COLUMBIA — Crime, snow removal and how to pay for improvements to Columbia Regional Airport were among the topics that three candidates for the Fifth Ward seat on the City Council tackled Monday afternoon during a Chamber of Commerce forum.
The candidates are Susan "Tootie" Burns, Mark Jones and Laura Nauser. Each hopes to fill the seat left vacant by the November resignation of Helen Anthony. A special election is scheduled for Feb. 5.
About 50 people attended the forum, held at the Walton Building, 300 S. Providence Road. Here's what they had to say on a few of the issues.
Audience member Matt Melton talked about residents' regular complaints about snow removal in the city and asked for the candidates' thoughts.
Burns said when she was talking to Anthony about city issues while preparing for her campaign, Anthony admonished her to “pray it doesn’t snow.” Burns said she wasn’t aware that the city does not plow cul-de-sacs and said she finds the matter frustrating. She conceded, however, that she didn't have any particular ideas for a solution.
Jones joked that he has learned “4 x 8 yard signs make great sleds” but continued to say that clearing streets must be one of the cities top priorities. He, too, lacked a specific plan of action.
"Let's get some more plows and some more salt and cross our fingers," he said. He also noted that because Columbia doesn't get as much snow as many communities, it's difficult to figure out just how much to spend on removal.
Nauser brought up her experience as Fifth Ward councilwoman when the city was inundated with nearly 20 inches of snow in February 2011. She said dealing with snow removal after that rare event was hard because no one was satisfied with how the city handled it.
“If we invest all of our money in snow plows, then we don’t have the money to fix the potholes,” she said.
Nauser said she doesn’t believe it's possible to create a perfect plan that would address all the city’s snow-removal needs.
“Buying 10 new snow plows probably is not in the budget discussion,” Nauser said. She suggested that outfitting the city’s other vehicles with snowplows, a strategy the city used during the 2010 storm, would be much more likely.
Steve Spellman, assistant vice president of the Central Trust & Investment Co., asked about proposals for expanding the terminal at Columbia Regional Airport. Consultants for the city have estimated it would take $17 million to do an adequate overhaul of the terminal.
Nauser said she is a big advocate of the airport and fully supports its expansion and renovation.
“I think we really need to take an ‘everything’ approach to how we are going to fund the expansion of the terminal,” she said. “We have to be able to fit the people in it if it continues to grow.”
Nauser said she doesn't like raising taxes but would advocate "carefully" looking at existing and new taxes as a mechanism of funding terminal renovations. She also said she would like to see communities surrounding Columbia take more interest in the airport and perhaps help with funding. She said establishing a regional airport authority might be a good idea.
Burns said she would like to work with existing airlines as much as possible, but she agreed with Nauser that airport renovation and expansion is necessary. She suggested adding 1 percent to the city's lodging tax, which she estimated would raise about $750,000 per year, as a good way to pay for a terminal project.
Burns agreed with Nauser that the city should work with other communities to create a regional airport authority and general money for improvements.
Jones again opened his statement with humor. “We have the best bus terminal you can land an airplane at,” he said to laughter.
Jones said the airport does need to be improved to keep pace with the city's growth. He noted that MU soon will have more students from Chicago than from Kansas City, and he would like to see air as a viable method of transportation for them.
Jones said a bond issue would be the simplest and best way to pay for terminal improvements.
Columbia resident Jerry Murrell asked the candidates about their perceptions of crime.
Jones mentioned a 2012 consultant's report that identified low morale in the Columbia Police Department as a significant problem.
"Words like toxic leap off the pages," Jones said of the report. He said the city should grant the department the 12 to 14 months the report allowed to remedy problems. After that, though, City Manager Mike Matthes should hold Police Chief Ken Burton responsible for his job performance.
Nauser said the Citizens Police Review Board is the best venue for addressing issues within the police force. Nauser also said the council should invite unions representing officers in for talks. Nauser also spoke of the City Council's role in police matters.
"The city manager is responsible for hiring the police chief, and the City Council really has no direction on whether or not we can hire or fire," Nauser said, "but that does not mean that the City Council cannot take an active role in trying to get to the bottom of some issue that may be brewing."
Burns said she learned from knocking on doors that residents are unhappy about beat cops being moved because of changes within the police department.
"It makes them comfortable when they have an officer that knows their neighborhood, that knows their issues, that knows their kids," she said. Burns characterized the line of communication between the city manager and police chief as very important and said the council should not interfere.
Burns and Nauser said they want a report from the police chief explaining current issues within the department and plans to address those concerns. Burns said the public would benefit from these reviews.
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