continual griping about "tight budgets".

More than enough "unrestricted" money is gathering dividends in City Hall's utility-related funds -- $102 million of the $143 million total.   The yearly rate increases are pure, government-sponsored greed. 

The Mayor continued, asking that we keep our eyes on a different shell.   "Public Safety (police officers and fire fighters) is paid from the General Fund, which is where our focus should be," he said.

But focus there, and you'll find more money.  Another part of the $143 million -- $26 million -- is an "unassigned fund balance" in the General Fund.

Unrestricted -- and unassigned.   It's their language, not mine.  And city money doesn't get much more available for taxpayer priorities, as the city's own accountants note on page 13 of the financial statement:  "In particular, the unassigned fund balance may serve as a useful measure of a government’s net resources available for spending at the end of the fiscal year."

Better still, City Hall has more unassigned General Fund money -- nearly 15%, or $11 million more -- than a target the Council set last year.   Again, it's not me saying this, but the city's own accountants, on page 14.

The Mayor went on about pension liabilities, but the financial statements account for those, too, and the money just keeps piling up.  That $143 million in unrestricted funds is $16 million more than it was just a year earlier, making pension liability worries seem like another shell in the shell game. 
 
Either City Hall is taking too much of our money -- or not spending enough of it on our priorities.   But you're not supposed to know that because you might ask for your money back.
 
Or refuse to approve a bond issue.
 
Or vote against another tax increase.
 
Or insist your Council members stop raising utility rates and start charging all utility users fairly, ala Bill Weitkemper's plans.
 
If the public ever understands the city budget, our town's elites know the gravy days are over. 
 
No more big business tax incentives;  no more City Hall deposits that make bank coffers bulge;  no more fringe infrastructure -- water, sewer, streets, lights, sidewalks -- paid for by you and me to support the developer du jour.
 
No more rate hikes on small utility customers to support rate breaks for large;  no more tax hikes the big boys can avoid;  no more construction contracts where "cost overruns" run over voters and taxpayers.

Columbia's ruling class has no better way to get -- and keep -- your money than through the force of government.   They know it -- and will protect their golden trough with every curmudgeonly breath
 
-- Mike Martin for the Columbia Heart Beat
 
 
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