The Missourian solicited written answers to a set of nine questions from the six candidates for the Columbia City Council.
Bill Weitkemper, Jim Meyer and Andrea Waner are seeking a three-year term representing the Second Ward, while incumbent Betsy Peters and challengers Randy Minchew and Philip Merriman are competing to represent the Sixth Ward. The election is April 6.
Here are the candidates’ answers to the following question:
What do you believe are the city’s best strategies for dealing with lagging sales tax revenue?
Meyer: The city must rebuild trust with the public before it can expect to get any tax increase that requires a vote of the people. Many people don’t believe that the city has correct priorities and don’t feel that it spends money wisely. One example was the city’s purchase of property along Providence Road to expand Flat Branch Park from general revenue while simultaneously claiming insufficient funds for issues the public prioritizes more highly. There are other highly visible issues as well. The city must first refocus its budget on its core priorities, which, in my view, are providing public safety and common-use infrastructure such as roads and bridges. If the city improves the alignment between its budget and its core functions then, over time, credibility and public trust will increase, and it will be more likely that a use tax or sales tax increase could pass a public vote.
Waner: The city’s hands are currently tied with regard to internet sales taxes. Until the state passes a law that allows us to pass a local-use tax for internet sales, we are unlikely to be able to make up that lost revenue. I am interested in joining with other local governments to urge the Missouri legislature to pass a law allowing us to recover lost revenue. In the meantime, we should be exploring how other cities of similar size are dealing with the problem. This problem is happening all over the country and will continue to starve our local governments until a solution is found.
Weitkemper: Cut expenses and live within your budget. I have had to make hard decisions when it involved doing more with less. For my first eight years with the city, I had 13 employees. I lost one employee when the regional wastewater treatment plant went online in 1983. I then had 12 employees for the next 26 years. During my 37.5 years with the city, the number of public sewer stoppages went from a high of 152 a year in 1976 to a low of seven a year in 2012. I did more with less. In my 26 years managing Eastgate Apartments, all the new apartments being built were offering “paid utilities” because the city allowed them to have “master” water and electric meters. There were years where I had to cut my rent just to keep all the units rented. Again, I had to get by with less.
Minchew: The Wayfair tax (a tax on online sales) is part of the answer. Additionally, we need to reduce spending on nonessential items until sales revenues increase sufficiently to balance the budget.
Merriman: Not closing down businesses and setting curfews would be a start, but that time is passed. Now, the best approach is to remove the people who initiated those closures and curfews and never allow them near the levers of political power again. Moving forward, we should consider our need to generate additional funds. What are those funds being spent on, and what programs/boards/initiatives can be cut to save money? The city is overspending. The solution is to spend less, not demand more taxes from residents.
Peters: Sales tax is generated when we buy something. In the past, that has been in brick-and-mortar stores. Now, consumers are shopping online. These orders are being delivered using city streets, and the police are still called when the package is stolen off the front porch. We already have a sales tax for in-store purchases. We need to extend the same sales tax to online purchases. This will NOT be a new tax. This is the same tax levied against your purchases, either online or in person. The online sales tax is estimated in the millions and goes into the general fund. This will avoid local tax increases and increase funding for street repairs and public safety.
Missourian reporters Dylan Schwartz, Anna Ortega, Paul Schloesser, Charlie Drape, Alexandria Wells and Kelsy Armstrong helped gather candidate responses to the Missourian questionnaire.