As utility rates and local taxes soar, how much more can Columbia handle?

COLUMBIA, Mo 8/17/14 (Op Ed) -- "Opus will build in downtown Columbia," reads a recent KOMU headline.  

But if they build, can they flush?   Or turn on lights, refrigerators, heaters, air conditioners, and computers?  Can their tenants call the police or report a fire?   Can they get a cool glass of water on a hot summer day? 

Opus has the proper zoning, Columbia city manager Mike Matthes and Opus' Gang of Four City Council supporters insist.  They have the God-given right to build.  

But do they have the taxpayer and ratepayer-given right to use publicly-owned infrastructure?  

This question is at the moral and political heart of Repeal 6214, the Opus opposition group named for the March Council bill granting the Minneapolis-based developer use of city property, i.e. all that infrastructure.   It's also at the legal heart of a lawsuit filed last week on behalf of the thousands of Columbia citizens who signed two petitions to stop Opus from using publicly-owned infrastructure.  

It's infrastructure Matthes and his senior administrators spent months telling the community was no longer available, especially to such a large, new development.   ""We do have infrastructure shortages downtown and staff has been rejecting any project which needs an increased amount of electricity for nearly a year now," Matthes told Council members in a June 24 email.   Opus is an example "of projects that were rejected by staff," he said. 

It's infrastructure whose costs, if Monday's City Council agenda is any guide, will soon soar to new heights.   Electric rates, sewer rates, parking rates, stormwater rates, park use fees, rental inspection fees, permit fees:  Council members are on tap for the fourth time in as many years to raise them all, pushing the cost of living in Columbia into dangerous territory for many residents.     

Building hundreds of downtown apartments is not, after all, like building a single house or even a subdivision.   It requires a commitment from both the developer AND the community.  But Columbia has twice rejected such a commitment, via the most resounding city poll in decades -- two petitions with nearly 8,000 registered voter signatures between them.
Columbia residents oppose Opus Group's use of water, power, sewer, fire, police, roads, sidewalks, street lighting, and hour after hour of city staff time.  

Assembled since March and repeated multiple times to secure extra signatures, the two Repeal 6214 petitions  represent the most certain type of political poll.   Thousands of engaged, registered voters have signed onto "NO".  Dozens of engaged, registered voters have also appeared before the Council to say "no."  

The opposition is so widespread and sustained that if Opus' infrastructure demands were put before voters, they would likely be defeated by better than 90% against.   

Virtually no one except the developer, Matthes, and Opus' Gang of Four Council supporters -- First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick (pictured); Second Ward Councilman Mike Trapp; Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser; and Mayor Robert McDavid -- has come forth to say "yes."

"This is an unprecedented level of citizen participation in government," Repeal 6214 spokesperson Jeremy Root said.  "The second successful petition reveals that citizens' views have not changed: this development is inappropriate for downtown Columbia at this time."

So -- if they build it, can they flush?   Voters are saying "no" in dramatic numbers, and seem in no mood to let government push them around on behalf of crony capitalists.  Residents voted two-to-one against the Boone County Fairgrounds tax this month, which promised an $18 million development anchor for the Wal-Mart billionaires who own most of the adjacent land. 
We, after all, have to pay the bills.   And we are paying through the proverbial nose

Still, city leaders continue a huge "In Your Face" to their constituents, even posting press releases about Opus latest triumphs at City Hall.  

If anything gets flushed, it may be those leaders. 

-- Mike Martin