COLUMBIA – The Democratic candidates for Boone County Northern District commissioner discussed the limitations of county government and collaboration between the county and the city of Columbia at the Columbia Country Club on Friday.
The forum, hosted by the Boone County Muleskinners, a Democratic political group, included all four of the Democratic candidates, Brian Dollar, Darin Fugit, O.J. Stone and Janet Thompson.
Skip Elkin, the current Northern District commissioner, is not running for re-election. The primary election is Aug. 7. The winner of the Democratic primary will face either Lance Robbins or Don Bormann, the Republican candidates, in the general election in November.
Audience members asked questions on a range of topics, including mental health services for adults, Internet access and parks in Boone County.
Fiscal and statutory limitations on the activities of county government
In response to a question about maintaining or creating parks and trails in the county, most candidates emphasized the county’s limitations. The question focused on a parcel of land donated by Don Sanders, a former Boone County commissioner. The land includes a portion of Boonslick Road.
- “The county’s limited in what it can do,” Dollar said. He suggested the state could get involved.
- Stone said he would be willing to support a state designation to make the land a park if there is enough public interest. “County resources would really be stretched a little thin to delve too deeply into that,” Stone said. “I would certainly be willing to work with the state.”
- Fugit said he's concerned about who would maintain the area. He said he would be interested in putting in parking spaces and gravel paths but “not developing it as a full-blown park.”
- “There’s an opportunity I think for the county to work in conjunction with Columbia Parks and Rec,” Thompson said.
While the candidates agreed that recording commission meetings and making them available online is a good idea, a related question about expanding Internet access in rural areas once again brought up concerns about the limitations of county government.
- Fugit said he wished the county had the money to lay fiber optic cable throughout Boone County because “it would be a huge selling point” but that’s “not under the county purview.”
- Dollar said he has been able to get Internet access when doing his surveying work in rural areas and pays for access at home. “Rural areas don’t get served because it’s privatized.”
- Stone said the county has to deal with its primary responsibilities before getting involved in other, non-statutory obligations. “We’re not going to be able to just jump in there and fund that project.”
- "We need to look at how we can pair up with those private entities,” Thompson said. “Internet access has become sort of critically important to keep people connected.”
Mental health services for adults
In response to a question about how to fund mental health services for adults in Boone County, most candidates agreed a tax would probably be the only way to get funding. The questioner asked that the candidates not reiterate the budgetary limitations of the county.
- “It’s a very expensive issue from many angles,” Stone said. He said a tax initiative for the issue should be put on the ballot for the public to vote on and that then the commissioners should “educate the public” because they “usually don’t do enough.”
- “I think the budgetary concerns you’re going to hear from everybody are real,” Dollar said. He asked what the questioner thought the commission should do. The questioner said he’d be happy to speak after all the candidates answered the question.
- “We do have to take care of our statutory obligations first,” Fugit said. “It’s a continuing problem.” He said the county would have to “see what the voters think” about a tax to fund services.
- Thompson said the closing of state-funded facilities increased the workload of public defenders such as herself and merely shifted the cost to another area of government. “We have to find a way to take care of those people,” Thompson said.
Cooperation between the city of Columbia and Boone County
Stone, Thompson and Fugit said they support collaboration between the city and county in response to a question about the challenges and opportunities for cooperation between the two. Dollar said while the county and the city do cooperate in areas such as law enforcement, the needs of the county are getting less attention.
- Dollar said the increasing population of Columbia means the “needs of the rural people are going to become subservient to the city.”
- “There’s a difference of opinion as to what’s important,” Stone said. He said people in Columbia are focused on the city, but that “we’re all part of one community” and that collaboration would lead to “less duplication of effort.”
- “One of the things that we have to do is protect the people in the county,” Thompson said, noting political and financial pressure from Columbia. She said “the opportunities for collaboration are enormous” and suggested the two entities could work together on issues like the fairgrounds.
- “We need to try and get together and work together,” Fugit said. He said when he was vice chairman of the Boone County Planning and Zoning Commission, it met with Columbia’s Planning and Zoning Commission. He said the county and city should do more things like that to “try and plan for the future.”