COLUMBIA — All seven candidates slated to appear on the April 2 ballot gathered before a standing-room-only crowd at Paquin Tower on Thursday to take part in the Como Disabilities Advocacy Network Candidate Forum.
Mayoral candidates Bob McDavid and Sid Sullivan; Third Ward candidates Gary Kespohl and Karl Skala; and Fourth Ward Candidates Daryl Dudley, Ian Thomas and Bill Weitkemper discussed transit, home values and social equity under the moderation of Disabilities Commission member Sean Spence.
How would you improve quality of life for those with disabilities?
Several listed public transportation as a key issue.
"Strong transit is good for everyone, especially those with disabilities," Thomas said. If more people are able to ride the bus, he reasoned, the remaining drivers will face less traffic.
McDavid took a more financial approach. He said he envisions funding core bus routes with revenue from student-centric routes, such as FastCat, as well as a potential collaboration with Columbia Public Schools.
For those whose disability does not preclude driving, Kespohl said there should be one disabled parking space per downtown block, not including those in parking garages.
Others identified necessary capital improvements.
Weitkemper arrived an hour early to visit with Paquin residents. Among the five people he surveyed, he found that sidewalks were the greatest barrier, whether they're absent, damaged or blocked by snow and ice. Weitkemper proposed a more strict enforcement of a city ordinance that mandates that sidewalks be cleared, as well as the implementation of priority labels similar to those given to streets.
How can $1 million in surplus funds be used to assist homeless people?
McDavid clarified that because the surplus will not occur next year, its most reasonable use is a one-time expenditure rather than a program requiring sustained funding.
Kespohl argued for the funds to go back into the regular budgeting process, where they could be used to build a needed homeless shelter — or to establish one in an existing space, such as the Blind Boone home.
Skala, Kespohl's opponent, objected to the idea of using the historic property, but agreed that a shelter would be a worthy investment.
Dudley said that use of the surplus would be "a Band-Aid on the problem." Providing the opportunity to work, he said, would be a more lasting solution.
"They will no longer be homeless when they can find a place to live and afford it," Dudley said.
How would you retain affordable housing?
"I am opposed to government incentives to private development," Weitkemper said. "But I would look at (them) for someone willing to build affordable homes."
Weitkemper was not alone in recognizing the deficit of affordable housing.
Skala pointed to downtown growth as a contributing factor. "We're seeing displacement in the inner city where new development makes land more valuable than the structure sitting on it," he said. As a result, it becomes more profitable to replace rather than maintain options for low-income residents, he said.
Sullivan and Thomas said the center city is exactly where low-income housing should be. Both candidates argued that impoverished families should be able to live where a car isn't necessary instead of being pushed to the periphery of town.
McDavid said $100,000 had been siphoned from Columbia Water and Light to make some low-income housing more energy efficient.
"It's not just the cost of living," McDavid said. "It's the cost of living in that building."