Five ideas: What are your thoughts on these items in the news this week?

Saturday, June 7, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:53 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dreams of the vice presidency

The Democratic presidential primary season finished Tuesday, almost four months after it began in New Hampshire. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois became the first black presumptive nominee for a major party, amassing 2,158 delegates and passing the required 2,118-delegate mark.

In a speech Tuesday night, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York conceded that Obama received the necessary delegate count but waited several days before leaving the race. Earlier in the week, Clinton told New York lawmakers she would do anything to ensure a Democratic victory in November — including considering an invitation to be Obama’s running mate. Some of her key supporters publicly asked Obama to appoint her, but he has said only that he and Clinton will talk about unifying the party.

Obama quieted rumors of an Obama-Clinton ticket by assembling a committee to explore vice-presidential possibilities. Caroline Kennedy, Eric Holder, deputy attorney general from the Clinton administration, and James A. Johnson, who oversaw similar search committees in previous presidential campaigns, constitute the selection committee.

Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona has not yet chosen his running mate.

What vice presidential candidates would make the general election race exciting for voters?

Corn in the soggy spotlight

Columbia has received 22.24 inches of rain in 2008. Rain and cool weather caused a delay in corn planting, and farmers estimate a 25 percent loss in their annual yield.

When the ground is wet, heavy machinery can’t move through the fields. Corn is especially susceptible to diseases that thrive in wet soil. Excess water depletes the earth of nitrogen needed for growth. Fertilizer is a lost cause. The soil takes longer to dry out if it’s cold, and most days this spring were cooler than average.

As of May 25, Missouri has planted one-fourth less corn than average.

But don’t worry yet, corn-on-the-cob lovers. Despite delayed planting, the fall harvest could yield just as much or more corn than anticipated. It just depends on what happens in July.

Like other commodities, the price of corn is at an all-time high. However, farmers may be forced to artificially dry the wet crops, which adds propane to the list of climbing costs.

Meat producers who buy corn to feed their stock suffer from rising prices. Ethanol production has been attributed to pushing up the price of corn, and the debate about whether to encourage ethanol continues. Global food prices have increased more than 40 percent since last year. Ethanol made from corn accounts for only 2 percent to 3 percent of the increase, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With the possibility of less corn in the fall, should ethanol production keep on trucking or wait for disputes to settle?

Council approves salary increase for department heads

The City Council raised the salary cap for city employees from $129,000 to $155,000 Monday night. The bottom of the range will stay at $75,483. City Manager Bill Watkins said the increase was necessary to fill the Water and Light Department director position. The final two candidates for the position, which has been vacant since December when Dan Dasho took a job in Michigan, would require a salary of about $150,000. The council discussed removing a minor requirement — professional engineer licensure — as a way to lower the offered salary. This would require a change in the city charter.

City employees say they hope the raised salary cap means pay increases across the board. Water and Light has said its lower compensation packages make it difficult to hire qualified union workers. Most of the city’s new hires are made at the low end of the pay scale — a hindrance to finding skillful employees.

It is hoped that the increase will provide incentive to fill future positions, such as that of retiring Police Chief Randy Boehm. Across-the-board increases have been discussed, but the decision was made primarily to ease the search process for vacated positions.

What factors should play into deciding salary raises for city employees?

Wider I-70 may be more passenger-friendly

Plans to expand Columbia’s stretch of Interstate 70 could include truck lanes. The Missouri Department of Transportation is considering adding truck-only lanes on I-70. The lanes would separate trucks and cars and allow for an expected increase in traffic. Additionally, the lanes prevent interaction between cars and trucks with the hope of reducing the number of accidents.

A plan to widen I-70 was approved by the Federal Highway Administration in 2001. When funding wasn’t available, consultants started looking into ways to divide trucks from other traffic.

The narrow stretch between Routes J and Z presents problems when adding lanes. Currently, there are two ideas: One uses physical barriers and the other utilizes moveable rumble/buffer stripes. The rumble stripes would be easier to move and less expensive but wouldn’t provide as much traffic control.

The widening and truck lane project is expected to cost $3.5 million, which could be funded by the Missouri General Assembly, the federal government and possibly sales taxes or toll roads. The study on truck-only lanes is expected to be wrapped up by the end of 2008. The plan would then need federal approval.

How safe do you feel when sharing the roads with trucks?

Beat the heat on the cheap

Admission to the Douglass Family Aquatic Center was dropped to $1 for summer 2008. Last summer, the pool lowered its price from $1.75 to $1 for swimming between 6 and 8 p.m. The city considered keeping the dollar admission, but had to wait until it could be considered with the city budget.

The pool admitted 3,636 visitors last summer — one-eighth the number that visited Oakland Family Aquatic Center. The Parks and Recreation Department hopes the lower rate will increase attendance. First Ward residents liked the reduced admission rate last summer, and the City Council hopes it will make the pool more accessible to lower-income families.

The pool was renovated in 2006, a project partly funded by the one-eighth-cent Parks and Recreation sales tax. Funds from the tax have also been used for the city’s two spraygrounds in Stephens Lake Park and Flat Branch Park, which each offer water fun for free. Plans are in the works for another sprayground site in Douglass Park, which would be free except during the summer swimming season.

How do you cool off or chill out in Columbia without spending much cash?

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