COLUMBIA — When it comes to Columbia's parks, City Council candidates say it's all about the green.
Candidates for Columbia's two contested City Council seats have promised to look closely at the Parks and Recreation Department when considering how best to deal with projected budget shortfalls.
Second Ward candidate Allan Sharrock said he would not support renewal of the quarter-cent parks sales tax in 2010.
"Most residents I've talked to are more receptive to public safety, even infrastructure, above parks and trails," Sharrock said. "In these tough times we shouldn't be using city tax revenues for the nice-to-haves."
Sixth Ward candidate Rod Robison said the city will have to take a close look at trail funding, but he thinks it's too early to make any decisions.
"I'm getting a sense from people that enough is enough, like we've met the saturation point of marking streets and stuff like that," Robison said.
Second Ward candidate Jason Thornhill said the city should divert resources from the creation of new parks and instead focus on "maintaining the ones we have."
Sixth Ward candidate Barbara Hoppe emphasized the importance of parks and green space. She said she values the green space in Columbia and even helped lead the effort to save Stephens Lake Park when Stephens College put it up for sale.
Toby Bartman, who was outside Saturday watching her son Zachary, 8, play in her northwest Columbia neighborhood, said the green space is one of the reasons she stayed in town.
"The more green space we can protect today, the better we're all going to be tomorrow," Bartman said. She said the acquisition of new parkland is "a great use of our city resources."
"We should take full advantage of the downturn in real estate right now to continue to build a greener Columbia," Bartman said. "There's always going to be budget issues, but our natural resources need to be a priority for the future. If we don't spend the money to protect our natural resources for our children just because of budgetary issues, the future isn't that bright for them."
William Woods University cross country coach Brayce Forsha came to Cosmopolitan Park Saturday to push his two young children on the swings. Forsha said he opposes cutting the park budget but thinks the city should be careful about expanding parkland amid budget shortfalls.
"It seems like physical activity's always the first thing that gets cut," Forsha said. "I think the parks are one of the best things about Columbia."
Information technology worker Phillip Christensen, 22, praised the city's park system but said funding might need to be cut.
"With the economic times we're in right now, it's debatable whether we should focus as many resources on them (parks) as we have been," Christensen said.
The Second Ward resident said that while he would vote to renew the park sales tax, he agreed with both Sharrock and Thornhill that "it's going to be hard to renew that sales tax if the economy doesn't get better."
Thornhill said that, as a frequent park user, he would vote for the sales tax. However, he feels the city would have to prove the tax is providing residents with concrete benefits.
Hoppe, who co-chaired the committee that promoted the original park sales tax, said the community has been "very supportive." She said she would support putting the tax back on the ballot for renewal.
Robison, Hoppe's opponent, said he's open to letting voters decide whether to renew the tax, too.
"Columbia is pretty serious about their parks and trails," Robison said. "I would be in favor of at least putting it back up to a vote."
"I'm seeing people on the trail, people enjoying the trail," Robison said. "That's what I see: people really enjoying those areas like I do."
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hood did not return calls on Friday and said he had no time over the weekend to discuss the impact of the candidates' views upon his department's work.
Candidates praised the progress of GetAbout Columbia, which is putting $22 million in federal grant money to work on projects intended to promote walking and bicycling. They proposed no major changes to GetAbout priorities.
The project has "done a lot to increase the capacity for walkers, runners, bikers and the disabled," Sharrock said. "I understand frustrations with not getting more done, but that's just the cost of doing business with the government."
Thornhill said he worries about projects coming in over budget, but that he is satisfied with the progress.
Hoppe said that GetAbout needs to use money in a "wise, cost-effective way" and that it would save the city money in the long run.
"In terms of infrastructure, $22 million is really a small amount of money," Hoppe said. "It's really an investment in terms of transportation. The more people we get off the roads and using alternative transportation, the less you have to pay for road resurfacing and maintenance."
Missourian reporter Pat Sweet also contributed to this story.