One unique, but often overlooked, city asset is the Columbia Trust. In fact, we were the first city in the nation to create one.
Before it was established in 1999, city leaders had talked for a number of years about how valuable it would be to have a community trust to fund special public projects that might not receive regular city funding.
Community trusts are usually privately run with city encouragement and administered by a local bank. People and estates contribute to support projects that are helpful to the community.
At the time, there were already a number of trusts in Columbia, but none devoted to city projects. A couple of city council members were encouraging me to fill that gap with a traditional community trust. One day it occurred to me: Why couldn’t we have a city trust? We could administer it publicly and devote it to city improvements that might not get funded otherwise.
At the time, we wanted to build the Area Recreation Center (ARC), and we were working on some other large park projects toward which people might want to donate.
A city trust would provide real advantages for Columbia, I thought. People could donate money in return for tax breaks. Rather than having a private board administer the trust, the city council would administer it in public. Public input is important.
Using the recreation center as an example, suppose you have a community trust that offers to give $2 million if the city will build the multi-million dollar center at a location that differs from city plans. Maybe the location isn’t the best one, and a conflict ensues.
Does the council turn down such a request? What would happen if it made a decision without public input? With the city trust, the city council is the board, so you don’t have that problem. If the money is in the city trust, the council can publicly discuss the building’s location and how to use the money.
The trust is really helpful to the city, allowing it to consolidate revenues from different city sources to make special projects happen. In addition to taxes and user fees, city resources include volunteers and gifts. We established a new office of volunteer services to coordinate the efforts of those who graciously give their time to the city, gave it the responsibility to coordinate such programs, as Adopt-A-Spot, and decided the office should also handle these monetary donations. Today, Leigh Britt, director of the volunteer office, oversees both the volunteers and donation programs.
For example, a $50,000 gift from the estate of Russ and Mary Nall to the trust is being used to construct a waterfall at Stephens Lake Park, which should be completed later this year.
Another gift to the city that came through the City Trust was personally rewarding. It came from the estate of my friend, Richard Knipp, which recently gave $100,000 to the city to honor my 46 years of city service.
Knipp, who always looked to the good of the community, was a two-time city councilman and member of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Few people realized it at the time, but this generous man often allowed people to rent his houses well below market value when he knew the renters couldn’t afford to pay more. He donated to many good causes, and, as a city official, was particularly interested in good infrastructure, such as streets, the airport, facilities for water and wastewater, and other amenities we all enjoy today.
By now, other cities have followed our lead in forming a city trust, but when we searched for a model ordinance, we could find no other cities that had their own trust. So we were the first in the nation to do it. We developed our own ordinance, and the city council approved the idea in 1999.
Then we encountered another hurdle. As we began to raise money to build the ARC, we learned that some 501(c)(3) organizations could not give funds to the city trust because it was not a 501(c)(3). Often their rules of operation, known as articles, would only allow them to give funds to other 501(c)(3)s.
We came up with a solution by forming the New Century Fund in 2001. The New Century Fund is itself a 501(c)(3), which requires working closely with the IRS. By law, the city council could not control a 501(c)(3), and we had to form a new board of directors.
Wally Pfeffer chaired the board of the New Century Fund from 2001 to 2007. The fund raised $75,000 for the ARC. It raised more than $83,000 to restore the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and contacted Sen. Kit Bond, who secured a $98,000 Save America’s Treasure grant to rebuild the site.
The current members of the New Century Fund board are Eliot Battle, Phyllis Chase, Kathryn Digges, Bob Gerding, Susan Stalcup Gray, Darwin Hindman, Teresa Maledy, Mary Paulsell, Jim Robertson and Bob Roper.
In 2001, the city also established Share the Light, which allows citizens to donate to city programs through their utility bills. The program offers the opportunity to make monthly or one-time donations of $1 or more toward six different areas: public art, community beautification, youth recreation scholarships, youth dental care, fire prevention and crime prevention.
This ongoing program has a great future. A significant number of people have “checked off” money, and I’m sure they will continue to do so. Since the program began, Columbia residents have given more than $111,000, and that money has purchased smoke alarms for low-income residents, bought mulch and flowers to support volunteers in the Adopt-A-Spot program, funded maintenance for public art, and established a youth dental program in the health department.
In the future, I would like to see the city offer a “round-up” program, in which customers could opt to round up their utility bills to a higher number, allowing another easy way for citizens to donate to the city. However, such a program was not feasible with city equipment at the time the city studied the idea.
Above all, the Columbia Trust, New Century Fund and Share the Light programs provide a way to bring resources to the city to cover projects that enhance the city in ways that are over and above the mundane basics of city operations. They make our city’s quality of life better without using tax money, and they are not political. They allow us all to contribute to the upkeep and enhancement of our community.