Growth, development and communication between different levels of government were the dominant issues at a public forum Friday night in which Columbians had their first chance to meet the five candidates for city manager.
The candidates are Norton Bonaparte, city administrator of Plainfield, N.J.; Stephen Rasmussen, city administrator of Ottumwa, Iowa; Sean Stegall, assistant city manager of Elgin, Ill.; Larry Stevens, city manager of Edmond, Ok.; and Bill Watkins, assistant city manager of Columbia.
The candidates were asked about their experience in finding alternative funding for capital improvement projects and gave varied views on the best way to acquire funds.
“One funding way, according to the use of tax increment financing, which we have here in Missouri and in Iowa, that is a way to do capital improvement for many different projects,” Rasmussen said.
Tax increment financing districts, or TIFs, use the increased property taxes that result from a development to cover a portion of the development costs. They generally have been opposed in Boone County by government entities such as school districts that rely heavily on property taxes for revenue.
Stegall agreed that TIF districts are “extremely powerful” tools and also said he implemented five-year planning goals to stay involved in capital improvement, while Stevens said capital improvements in his city are generated through sales tax, an option depended upon here in Columbia.
The questions were submitted by citizens from Oct. 28 through noon Thursday and the event was moderated by Jo Sapp and Rod Gelatt.
Other questions centered on communication between the community, neighborhood associations, the city government and other governmental bodies.
“I think what’s most important is for the manager to be the link-pin between the citizens, the elected officials and then also with the city staff,” said Bonaparte.
Stegall echoed the sentiment.
“The most important thing for a manager,” he said, “is to effectively communicate with the council so it can effectively communicate with the people.”
Watkins expressed a desire to continue working closely with the county.
“Just because we’re the 900 pound gorilla, doesn’t mean we have to act like it,” he said.
Stevens addressed the sentiment that some people in the community don’t feel involved.
“I think one of the things that you have to look at initially, is to go out and try to determine why those people feel detached from the process,” he said. “If that perception is out there, if that feeling is out there, then certainly you need to try to eliminate that.”
Other topics included smart growth, the airport, working with the disabled community, incentives programs and alternative transportation, including a $25 million grant the city is expecting from the federal government.
About two dozen people, mostly journalists or family members of the candidates, showed up for the forum, but despite the small turnout there was a wide range of opinions about the candidates.
Alyce Turner said she felt good about the candidates vying to take Raymond Beck’s place as Columbia’s next city manager. However she parted ways with those who want to hand the job to Watson, the hometown candidate.
“I hope the council looks at all of the candidates.” Turner said. “I think our in-house candidate is really good, but I’d like to see some new blood.”
Turner is a member of the Smart Growth Coalition and has lived in Columbia for more than 25 years and said she wants “new blood” to flow into the creation of new ideas for the city’s continued prosperity. Turner said the city has a world of opportunities, including the grant to promote alternative forms of transportation, but focuses too much of its energy on the cost of new development.
“We have a lot of challenges that someone from outside could take a fresh look at,” Turner said.
Pat Kelley and Bettina Drew left the forum about ten minutes before it ended but stood outside of the council chambers for a few minutes to exchange opinions about the candidates.
“I didn’t like the fact that two or three of the candidates gave up on the voter turnout problem.” Kelley said.
Kelley however did like Rasmussen’s statement that he would live in the First Ward and that Watkins touted the need for more input from the community as far as the city’s growth.
“I thought he would be a carbon copy of Ray Beck,” Kelley said.
Both women said the process for selecting the city manager consisted of too many closed meetings and not enough public involvement. Drew said she didn’t like the fact that the public could not question the candidates directly. As a result, she felt there were times when it felt like all of the candidates said the same thing, for example that she still didn’t know where they stood on issues like sprawl and annexation.
“I felt the questions weren’t hard hitting enough to allow the candidates to take a position.” Drew said. “When they said [growth is} market driven that sounds like what developers would say.”
The forum will be aired on Charter Communications channel two and Mediacom channel 13 at 6 and 9 a.m. and 6 and 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.