Council focuses discussion on community engagement processes of ARPA funds

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Members of the Columbia City Council, at the end of their meeting Monday evening, revisited the discussion on the need for greater community engagement in the process of allocating the city’s share of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

Mayor Barbara Buffaloe asked City Manager De’Carlon Seewood to provide a bulleted list with updates on the status of requests for proposals and community engagement for each priority area by the next council meeting on May 16.

The council in October announced priorities for the first half of ARPA funds, broken down into four categories: homelessness, workforce development, community violence and mental health services.

Buffaloe named new council members — herself and Fourth Ward council member Nick Foster — as part of her request.

“This is really an opportunity for us to walk the walk that we talked about with community engagement and reach people where they are,” said Second Ward council member Andrea Waner.

First Ward council member Pat Fowler suggested making grants to cover planning processes for each of the priority areas “to help us move forward,” she said.

Third Ward council member Karl Skala suggested reviving a door-to-door process for community engagement previously used by the city when discussing community policing. The discontinued program has raised awareness in underserved communities when addressing communal violence, Skala said.

Paratransit positions added

City of Columbia bus riders wait for buses to arrive at the Wabash Bus Terminal at 126 N. Tenth St. Friday.

Council members voted to add a new position for Paratransit Drivers to the GoCOMO transportation system.

The addition will aim to fill six of the vacancies in the transit system in hopes of easing pressure on the understaffed bus system.

The bus system has 11 full-time vacancies and seven part-time vacancies, representing a 40% deficit. Current drivers have been working 12 hours of mandatory overtime every week with no relief provided, a council memo says.

Public Works said it receives about 10 new requests for paratransit service per week, with about 400 people qualifying for the service.

Since March, paratransit drivers have received approximately 200 transport requests per day. The department currently uses four vans for early morning services, six vans for mid-morning through early afternoon, and five vans for late afternoon and evening.

The addition is expected to reduce overtime and reduce the number of fixed-route drivers used to meet paratransit needs, which are primarily afternoon and Saturday services.

Paratransit drivers will have the opportunity to take commercial driver’s license training, which will allow them to drive larger buses.

Trash work session

City of Columbia garbage collector Ian Brooks throws trash bags into a garbage truck February 9 in southern Columbia.

At Monday’s pre-council meeting, council members held a working session on solutions for the city’s garbage collection system.

Members had four options, including privatizing collections, continuing the current logo bag program, eliminating the requirement to use logo bags, and automating collections.

According to the City staff presentation, current operations serve approximately 35,000 customers each week.

Monday’s report said seven senior garbage collectors, eight garbage collectors and 15 collection staff positions are currently vacant.

Each potential solution was accompanied by a list of advantages and disadvantages.

One benefit identified for privatization is the transfer of the burden of personnel and vehicle issues from the city to a private company. However, that would eliminate jobs in the city and likely not improve the quality of service for customers, according to slides presented to the council.

Continuation of the logo bag program would warrant no operational changes and customers would remain familiar with the program, but employee recruitment and retention issues, costs, difficulty providing bags, and low customer satisfaction would persist.

Eliminating the logo bag program would require minimal operational changes, simplify the program and reduce operational costs by approximately $1.2 million per year.

Working conditions are unlikely to improve, but could deteriorate. The system used previously does not encourage recycling or waste reduction, city staff reported.

If the city chooses to move forward with automated collection, working conditions should improve, as the need to travel in the back of a truck and manually load material would be eliminated. The city expects the change will improve the ability to hire and retain staff, provide more long-term employment opportunities and may improve service levels.

However, automated collection would not solve the CDL driver shortage and would require customer and staff training.

The council reintroduced bills originally passed on April 4 for reconsideration on Monday. A bill grants the council the ability to lift the ban on rolling carts. The other bill would send the matter back to the public for a vote on August 2.

The previous board voted unanimously on April 4 to put the matter to a public ballot. Fifth Ward council member Matt Pitzer requested at the April 18 meeting that the bills be reintroduced for consideration by new council members.

The bills will be discussed and voted on again on May 16.

Lauren Tronstad covers local government and politics for the Tribune. Reach her at LTronstad@gannett.com or on Twitter @LaurenTronstad.


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