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From the Roundtable: April election could be bleak day for local officials

From the Roundtable: April election could be bleak day for local officials

Al Germond

With several bond and tax proposals on the local election ballot, and the potential for a defeat or two, April 7 could turn into Black Tuesday for local officials. There are some pretty heavy revenue issues on the ballot, and the feeling among potential voters toward them seems pretty tepid.

The April election typically draws a light turnout. Voters are asked to choose among candidates for two vacant seats on the Columbia City Council and for open slots on the Columbia Board of Education. While the 5th Ward City Council seat goes uncontested, the race in Columbia’s 1st Ward has heated up with several contenders lined up against the incumbent.

This year, five candidates are in the running for an equal number of seats on the newly enlarged board of the Boone County Fire Protection District while three people are up for the two openings on the Boone Hospital Center Board of Trustees. Voters can count on the media for our usual assessment of the candidates and issues, and, rest assured, lawns will flower in a few weeks with the political perennials, yard signs and banners.

Revenue matters are an entirely different matter, of course. We’ve known for some time about the federally mandated improvement and expansion of sewer facilities in both the city and the county. Thus, on April 7, voters will be asked to approve the sale of $72 million worth of revenue bonds to finance these improvements. Of course—and no surprise here—that means sewer rates will have to go up to cover interest and debt service on the bonds.
In the past, voters here have been pretty good about assenting to improving our infrastructure year after year through issue after issue. Users swallow the concomitant hikes in utility rates because they understand—albeit reluctantly for some—the necessity of these improvements.

I wonder, though, how long this winning record of approvals will continue. The future is getting a little bit cloudy because a line has started to form behind the sewer issues. A catalogue of Columbia Water & Light Department upgrades is developing and must be wrestled with rather soon.

There also is a new twist in the April election, a boomerang of sorts. Columbia Public Schools recently announced that the district is $10 million in the hole and that property taxes will have to go up in order to cover the deficit.

Mix this with as-yet-unresolved matters of county finance that must balance the ongoing shortfall in sales tax revenues against the federally mandated requirement to spend almost a million dollars on the November general election, funds that the county doesn’t happen to have lying around right now.

The pertinent question to the various agencies with horses in the April election may be: “How well can you sing and dance?” While the late Fred Astaire or a crooner of some renown may not be among the ranks of the city, county and school board officials who rather desperately need our support on April 7, the tasks of trying to win us over and get us to vote “yes” for these revenue issues about 10 weeks from now is going to require some pretty bravura performances.

Pessimism reigns right now, as anything economically positive seems to have tumbled out of sight. There are small consolations here and there, but the feeling I get is that most of us are feeling pretty stressed economically right now. Distrust of government bodies and the educational hierarchy swell into anger on occasion for controversies as varied as the public school math curriculum and the location of a new high school to the smoking ban and the burgeoning crime rate.

No one has the key to the vault of public approval as it relates to prying more money from voters. Yet there’s a better-than-even chance these issues will pass if supporters employ a spirited public-relations campaign that stresses necessity mixed with honesty, compromise and maybe even a little sacrifice. Win or lose, the effort put forth over the coming weeks will be excellent experience because there are many more of these infrastructure issues in the pipeline.

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