COLUMBIA — Candidates for the two contested City Council seats and for mayor discussed their positions on job creation and uses for a city budget surplus Tuesday evening at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Mayor Bob McDavid and challenger Sid Sullivan, Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl and challenger Karl Skala, and Fourth Ward Councilman Daryl Dudley and challengers Ian Thomas and Bill Weitkemper attended the forum. Mary Hussman of Grass Roots Organizing, Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe were also present to discuss their positions on the 911 sales tax and eminent domain ordinance scheduled to appear on the city ballot this April.
Each candidate was asked how they would allocate the city's $1.9 million in surplus funds.
Skala said he supported City Manager Mike Matthes' recommendation of returning half of the money to the city departments that provided it. He said a fund should be established for this purpose.
Kespohl said he was also in favor of returning half of the surplus — $951,000 — to the appropriate city departments. The remaining money, he said, should be spent on improvements to infrastructure.
Dudley said he would also adhere to Matthes' recommendation. Like Kespohl, he said the remaining surplus should be spent on roads and sidewalks, adding that the city needed to determine an exact cost estimate of the Blind Boone Home's restoration before allocating funds for that purpose.
Thomas agreed with Matthes' suggestion as well, arguing that the policy would encourage city departments to find savings and create surpluses.
Weitkemper said he would not spend any money until after the election to see if Proposition 1, the 911 tax, passes. Ideally, he said, he would want the money to be put toward merit raises for city employees.
McDavid said there were tremendous liabilities throughout the community with infrastructure and pension plan deficits. He said the surplus should be used for "unfinished business."
Sullivan said he would support the establishment of a sound system in the city's central business district, which would enable disabled pedestrians to cross the area safely.
Jobs and Economic Development
The subject of job creation came up several times throughout the forum.
Kespohl discussed his plan to bring more technical education to Columbia by establishing a Linn State Technical College campus in the area. He said more education would lead to more jobs.
Skala brought up a plan submitted in 2009 by Regional Economic Development, Inc. regarding vocational training.
Weitkemper suggested the city could work on neighborhood improvement projects by allowing neighborhood associations to hire workers on a part-time basis, supervised by a city employee, to complete projects.
Dudley said the biggest problem was the large number of people in the area without a college education. He said the city needed a way to train them, but that it also needed more entry-level jobs.
"We can get conventions coming here and using our facilities," Dudley said. "That would employ more people in the hotel industry, the restaurant industry and in retail."
Thomas talked about the potential pros and cons of bringing in newer jobs. He used local gardens as an example of a new industry providing positive benefits for the city, including providing healthy foods.
McDavid and Sullivan answered a question more specifically about REDI's impact on the city.
McDavid said REDI has been successful, and described its role in bringing in IBM a "home run, a grand slam." He also mentioned he was meeting with job creators from China, and that he had met with delegations from around the world interested in Columbia.
Sullivan said every city needed an economic development strategy. Although he commended the organization for bringing IBM to the city, he had questions about its ability to bring in more jobs.
"We always have to ask the question, 'What have you done for us lately?'" Sullivan said. "I understand now that REDI is running out of companies to call to bring in. We need to have a strategy in terms of what we will provide."
911 sales tax
Boone County Sheriff Carey said it was essential to obtain new, updated facilities and equipment in order to adequately respond to emergencies. He said the joint communications program responsible for responding to 911 calls is currently understaffed.
Hussman, of Grass Roots Organizing, disagreed, and argued that the tax would offset the latest minimum wage increase and have a negative impact on poor workers.
City Proposition 1: Eminent Domain
Sixth Ward councilwoman Barbara Hoppe was on hand to explain Proposition 1, a charter amendment she proposed that would limit the city's ability to acquire private land for economic development. She provided a historical context for the proposition and answered some audience questions.
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