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Budgeting for COMO’s Future

City Budget

How the process works — and what makes it work for Columbia.

Take a trip to a fictional city where the annual budget is orchestrated by a jolly band of whimsical clowns — complete with oversized shoes, red honking noses, and a penchant for fun-patterned jumpsuits. Welcome to Circus Town, U.S.A., where public transportation consists of comically small clown cars, and town hall meetings are replaced by uproarious comedy performances.  

While Circus Town’s escapades may amuse, they accentuate a critical truth: a well-planned city budget matters. Essential resources and services can slip through the cracks when objectives are misaligned. In contrast, Columbia’s leaders prioritize central services and infrastructure, meeting community needs. Their budget process is no laughing matter — it involves meticulous planning, transparency, and fiscal responsibility.  

Rather than squandering funds on clown cars and comedy shows, Columbia focuses on maintaining roads, funding public safety, and investing in community advancement — minus the carnival antics. The city budget isn’t just about numbers; it’s a blueprint for the future. Each fixed pothole, every well-maintained park, and all provided public services reflect deliberate planning and thoughtful prioritization. 

Embracing a New Budgeting Approach  

Columbia’s budget is a blank canvas, waiting for each department to paint its financial picture. That’s the essence of zero-based budgeting (ZBB), a fresh approach to transforming how the city allocates resources. Unlike traditional budgeting, which relies on past budgets as a foundation, ZBB forces each department to justify every expense from scratch. It’s like starting a puzzle without any pre-assembled pieces — each decision matters.  

Matthew Lue, Columbia’s finance director, emphasizes the significance of ZBB in enhancing accountability. 

“By evaluating the budget with a fresh perspective annually, this method ensures that all expenditures align with emerging needs,” he says. It breaks away from the “we’ve always done it this way” mantra, improving the city’s budgetary processes. By encouraging thorough analysis of needs and costs, ZBB eliminates wasteful or redundant spending and ensures efficient resource allocation.  

Behind the Numbers: The Budget Creation Process  

City departments gather around conference tables, crunching numbers, and debating priorities. It’s budget season in Columbia, a collaborative process involving city departments, the City Council, and citizens. Departments work closely with their budget analyst and budget officer to review expenses, propose reallocations or reductions, and present recommendations to the City Council. After public meetings, the council reviews, amends, and adopts the budget.  

As autumn arrives, the budget process kicks off in October, with these key highlights: 

  • The city’s economist prepares the Five-Year Trend Manual from November to January, guiding monetary decisions. 
  • New capital projects take center stage under review in February. 
  • In March and April, departments prepare budget estimates. By May, the City Council will unveil the draft capital improvement project (CIP) and six-month financial information, with revenue forecasting, offering a glimpse into Columbia’s economic future. 
  • Finalization of the draft budget occurs in July and is distributed for review. 
  • Citizens participate in public hearings and work sessions in August and September, shaping the democratic budget adoption process before the new fiscal year starts on October 1.  

Balancing Citizen Perspectives for a Sound Budget  

Budget priorities emerge from discussions between the City Council and the city manager. While there’s a common misconception that funds can be spent freely, legal requirements dictate spending. Think of enterprise funds as designated piggy banks — one for utilities, another for roads. Legal rules guard these funds, designated for specific purposes, ensuring they’re spent wisely. Public input guarantees that the budget addresses diverse needs by balancing different perspectives and requests.  

The budget is on the agenda at public hearings, and residents have a say. The public can visit BeHeard.CoMo.gov, where feedback channels await input. Or grab the “Budget in Brief” — a pocket-sized guide to revenues, expenditures, and real-world spending examples. Citizen voices matter. Attending council meetings, chatting with your Ward’s council members, or meeting the budget officer at community gatherings allow residents to shape Columbia’s financial future together.  

Tracking Tax Dollars: Where Your Budget Money Shines 

In the fiscal year (FY) 2024 budget, revenue growth played a crucial role. Sales tax revenue has sprouted around 3 percent over the preceding year, nourishing public safety and road maintenance. Behind the scenes, the 2 percent local use tax generated $8.1 million this fiscal year — powered by surging online sales and the new 3 percent recreational marijuana sales tax.  

The FY2024 budget stood tall on the shoulders of its predecessor, reaching new heights with a 4 percent overall increase, resulting in an adopted budget of $546.3 million. Public safety received a boost — an extra $3.8 million to fortify protectors, bringing the total to more than $67 million. Transportation revved up, with $7.5 million smoothing roads, resulting in a robust $73.6 million share. Meanwhile, health and environmental initiatives added $5.5 million, reaching a total of $30.3 million. The FY2024 budget reflects Columbia’s pledge to long-term ecological health, bolstering community improvement, safety, and transportation infrastructure.  

Public Safety Enhancements  

Columbia is invested in its guardians. Significant funds were allocated to modernize equipment, train police and fire departments, and increase starting pay for police officers. In October 2023, the city opened Fire Station #11 and allocated $1.2 million to replace an aging fire truck.  

Health, Environment, and Support for Vulnerable Populations 

The budget prioritized health, environmental support, and aid for vulnerable populations, with new grants allocated for health and human services. The newly established Housing and Neighborhood Services Department and a Planning and Promotion division under Public Health and Human Services aimed to address affordable housing and streamline public health programs.  

“Investment in stable and affordable housing and essential wraparound services is a pivotal need within our community,” as voiced by a participant in a recent City Community Engagement Survey. “For housing, we need more homes. With wraparound services, that’s the expensive part. Investments that leverage other dollars, so it’s stable beyond relief funding. Investments that impact as many people as possible.”  

Community feedback underscores the importance of leveraging federal grants, such as those facilitated through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), to support initiatives led by the Department of Public Health and Human Services. These investments provide immediate relief and establish long-term permanency. Savvy leveraging of federal programs conserves city revenue and positively impacts the broader community.  

Utility and Transportation Infrastructure Investments  

The city planned substantial investments in utilities infrastructure, including:  

  • $1.1 million for rising water treatment costs.  
  • $7 million for sewer rehabilitation.  
  • An electric rate increase was slated to generate $8.3 million to cover rising operation and maintenance expenses.  
  • Funding for a new Residential Community Solar Program at the Columbia Housing Authority Resource Center.  
  • Transitioned to an automated refuse collection system in March 2024.  

Transportation and infrastructure funding included transit upgrades such as bus replacements and schedules to replace end-of-life vehicles with low or no-emission alternatives, supporting the city’s sustainability goals. The city aspires for these investments — from cleaner water to efficient refuse collection — to lay the groundwork for future generations, ultimately reducing overall costs.  

Operating Expenses  

Columbia’s unassigned general fund balance is an impressive 46.5 percent of expenditures and transfers as of September 2023 — a robust figure well beyond the 20 percent target. That financial strength has consistently earned the city the prestigious Distinguished Budget Presentation Award for twenty-eight consecutive years. Yet, even amid operating success, Columbia navigates ongoing challenges.

Challenges and Opportunities  

Columbia’s budget faces a tightrope walk between immediate needs and long-term goals. With costs rising and opportunities emerging, quick-thinking strategies are crucial. Allocating $10 million for employee compensation, 6.4 percent above market rates, demands a delicate balance amidst inflation. Maneuvering through an 11 percent surge in health insurance expenses adds complexity.  

“Public spending perceptions often spark complaints and concerns,” explains Andrea Greer, Columbia’s budget officer. Taxpayers frequently wonder why new bike trails or artworks appear while potholes persist. However, she says, it’s essential to recognize that major roads like Stadium Boulevard, Business Loop, and Providence Road are owned by the state and fall under their jurisdiction. Meanwhile, bike trails thrive as the result of dedicated park funds, and art installations blossom through grants — not city coffers. Greer emphasized that “legal requirements dictate fund usage and limit flexibility.”  

Despite challenges, Columbia’s budget offers opportunities. Engaging residents in the process ensures local priorities are reflected. Focus on environmental sustainability promises long-term benefits, and strategic investments in infrastructure are intended to stimulate economic growth.  

As the fiscal year ends on September 30, spending patterns will unveil the impact of budget allocations, shaping future planning, and giving evidence — showing shortcomings — to the city’s budgeting process.

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