COLUMBIA — The Boone County League of Women Voters heard about taxes, growth around schools, and why they should support Columbia City Council candidates during a busy agenda Tuesday night.
The forum took place exactly three weeks before the City Council election April 3.
Candidates Mike Atkinson, Bill Pauls and Michael Trapp from the Second Ward and Barbara Hoppe and Bill Tillotson from the Sixth Ward attended the forum.
About 50 people filed in to the event in the Friends Room at Daniel Boone Regional Library, eventually standing against the walls as the questions drew to a close.
The five candidates fielded questions from the audience and moderator Marilyn McCleod of the league.
Collaboration between the school board and city staff
Attendee Robin Hubbard asked the candidates, given the construction of multiple schools in town, whether they'd considered greater commission input in school board decisions.
All of the candidates said they were intrigued by the idea in principle.
"I don't think anybody's thought about that," Pauls said. "It's a great new idea."
Atkinson said that greater synergy between the two groups would be "a responsible use of resources."
"If I'm elected, and that gets brought up, I'll definitely be in your corner on that," Atkinson said.
Trapp agreed that involving the school board in planning decisions would be beneficial to the community, and said that the city's current process of examining its committees make this a good time to investigate that option.
Hoppe said the school board, city and county already meet on a regular basis.
"I think that's been real productive in the last three years," Hoppe said. She added that the idea of a shared commission "may be a very productive idea."
Tillotson, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said the commission, city council and school board should all work together early in the process of building schools.
What makes the Second Ward candidates unique
David Sapp asked the candidates what distinguished them from their opponents.
Trapp said a comprehensive envisioning of Columbia's future and a focus on neighborhood development set him apart from Pauls and Atkinson.
"The Second Ward is all neighborhoods, so I think the Second Ward candidate should focus on neighborhood issues," Trapp said.
Pauls said he was uninterested in asking for large campaign donations.
"I call myself the $3,000 dollar man," Pauls said. "That's all the money I'm going to raise."
Atkinson said he has the business and budgetary experience to make difficult decisions. He cited $24 million budgeted by the city for supplies and materials.
"That's up 11 percent from the previous year," Atkinson said. "Across America, most companies are able to cut that ... and we're experiencing double-digit increases."
What makes the Sixth Ward candidates unique
Hoppe, who has served on the council since 2006, said she brought knowledge and experience to the position.
"I think the big thing is seeing and understanding the big picture, and working for the long term," Hoppe said.
Tillotson said his professional background has provided him with a sense of fiscal responsibility that has been lacking on the council.
"I was a little bit frustrated with why it took a new mayor to come on board and start uncovering a lot of the problems that we're having," Tillotson said.
The candidates agreed that now was not a good time to raise taxes.
Hoppe said reducing infrastructure costs while the economy and city grow is the key to keeping taxes low.
"I believe, then, we can have a liveable community without taxes increasing and increasing and increasing," Hoppe said.
Tillotson said that attracting and retaining jobs was important to increasing revenue without raising taxes. He said that the size of the company shouldn't matter.
"We need to look at the individuals that do business here — make their business easier for them to secure," Tillotson said.
Pauls, who described himself as "an old farm boy," used an analogy to promote responsible spending as an alternative to tax increases.
"When times were lean, we didn't go to town and buy something new," Pauls said. "We couldn't. We couldn't afford it. We went out to the machine shed and made a temporary — or found something that we could fix, whatever particular item or machine or equipment we were working on in order to get the crop in."
Pauls said patience was important, and added that there may be a time after growth where tax raises may be needed.
"I would never support any council-mandated tax increases," Atkinson said. "I don't see any need for those." He said there were plenty of places in the budget where spending could be cut before looking at revenue-increasing options and that a commitment to shopping locally would make a tax increase unnecessary.
Trapp agreed that measures other than tax increases should be explored first.
"It's profoundly unwise to raise taxes in an economic downturn," Trapp said. He said that eventually, as the economy improved, he would consider tax increases deemed necessary.
School board candidates and Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher also addressed the group.