Criticism of the Columbia City Council’s decision not to fund the Henderson Branch sewer extension is based on the premise that the benefits of this project would have outweighed its cost. On the contrary, the council decided against the project because its high cost far outweighed the potential benefits.
The sewer construction and expansion of the city limits would open up a large area for new residential development. The city would be responsible for supporting this growth with roads, bridges, fire and police protection, electricity, trash pickup, etc. The city’s comprehensive plan, Columbia Imagined, anticipated this issue by including an urban service area, outside of which development would not be subsidized by taxpayers. The Henderson Branch annexation would extend beyond that service area.
Residential development is a net drain on city resources, because the resulting development fees and property taxes are not enough to offset the costs of extending these services. In fact, Boone County charges much higher fees for new residential development in unincorporated areas so they can recoup their costs up front. Extending the city limits would be a great deal for the developers but not for the taxpayers.
Before passage of the $32.3 million bond issue in 2013, voters were given information (not on the ballot) that the extension would be funded at a cost of $2.6 million, not $4.3 million. The bulk of the $1.7 million difference ($1.1 million from Sewer Utility enterprise funds from utility ratepayers) should be used for those waiting, some for more than a decade, for municipal sewer backup relief within the current city limits.
When voters approved Proposition 1 in 2013, there were no specific projects listed on the ballot. The ballot language read as follows: “Shall the City of Columbia, Missouri, issue its Sewer System Revenue Bonds in the amount of Thirty-two Million Three Hundred Forty Thousand Dollars ($32,340,000.00) for the purpose of constructing, improving, repairing, rehabilitating, replacing, equipping, expanding and extending the City-owned sewerage system?” Election results were 4,528 "yes" votes and 1,137 "no" votes (8 percent voter turnout).
A list of 16 potential projects were included in advocacy committee presentations about the ballot issue, and the Henderson Branch extension was the next to last one listed, to cost $2.6 million. I do not believe the voters intended to write a blank check for Henderson Branch, or even thought it was the most important project on the list.
The cost of the extension has ballooned to $4.3 million due to new information about water table conditions in the area not related to construction delays. If funded at that adjusted cost, the difference would be taken away from other needed projects. There are affordable alternatives for the businesses at Midway, including fixing their existing local sewage effluent system or even sharing in the cost of the city’s sewer extension. Indeed, the owner of MidwayUSA paid the city of Ashland nearly a $1 million to fund sewer extensions for his new industrial park there. The taxpayers of Columbia do not have enough resources to service the entire mid-Missouri region.
Would the city of Columbia get any return on its $4.3 million investment? It’s difficult to tell. There is no way to get verifiable numbers, beyond the self-reports of those who stand to benefit most from the taxpayer-funded improvements. MidwayUSA sells most of its goods via the internet and those transactions are not subject to city sales tax. Indeed, MidwayUSA would be a customer of the county sewer district. Retail sales at the Midway Truck Stop would bring in some revenue, as would property taxes ($0.41 per $100 valuation), but it would take a long time to recoup $4.3 million that way.
We have compelling, longstanding needs for sewer projects within the current city limits. There are people in older parts of the city whose basements flood with sewage when aging sewer lines back up every time there is a downpour. The city’s program of back flow interrupter cost sharing is necessary, but not sufficient. It is the city council’s responsibility to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Spending $4.3 million (or more) on a sewer line clear out to Midway, in hopes of some nebulous and undefined future tax benefit, is not the best investment for the city.
One of my city council colleagues was quoted in the Columbia Tribune as saying, ”(The Fritz Family annexation agreement) will make the entire project contiguous to the city." Contiguous, yes, but certainly not compact, and clearly economically gerrymandered to the detriment of current Columbia tax and utility ratepayers, especially those waiting patiently in line for municipal sewer backup relief within the city’s current boundary limits.
Karl Skala is on the Columbia City Council representing the Third Ward.