Bob McDavid presided over his last Columbia City Council meeting on April 4 and moved out of the mayor’s office later that week. After two terms as the city’s CEO, the 69-year-old retired obstetrician announced last winter he would not seek re-election.
McDavid entered office in 2010 as the self-styled “energetic and convincing salesman for clean economic development.” His campaign’s top priorities included public safety, maintaining Columbia’s livability and reversing the decline in city revenues. In the conference room, he looks back on his six years as mayor and assesses how those priorities fared.
Looking back, what would you say was your greatest accomplishment as mayor of Columbia?
I was a volunteer participant in a terrific, energetic, growing community. The citizenry accomplishes more than individual government leaders. Mayors can lead, but the citizens provide the momentum and direction of the city. My greatest accomplishment is knowing that the city moved forward in many, many different and far-reaching initiatives. As I left office, 81 percent of citizens were satisfied with municipal services. I left office with improved city finances, a low crime rate, budget surpluses and a growing city.
How would you grade your administration on progress with these issues?
► Economic Development/Business Climate
During my first term, CoMo grew rapidly, added many jobs, and thrived. I am honored that Columbia was ranked No. 1 in 2013 for job creation and economic growth among U.S. cities under 200,000. Columbia added IBM, Beyond Meat, Nanova, Biopharma and Northwest Radioisotopes. Columbia retained Kraft Foods when the corporation underwent a dramatic restructuring and downsizing. Columbia witnessed the expansion of 3M and American Air Products and we watched the explosive growth of Veterans United Home Loans. I am proud that Columbia had the eighth-lowest unemployment rate in the country last year. I relished the scores of ribbon-cuttings as small businesses opened throughout the city.
I believe this momentum slowed during my second term. Unfortunately, job creation and economic growth are not priorities for a large segment of Columbia’s citizens, as well as some members of Columbia’s municipal government. I expect to see Columbia fall in national benchmarks for job creation.
► Columbia Regional Airport
I am proud of our air service initiative. In 2010, Columbia’s commercial air service was in decline. Columbia was served by an airline that did not take our calls. This airline was cutting back commercial service to Columbia.
We put together a comprehensive, rigorous, detailed analysis of passenger demand in mid-Missouri. We put $3 million of public and private money at risk in a revenue guarantee to American Airlines. Our analysis was right-on and our initiative was successful. We now have multiple commercial flights to the second- and fourth-busiest airports in the United States. Planes are full. I expect growing passenger demand will yield more commercial flights to more destinations in the near future.
► Infrastructure Maintenance & Growth
Columbia citizens showed enough confidence in this City Council and in city administrators to approve several ballot proposals. I am proud that the City Council successfully provided $35 million for parks through two ballots. I am proud that we funded more than $120 million in new infrastructure improvements through a series of ballot proposals — sewer, stormwater, electric.
Columbia has grown 2 percent annually since 1960. Should that growth continue, Columbia will have 200,000 citizens in 2040. People want to live in great cities. Columbia is a great city.
► City Employees’ Pension Fund
Shortly after taking office, I led an initiative to repair the substantial deficits to firefighters and police officers’ retirement funds. Similar to many states and other cities, Columbia city administrators and past city councils had made promises to city workers we were failing to keep. Our police and firefighter pension assets were only 50 percent of funds needed to keep the promise.
We brought together six private-sector financial experts and three city employee representatives to hammer out pension reform. My charge to the Pension Reform Task Force was simple: Columbia had a $100 million math problem. Solve the math.
The reforms from this task force were unique and historic. We achieved changes here that have not been achieved elsewhere. We see that Columbia’s police and firefighter pension funding has increased from 50 percent to 59 percent in just four years. A trajectory is in place to stop the financial drain and city service reductions these pension deficits create. City employee retirement is now secure. Citizens and government leaders need to understand unfunded accrued actuarial liability, how to measure it, and how its impact drains city resources and services.
► Crime Rate/Citizen Safety
Crime has always been too high. Unfortunately, crime is part of the human condition and will always be too high.
The FBI has published its Uniform Crime Report annually since 1985. Violent crime in Columbia reached a historic low in 2014. In 2015, violent crime went back up to the 31-year average because of a spike in assaults. Total crime in Columbia, however, is at a 31-year low. Crime will always be too high, just as public safety staffing is too low.
The arrival of IBM in 2010 was hailed as Columbia’s entry into the high-tech job market. It didn’t quite turn out that way. Why do you think IBM could not maintain its employment targets here? Was it a mistake for the city to become entwined in the future of one business?
IBM is undergoing reassessment, realignment and restructuring. Such is the case with all businesses and corporations. Obviously, we’d be delighted if IBM had 800 employees in Columbia. However, the more than 350 IBM employees are a huge plus to Columbia’s economy. Because of the terms of the 2010 IBM agreement, IBM will stay in Columbia and thrive.
Declining sales tax revenue motivated city officials to get creative with the budget process. Can public agencies really budget like a private business?
Public entities have little incentive to cut expense. Private-sector business will cut expenses to increase profit, invest in capital, and increase pay to employees.
Despite shrinking tax revenues, as measured in per-capita inflation-adjusted dollars, the city of Columbia ran budget surpluses. During a brainstorming session, Mike Matthes and I initiated the incentive-based budget concept that has lowered government expense. We used those one-time surpluses to fund needs such as roads, community policing, the “Blind” Boone home, Maplewood home, pension deficits, homeless veterans and the Cradle to Career Alliance.
What is the greatest challenge facing the current City Council?
Loss of sales tax revenue because of e-commerce.
What advice would you give to new Columbia Mayor Brian Treece?
Mayor Treece is smart and will do well with his priorities.
What will you miss most about serving as mayor?
I will miss the interactions with Columbia’s passionate, creative and innovative citizens, and Columbia’s city staff.
What won’t you miss?
Acrimony. Spending pre-council weekends reading hundreds of pages of material.
What’s next for Bob McDavid?
With three grandchildren and another one imminent, I’ve got some catching up to do. Suzanne and I are looking forward to spending time together traveling.
Former mayor Bob McDavid sounds off on these recent local controversies:
DOWN CVS Rejection: Disagree with City Council’s 4-3 decision to deny.
DOWN Development Fees: Disagree with City Council. Columbia’s construction costs exceed surrounding communities. Businesses, job creation and home construction will be driven away to lower-cost locations.
UP Enterprise Zones: Columbia has added lower-paying service jobs as well as high-paying tech jobs. We lack the manufacturing jobs that could sustain the 40 percent of Columbians who do not make a livable wage. We are failing to add manufacturing jobs because those companies move to communities who incentivize. Surrounding communities have enterprise zones. Austin, Texas, has nine enterprise zones.
I was surprised at the failure of low-income advocates to support job creation. Columbia’s lack of incentives in the main reason the $4 million industrial park the city purchased in 2010 remains vacant.
UP Gateway Entrances To Downtown: Great idea. Let’s see what we can afford.
DOWN Plastic Bag Ban: I expect the City Council to bring the bag ban back up. In a citywide vote, I will vote against the ban.
DOWN Red-Light Cameras: Not shown to improve safety.
UP Roll Carts: Automated systems will come when the citizens accept them. They will lower trash fees long term.
UP Security Cameras Downtown: Security cameras are widely used throughout the world.
DOWN Student Housing Boom: Overbuilt. Market forces will react by lowering rents; investors will be at risk. Let the market decide.
DOWN Revisiting The Route Of High-Voltage Transmission Lines: Utility professionals tell us electricity service to south Columbia is uncertain and insecure because of inadequate transmission capacity. Council actions tell us that council members are not taking this problem seriously.