The upcoming Columbia City Council election might give Joseph Vradenburg the chance to do something he’s been thinking about for long time.
Vradenburg, who is running against Laura Nauser and Gayle Troutwine for the Fifth Ward seat on City Council, has thought about going into governance of some sort since he was in high school. Vradenburg is an epidemiologist for the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services and sees the upcoming election as an opportunity to pursue another avenue of interest.
“I’ve always wanted to do this type of work, and I considered running when I lived over in the Third Ward,” Vradenberg said. “I wasn’t that established. I’m better established now.”
Vradenburg’s friend Michael Dietz has known Vradenburg for more than seven years and has heard him talk a lot about running for City Council.
“I think that he’s doing it for the right reasons,” Dietz said. “He really likes Columbia; as far as I know, he’s planning to stay the rest of his life here. He wants to do what’s best for the city, and I think that’s the best reason for anybody to go into politics.”
Vradenburg has lived in Columbia for 10 years and has lived here on and off since 1986, when he came to pursue a master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology. He has tried to be active in the community. A few years ago he served as secretary of the Benton-Stephens Neighborhood Association. He is a former member and secretary of the Columbia Pachyderm Club, and he attends Sacred Heart Church. His hobbies include reading and basic lawn care and home repair. He is married with two children.
Vradenburg said his longtime interest in government makes him a good fit for the council.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m more qualified; I’m sure they’re perfectly qualified as well,” Vradenburg said of his competitors. “I think if I’m elected I would do a fine job; I enjoy the variety of topics that need to be addressed.”
Vradenburg opposes increased property taxes and, for the time being, increased sales taxes to pay for road construction and maintenance. He also opposes involuntary annexations.
Vradenburg said he is against the proliferation of transportation development districts, which are approved by courts and allow developers or other interested parties to form political subdivisions that charge special sales taxes to pay for specific road projects within their boundaries. Vradenburg said such districts take decision-making authority away from the government. Taxes should be enacted by representative governments, not by the judicial branch, according to Vradenburg. He also said he thinks the districts cause hidden costs for consumers.
“I’m sure if we didn’t allow that they would just raise their prices and pass on the cost to the consumer, but I think they should do that directly, instead of having it be, in some ways, hidden,” Vradenburg said. “People have items that they buy on a somewhat regular basis, and they get a pretty good idea of what items cost in different stores. Consumers over a period of time know price differences between stores, even if they’re fairly small.”
Vradenburg also opposes plans to convert Fairview Road on the city’s west side into a major thoroughfare as part of a comprehensive plan to not only serve new development in the area but also to divert traffic from Stadium Boulevard. He said the failure of Grindstone Parkway to address increasing amounts of traffic on Nifong Boulevard shows that the idea is unfounded.
“My understanding was of the rationale to build Grindstone was to smooth the traffic flow, and it really hasn’t done that; the traffic on Grindstone is just as bad as it was on Nifong,” Vradenburg said. “And the property value of the people living next to those four lanes of traffic going 55 to 60 miles an hour must have just destroyed the value of their homes and the quality of their lives; I most certainly wouldn’t want to live next to that.”
Vradenburg also would have voted against developer Billy Sapp’s initial proposal to annex nearly 1,000 acres east of the city along Route WW to accommodate plans for a golf course and accompanying residential and commercial development, he said. He would have opposed it, he said, because he didn’t hear how additional costs for schools, extra police and other services would be funded. Vradenburg added that the annexation would have been so large that there would be no way to know what the impact would be.
“I do feel that people have the right to develop their land as they see fit, as long as it does not impinge upon the value of their neighbors’ land and the quality of life of their neighbors, but quality of life can be a soft issue,” Vradenburg said. “People can argue about that quite a bit. So I think that it needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis.”
Vradenburg supports petitioning by residents of the Harg area, who successfully blocked Sapp’s initial annexation proposal and are attempting to do the same on a new proposal to annex 170 acres of Sapp’s property.
“If citizens don’t do that they probably won’t get what they want; that’s the way the system works,” Vradenburg said. “I think the Harg residents should do everything they feel is necessary to maintain the quality of their lives on their property.”
While Vradenburg doesn’t favor property taxes or raising the sales tax, he said voters should not peg him as an anti-tax candidate.
“My concern was the willingness (by city officials) to raise taxes,” Vradenburg said. “And the indifference to the burden being imposed on the residents seemed not to really be grasped; it seemed to not be a matter of as much concern as what it should have been.”
City officials are struggling to find a way to pay for many of the city’s infrastructure needs, especially road improvements. A Kansas City consulting firm hired by the city identified $428 million worth of road projects that will be necessary over the next 25 to 30 years.
“I don’t necessarily agree that we need that much money to improve the roads,” Vradenburg said.
Vradenburg said Columbia doesn’t need higher taxes to pay for growth. It should rely more on the state to pay for roads, he said, adding that people who move into new areas should pay impact fees to fund the bulk of the infrastructure that growth demands.
“I don’t have any problem with the current level of taxation,” Vradenburg said. “But before the city adds additional taxes, they should look at some of the ways they are currently spending money.”
Vradenburg noted that more than 1,000 city employees pay no premiums on health insurance. He said that when administrators have a scheduled discussion on insurance matters later this year, they ought to look hard for ways to achieve substantial savings. He also cited a City Council decision to buy land and build a new fire station on Green Meadows Road at a cost of more than $1 million. He thinks the better option might have been to renovate the area’s existing station at a cost of about $350,000.
Vradenburg also proposes coupling efforts to beautify Business Loop 70 with an attempt to boost commerce on Eighth Street downtown. Some businesses on the business loop might be interested in relocating to Eighth Street if they are eventually displaced by a wider Interstate 70, he said.
Another friend of Vradenburg’s, Molly O’Donnell, said the candidate’s honesty and up-front attitude are admirable.
“One thing that I think is absolutely true about Joe, he is not the type of person that will tell you what you want to hear, he will tell you what he really thinks,” O’Donnell said. “He is pretty much a straight-shooter, and that’s something I really appreciate about him.”
While Vradenburg isn’t afraid to voice opinions, he said he is prepared to learn a lot if elected to the council.
“No matter how much I prepare, I’m sure that there’s going to be a very steep learning curve,” Vradenburg said. “But it’s a learning curve I have no doubt I can accomplish.”