COLUMBIA — Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl reserved a spacious, dimly lit room near the back of Jack's Gourmet Restaurant for a campaign kickoff event March 14.
Multiple tables were pulled together to form three long rows lined by empty wooden chairs. At the end of the middle row, a donation bowl held just three checks. A sign-in sheet displayed only two names. Largely untouched platters of cheeses and vegetables rested on a table near the entrance. Classical guitar music trickled through speakers.
Clad in a light tan suit and an orange paisley tie, Kespohl, 66, sat alone at the end of the row farthest from the entrance, lightly picking at a small plate of carrots and sipping ice water.
It was 5:46 p.m. The event began at 5:30. Just four other people were there. One stood facing the corner and asked into his cell phone, "Are you coming to Kespohl's fundraiser tonight?"
Someone forgot to send out invitations.
Soon, six supporters clustered around the end of the table with Kespohl. Fred Parry, publisher of Inside Columbia magazine, and former First Ward Councilman Larry Schuster were among them.
They laughed about the invitation error, and the conversation warmly flowed into a business discussion.
"Here you've got a successful small businessman who knows exactly what it's like to wake up in the morning worrying about making payroll," Parry said, gesturing toward Kespohl. "A lot of people don't know what that feels like. Because Gary has experienced that, he understands the value of job creation."
Kespohl sat across from Parry, an easy smile and relaxed expression on his face.
"Did he tell you that he saved the city $11 million?" Parry asked.
"Sixteen million," Kespohl chimed in — his soft mid-Missouri drawl lightly tinged with urgency.
Two years ago, Kespohl found himself researching the Fifth Street parking garage. "Garage-zilla," he calls it. The city used a bond issue to cover the cost of the 10-story structure and opted to put off paying principal on the bonds until 2014 and to pay the interest early. Kespohl stumbled upon seven more bond issues just like it.
So he went to a banker for insight on the strategy. The banker told him that delayed principal payments cause interest costs to increase.
With the help of Finance Director John Blattel, Kespohl worked on reissuing the bonds so that the city could start paying principal. The move will save the city $16 million over the life of the bonds.
Kespohl is a numbers man.
His eyes glimmer like a child's at the mention of Columbia's trend manual.
He uses his hands for emphasis when he talks about the manual's hundreds of pages of facts and figures. The untrained eye might see a labyrinth of rows and columns stuffed with six- to eight-digit numbers. Kespohl calls it "good late-night reading."
After knee-replacement surgery in July 2011, Kespohl healed in bed for three weeks and passed the time scanning the budget line by line.
"My wife thought I was crazy," he said.
Columbia's trend manual details each enterprise — whether transit, water and light or sewer service — as separate budgets. It shows the income and expense of each, and their profitability, for each of the past 10 years.
"I've found all kinds of mistakes," he said, his eyebrows rising slightly above his thin-rimmed glasses.
Each enterprise is required by council to maintain a 20 percent cash reserve. So if an department earns $50 million, $10 million should be put in savings.
These numbers hold the city accountable for avoiding deficits and frivolous spending. For Kespohl, fiscal responsibility is about cutting the fat and breaking even. Discovering and trimming pockets of excess is just a matter of analysis, he said.
"Around the time that the city was considering a 1.5 percent increase in water and light rates, I noticed that Water and Light had millions in excess reserves," he said. "There's no reason to raise rates when the reserves exceed that 20 percent benchmark."
Kespohl earned his respect for numbers by being in business. Thirty-one years ago, he founded Central Missouri Computer Services.
In his office off Walnut Street, Kespohl builds and repairs computer systems amid organized chaos. Shelves lining the walls hold snake nests of colored cables. The skeletons of hard drives, memory boards, monitors and modems litter the floor. Kespohl has a map of the Third Ward tacked to the wall in one corner. Beneath it are a few campaign signs.
When he first spearheaded the company with his wife, Patty Kespohl, he worked in the office eight hours a day. Then he went home and worked late into the night.
Five years later, he was able to hire a computer repair specialist away from IBM. They started writing contracts together and competing with IBM to service equipment. Charging half of IBM's rates allowed them to "beat the pants off the competition," Kespohl said.
"We were making all kinds of money," he added. "We got so busy that I had to buy a plane to fly us to jobs."
On average, he's worked 14 hours a day ever since.
When Kespohl goes to talk business, he does it face-to-face.
"I hate email," he said. "I would much rather sit down with you to explain what it is I'm about."
Kespohl isn't about political posturing. He insists he has no "political mind" and believes the council shouldn't involve political parties. The us-vs.-them mentality created by the divide between Democrats and Republicans is counterproductive, he said.
"There's this impression that these conservative people have been elected and that we're in the back pocket of business, and I take offense to that," Kespohl said.
"Now, I am a fiscal conservative because I watch dollars real close," he said. "But I will listen to anything, politically. I will consider anything."
Last year's enhanced enterprise zone debate is an example, he said.
"I wasn't happy with the first crack at the enhanced enterprise zone because it blighted 60 percent of Columbia," he said. "People thought I was for the idea. But the truth is, I just hadn't made up my mind yet."
If city officials decide to propose something like an EEZ again, they "have to do it properly," Kespohl said. Part of that involves good information and good conversation with the public.
"There was so much misinformation out there," he said. "Once people have heard it, they're going to believe what they want to believe. It's so emotional when you say the word 'blight,' people will believe anything to reinforce their feelings about the word."
In the meantime, he doesn't mind being called a conservative. He lets the political label roll off his shoulders.
"I think the council now is a good mix of people. We always come up with a pretty good solution," he said. "Everybody works well together, even though we have different views."
Kespohl has lived in Columbia for more than six decades. All his children and grandchildren are here. His son directs the choir at Trinity Lutheran Church, the church Kespohl has attended every Sunday for 45 years.
The bricks of his 48-year-old house were made from one of the first batches of asphalt to pave Columbia's roads. He has watched Columbia grow, and he's never wanted to leave.
"My wife and I have talked about it from time to time, but we can't move away," he said. "We enjoy our children too much."
His vested interest in the city led him to run for office, but he can't call the job of a councilman "enjoyable." Then again, he doesn't call it a job, either. He views the position more as one of problem solver.
Kespohl wants to see growth. For growth to happen, incentives need to be available for businesses and developers, he said.
"A good friend of mine, who I've known for 30 years and who lives in Columbia, wanted to build a manufacturing plant here," Kespohl said. "So he went to (Regional Economic Development, Inc.) and he went to the city, but they couldn't offer him any incentives."
Kespohl's friend wanted to employ up to 75 people. One of Columbia's neighboring communities caught word of his interest and offered him 15 acres free in an industrial park and 10 years of abated property taxes, Kespohl said.
"He's still in negotiations with Columbia and with the other community, so I can't say anything too specific," Kespohl said. "But if you were him, what would you do?"
Parry believes there's a vocal minority in Columbia that thinks the city is fine as it is.
"But what that really doesn't account for is attrition," Parry said. "Businesses die, people move away, things change. All of a sudden, the community fades. The community is no longer in the driver's seat."
Kespohl wants to make his message clear that "Columbia is open for business."
At 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday, Kespohl ventured into a Third Ward subdivision off Brown Station Road to knock on doors and hand out campaign literature. He didn't plan to head home until 4 p.m.
He abandoned his work attire for blue jeans, New Balance tennis shoes and a Mizzou windbreaker over a light gray sweatshirt. When it comes to knocking on doors, Kespohl never gets nervous.
"What's there to be nervous about?" he asked.
One house had a campaign sign for his opponent, Karl Skala, in the front yard.
"Well, I'll go knock, anyway," he said.
He rang the bell and received a territorial greeting from a feisty dog. A few moments later, a woman hesitantly appeared behind the storm door and opened it, pushing back the pet.
"Hi, I'm Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl, and I'm running for re-election April 2," Kespohl said.
She mentioned she had guests. "I don't think it's going to work," she added.
"I'll just hang this on your door," Kespohl replied.
Kespohl is confident about facing Skala because he believes residents trust him to lend an ear and take action. He shows his passion for the city by what he does, he said. He'll field calls from Third Ward constituents or from residents outside the ward.
"They know I'll listen," he said, adding that Mayor Bob McDavid teases him by calling him "councilman at large."
"I always respond, 'Well, I was elected large,' " Kespohl said, gesturing toward his silhouette with a laugh.
After knocking on about 600 doors that Saturday, Kespohl made the 8 a.m. service at Trinity Lutheran the following snowy morning. He sat just a few pews away from the pastor's podium.
The preacher prefaced his sermon with a timeless statement.
"What are the two things no one should ever talk about? Politics and religion," he said, his voice echoing off the vaulted ceiling of the sanctuary and over the heads of the congregation.
But Kespohl is a religious man who's in politics, and he has goals that he still needs to accomplish, he said.
"The job is far from finished, and we must do more."
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.
Related story: Karl Skala, who also is running for Columbia's Third Ward seat, shows resilience in his campaign.