COLUMBIA — Candidates for the mayoral, Third Ward and Fourth wards races met at the Second Baptist Church Tuesday evening to address how they would resolve issues related to minorities and infrastructure problems in Columbia
The forum, which was sponsored by the Columbia branch of the NAACP, attracted around a dozen attendees. 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 were present.
Southern Boone County Commissioner Karen Miller and Grass Roots Organizing representative Mary Hussmann were also present to state their positions on Proposition 1, a ballot initiative that would create a three-eights-cent sales tax for 911 and emergency management systems.
Miller argued in favor of the tax. She said it would correct a "broken system" that was outdated and often overwhelmed by phone calls during emergency situations.
Conversely, Hussmann criticized the tax as a "regressive" measure that would place an unfair burden on low-income and middle-income families.
"Everyone should pay a fair share," she said. "We want to stop hurting the families who are already having a hard time making ends meet."
Questions came from the audience during the forum.
What is your position on infrastructure improvements?
Weitkemper pointed out that while there is a 57-year improvement plan for Columbia’s roads, there is no such plan for aging water and sewer lines. In opposition, Dudley cited Private Common Collector Elimination projects that connect private sewers to the public main line.
Despite these efforts, Thomas observed that infrastructure has become “far-flung” as development continues at the city’s edges. Infill development in the center city, rather than sprawl would help rectify the strain on infrastructure, he said.
Center-city infrastructure needs to be addressed before it “starts to crumble underneath us,” Sullivan said. Sequence is an important consideration, he continued, saying it makes no sense to repave a road only to tear it apart to get at the pipeline beneath.
McDavid looked ahead to 2015, when the city’s capital improvement tax will go to a citizen vote. A decision against its re-implementation would be hugely detrimental to the city’s efforts to improve roads and sewers especially in the wake of a decade of decreasing revenue, he said.
Kespohl and Skala sparred on trip fees, a system that would assess building costs based on estimated impact of a structure.
Based on the proposed rubric for fees, Kespohl said a 24-hour convenience store would have to pay $750,000 “before a shovelful of dirt is turned,” compared to the current $70,000 fee.
The ballooning cost would be a disincentive to development within city limits, Kespohl said.
Skala called Kespohl’s example a gross misrepresentation of the system. The current fee structure is cost-neutral, he said, whereas trip fees would allow the city to recoup some money from major development that it could funnel back into infrastructural needs.
What did you learn from the community’s discussion of blight?
Visibly enthused, Kespohl volunteered to answer first. He maintained that the council established the board, not the blight, first by resolution and again by ordinance.
Skala was quick to correct Kespohl. The council passed a resolution Feb. 6, 2012, “finding and certifying that a portion of the city and Boone County is blighted.”
Dudley pointed to blight itself, rather than the process behind it, as the main problem. “The definition of blight did not work out here,” he said. He said he remains in favor of incentives but would encourage the council to move more slowly and research more thoroughly in future endeavors.
Thomas pointed to ambiguity as the greatest problem with blight, saying he would feel more confident implementing a program with “clear, objective measures” rather than an amorphous economic term.
Regardless of its definition, “I don’t feel any percent of Columbia is blighted,” Weitkemper said. Furthermore, he would not support the use of incentives, except in the case of “something really unique,” he said.
Sullivan said the community’s discussion of blight was evidence that citizens can make a difference — and that there is a lack of trust in the council. People weren’t happy to have their “neighborhoods blighted so someone else could benefit,” he observed.
McDavid asserted that incentives are pivotal in recruiting businesses. “That’s the way the game is being played right now,” he said.
Still, “If I never hear the letters ‘E-E-Z’ again, that’d be fine with me,” McDavid said.
How would you improve public trust in the council?
“Trust is earned” through interaction, engagement and making and keeping commitments, McDavid said. Once lost, trust is gone forever, he added.
Sullivan disagreed, saying he aims to regain trust by opening channels of communication and keeping them inclusive.
“We need to move as one community,” he said.
“Trust is being able to look someone in the eye and answer their question,” Weitkemper said. A lack of response or an overly complicated one fosters distrust between the government and its constituents, he said.
Dudley said trust is earned by communication, adding he wished more people would come to City Council meetings to voice their concerns.
Thomas pointed to the incumbent’s request as naive. He said a council meeting is not the natural environment for many people and that efforts should be made to knock on doors and revitalize neighborhood associations.
“We can’t just sit in the council chamber,” Thomas said.
Skala echoed the need for more involvement on a neighborhood level. Collaboration should be happening outside the council chamber and in advance of council meetings, he said.
Kespohl said trust stems from keeping promises and asking the tough questions, as well as visibility in the community and mentorship.
Is Columbia doing all it can do to attract minority contractors?
Skala said the city wasn't doing enough to help minority workers find employment. He said improving educational opportunities was vital and referenced a 2009 plan to provide post-secondary career and technical training as a possible solution.
He later added that he would support a "set-aside" quota for hiring minority workers in order to even out the playing field.
Kespohl shared his rival's views on the value of education. He said he planned to create a partnership between Linn State Technical College and the Columbia Career Center that would provide much-needed vocational training for area residents, particularly young people.
"The youth are the ones that are really suffering," he said.
McDavid noted that it was difficult to find qualified applicants for local manufacturing jobs and suggested a need for programs to develop skills in this area. He said he wasn't sure if a mandatory hiring quota was the answer to the problem but added that it was a possibility the city should examine.
Sullivan said the city needed to take a more active role in forming partnerships with minority communities and suggested 10 percent of jobs be reserved for minority workers.
"Some people have suffered more than others," he said.
Thomas agreed with Skala's remark about leveling the playing field for people of all backgrounds. He stressed the need for a job training clearinghouse, explaining that programs such as Job Point often had vacancies for which they had trouble finding participants.
Weitkemper referred to ordinance 19-176 in the Columbia city code, which establishes a city policy of ensuring equal opportunities for all people seeking employment. He said he stood by those principles and would support city efforts to better comply with the ordinance.
Dudley said it was necessary to instill within youth "the desire to work." He added that a mandate was a good idea in principle but it was important to consider that there may not be enough applicants qualified for the job and hiring untrained workers would put a burden on employers.
Should the J.W. "Blind" Boone Home be renovated?
McDavid said he intended to create a task force of stakeholders he could consult on the issue and indicated it was necessary to go back and reorganize. He said he didn't have a definite cost estimate for the project at this point in time.
Sullivan agreed that a task force would be helpful, adding that the renovated home should be used for a specific purpose. Otherwise, he said, the city would spend half a million dollars to refurbish a building that residents would simply drive by on the street.
How do you decide between people and brick and mortar?
Kespohl cited the upcoming council vote on a request to build a Break Time convenience store at the Grindstone Parkway-Rock Quarry Road intersection as an example of a "tough decision" involving multiple stakeholders.
"It's something you have to sit down and decide," he said.
Skala, a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission, said he recommended against the Break Time proposal both times that it surfaced at commission hearings. He said the debate surrounding the project was more than just a conflict about business interests; it was a community issue.
Thomas said he researches the issues and looks for similar situations in other communities before making a decision. He also said it was important to consult with stakeholders, both direct and "peripheral," as many brick and mortar issues affected the entire community.
Dudley said there were three sides to consider — the legal side, the emotional side and the business side.
"Hopefully, they're all the same," he said. "They haven't been yet."
To help him make a decision, he said, he reads documents and speaks to people involved in the issue.
For Weitkemper, the choice was clear.
"People have feelings," he said. "Bricks and mortar don't have feelings."
Sullivan said the City Council was very "data-driven" and stressed the importance of establishing a precedent for policy.
McDavid said brick and mortar was a tool to help people, adding that the council generally agreed on most of the issues it encountered — though, of course, there would always be contentions.