COLUMBIA — With the April 5 election approaching, voters have submitted their questions to candidates, and we have the answers. In addition, election reporters Katrina Ball and Matt Beezley compiled a few more questions for City Council hopefuls. Here are their answers.
Q: Would you support the construction of the Short Street parking garage?
Pam Forbes: Would I have supported it at the time? I think I would have supported that before I supported the new apartments on Walnut. I would’ve supported the parking garage for the hotel. I’m more interested in what I can do for the people in the ward.
Mitch Richards: Parking is a source you hear about with a lot of people, particularly people who work downtown. It’s something they all mention. I think the (new 10-story) parking garage is definitely a concern, especially if it’s not breaking even. People felt there wasn’t enough public input, and it's an aesthetic thing that really bothers a lot of people.
But I think more practically is the question of parking fine increases, and that’s a concern for me. Part of this is to fill budgetary holes, and the reasoning that’s offered is that other municipalities our size are doing it. This is a tax. This is a way to extract more money from the local economy.
With increases in downtown parking fines, you’re mostly going to affect service-level employees — the service-level employees who work seven hours a day. So basically, you’re saying waiters and waitresses downtown are going to bear the brunt of these parking fines, and it isn’t right, doing it in this way when you hit a specific segment of this population who doesn’t have the means.
This is just a proposal, but in a general sense, one possibility is we can sell decals to a business, and those employees would put that decal on their cars and wouldn’t have to pay the parking meters.
To be perfectly honest, I need to study it. I’m concerned because the new one they just put up, from what I’m told, it’s not even filling up. I want to look at the figures and be shown with empirical evidence that we need a new garage.
Fred Schmidt: I know it’s a sticky wicket because you have to balance the interests of the businesses, which is to have parking available and have parking cheap, with the actual cost of the parking facilities. You subsidize the parking directly into the city budget. I don’t know that the city handles it the best; they always bring these things up right before an election. The communications could have been handled better.
The reality is the city has to pay its way, and I’m sure they did their best to negotiate with all the parties involved: you have the bondholder, you have the general revenue, you have the businesses and you have the public. Parking fees and meter fees are never popular, but they’re the reality of downtown.
In general, yes, because there is a shortage of parking downtown. It's hard to believe when you look at the new garage, but when every garage is built it takes awhile to fill up. The Short Street parking garage is part of broader plans. Having said that, there is an issue of how much it’s going to cost and who’s going to pay for that. I can’t give a blanket yes or no answer, but in general we need the parking. But you have to balance that out: Who’s going to pay, and can we afford it?
Darrell Foster: As a member of the First Ward Ambassadors and a person with a master’s degree in public administration, I am not sure at this stage if that garage is going to be as resourceful as the City Council has planned. I will say that it’s in place now, and it's best for us to move forward with whatever plans were put in place for it until we have some data to evaluate and make some other decisions.
I am not sure at this stage because I didn’t have any fundraisers, so I’m committed to the citizens of the First Ward. If the citizens of the First Ward feel it’s in their best interest to move forward with something like that, that’s what I would do. I’m asking them to let me serve them.
Q: As the city faces an ever-tightening budget, where do your spending priorities lie? Are there areas of spending you deem unnecessary? If so, what are they, and how would you improve them? Similarly, are there areas you feel deserve more attention? What are they?
Forbes: I think we need to cut a break for the people who are low- and middle- and fixed-income as far as the food taxes are concerned and keeping the utility rates from rising. There are people on fixed income. Maybe working on the revenue portion — the answers, I think, lie in the revenue portion — like the parking fees.
It’s all priorities. My priorities are the people of the city, their needs and the people who work for the city, their wages and their pensions. There are a lot of things that could be negotiated, but those are two things that I won’t negotiate. I’m not into laying people off. I couldn’t answer that just now. I would want to see the full budget first.
Richards: One big one for me: We have horrible priorities with the downtown cameras. The First Ward is down a fire station. We need those four firefighters. In a general sense, we need to do everything we can to maintain basic public safety services.
We’re facing a situation of dropping property values, so we’re going to be facing more budgetary problems in the future. We need to make sure people are able to get basic emergency services, enhance things in the budget and putting in a proper infrastructure for the city, such as sewer lines.
Schmidt: It’s easy for a political candidate to look at their own electorate and pick a program they think is unpopular with their voters and want to cut that. There are city services essential to a lot of people. What I’ve said publicly before is something I would look at first: Is there some way to do a department cut across the board so that everybody gives up a little bit instead of cutting whole services? That’s the first thing to look at.
The second thing to look at is there are essential services such as police, fire and public safety, and then there are these tremendous needs for people with disabilities and various other people in need that the city looks at. Essential, then, depends on "Who are you?" My platform does not include a specific area to cut.
Foster: I think that we should do some more preventive work to preach safety in our community. I know that the resources can be found in order to do those things. I have a genuine concern for our safety, not only from a crime standpoint but biohazards and other standpoints. We can come up with other avenues, different avenues.
I have in mind of getting together some of the best minds in the First Ward and coming up with some ideas and strategies. I want to get people who want to get involved to get involved in the community and then try to find the resources to make those things work.
Q: Only a fraction of the county’s population uses the public transit system — about 0.7 percent, according to an American Community Survey. What steps would you take to improve the public transit system and encourage people to find alternative methods of transportation?
Forbes: I think that in order to improve the public transit system, we need to improve its ability to get people to where they need to go when they need to get there. We have all kinds of buses going out to places to shop, and we always have, but they need to go to places where people work when they need to get to work. I know there are people who will say, "Oh I see the bus going by, and there’s nobody on the bus.”
The bus that goes out to Route PP has the right combination. When I’m on it, it’s full of people. Wherever that bus is going, it’s working like it ought to. Out on Route B, though, there’s not good service and other places where people work. If we’re ever going to get people to rely on public transportation, it’s got to be there first, and people need to know about it. It’s a revenue source.
Richards: We need to look at the riding numbers, the big indicator. We must recognize that those that use it do use it because it’s their only method of getting around town. We need to look at new routes that go to shopping centers, not two-hour roundabout routes. There is no question that (in) knocking on doors in the First Ward, people say the public transportation system does not fit their needs — (it's) slow. We need to maintain the public transportation we have but look at new ways to innovate and find better ways to provide that service.
Schmidt: The public transit is an interesting issue, and the subsidy is not well understood. The subsidy is federal and mandated by federal law. There’s a rule that a certain percentage of federal transportation money is allocated to transportation. The question is, why?
It’s less apparent here in Columbia, but as cities get bigger, issues other than actually moving people become important. Public transportation then becomes a public good the same way our roads do, and that is why federal law works in that way. If public transportation were more frequent and reliable, it would become a much more viable alternative. So there are a couple things. One is it could be more, and it is quite a bit if you look at certain corridors. One would be along Old 63, and some of the other private apartment complexes run shuttles, and these demonstrate the need and utility of public transportation. If you only drive your car, you don’t see the value of it.
Foster: I don’t think I have to take any steps. I think the gas prices are going to force people to be more reliable on public transportation. I just hope that when the time comes we are prepared as a city and transit authority to serve them. We need to have plans in place, and I’m not at liberty to say what they are.
Q: About 50 percent of Columbia residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. That leaves half of the population with less education. What are two specific examples of how you would create more blue-collar jobs in Columbia?
Forbes: I think just talking to REDI (Regional Economic Development Inc.) and getting it more focused on bringing those kinds of jobs here, and I think if we’re working with young people like I would like to do, with mentorship. They have to have the expectation they are going to rise to that level.
I’ve been going around and seeing some of the things the community already does, and there are some churches that have started mentoring programs recently. They’re just beginning, and I think if we keep different groups, different people — and they’re small things — but anything we do at this point to help the kids is going to pay off. Smoothing over conflicts with people in schools. It will give more exposure to kids for things that they might encounter in life. They’ll learn skills.
Richards: This is something I’ve actually campaigned about. One, I think if REDI is going to be using city resources to bring jobs and contracts with its members, I think it's perfectly reasonable and necessary to use those same resources to bring manufacturing jobs to town.
Two, I think another way as far as bringing jobs, we really need to resist the urge to increase taxes and find reasonable ways to maintain the standards and quality of life we enjoy. We need to streamline job creation. The government should be a means to job creation, not hinder it.
Schmidt: One of the things that amazes me is we have this unbelievably high rate of bachelor's degrees. Fifty percent is enormous. What amazes me is the educational institutions don’t offer more certificate programs. There are certain things you can do on council to offer more significant programs.
People need practical training for real jobs now, and that is the best way to get people into employment if you prepare them for jobs here. In the blue-collar area, that would be training in electric and plumbing and carpentry; in the desk job area, there are all kinds of trainings in medical coding, various computer/IT support. The second piece of that, you could look to the Columbia Business Times and the Chamber of Commerce. (They) have looked at industrial sites.
Not all developers have a long-range view. It takes a lot of work to develop the zoning, the electric and the sewer and water infrastructure. This is one thing Columbia could do to make itself more attractive to blue-collar work. We can be preparing shovel-ready sites.
Foster: More inclusion into the elements of benefits of education. We need to start at the elementary level, motivating kids and telling kids they’re going to go to college. That’s our responsibility. If we want to improve our community, our city, our state, education is one those ingredients, and it’s our job to preach it at an elementary school level. Get them excited about education. We have to find those teachers who understand those kids who are having problems and develop education programs to help them. Each and every citizen in the United States of America, not just in Columbia, should be able to read and write English.
Q: What is your take on public safety and crime in the First Ward? How would you assess the city’s response? Is there anything you would like to see done differently?
Forbes: My take: Whatever we can do. With these little kids, if we start getting to know them, they’re less likely to run off into these violent things. We really, really, really need a rec center, someplace where kids can go where they can afford to go. I know they have programs where they get a discount according to their family income, but we need to make it very affordable for kids to go places like the ARC. But if we do that, we’re going to need a bigger place.
Richards: I would like to see a return to using some level of community policing. Officers should be out there getting to know people, knocking on doors and meeting people. We need officers who are part of the community, not serving in it. There are many, many people in the First Ward, particularly in the African-American community, who are not comfortable calling the police or approaching them. And there is a lot of fear in the community.
Fear is what drove us to put cameras downtown, and fear is leading us (to) the false belief that SWAT raids and brute force are going to make us safe. SWAT raids are destroying families, traumatizing children and creating distrust.
Schmidt: The First Ward has the perception of the highest crime, and it has a lot of crime. I think police-community relations need a lot of improvement, and I will be talking with police and community leaders, as I’ve done already, on ways to build trust. That can be anything from getting people to talk to each other to changing procedures. What you can do as a council person is facilitate dialogue. I think the problem is trust, and trust takes a long time to build. There have been a lot of unfortunate incidences in Ward One, and we want to work to prevent that.
Foster: I would like to see the Police Review Board have some independence of any political influence, and that’s influence from the chief as well as from the city manager. I don’t think they should make the final call. I think they should make some independence coming from the City Council. The City Council should make those choices and decisions — not the city manager.
Any time we’re talking public safety, we need to include those people we think are making us unsafe. We need to include them. The businesses downtown are enablers of the polarization that takes place in our city. They do not hire black males and black females. They’re no different than the Klan. And it’s obvious they need encouragement and development.
We take a glance at our criminal justice system, and it has 2 million people in it. Out of that 2 million, 1 million of them are black males. That sends a message that something is wrong, and 60, 70 percent of them don’t have a high school diploma. We can prevent some of this with information, education.