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.
Do you believe Columbia needs more police officers and/or firefighters and, if so, what do you believe would be the most feasible way to pay for them?
Weitkemper: I believe the city of Columbia desperately needs more police officers and firefighters. Many Columbia residents are very concerned about violent crime and do not feel safe in their own homes. Columbia also needs another fully staffed fire station in order to cut response times to all locations in Columbia to an acceptable level. I would take advantage of Article XII, Section 102, of the city charter and transfer all surplus revenue from fiscal year 2020 from the Water and Light Department budget into the general revenue fund. I asked (City Clerk) Sheela Amin how much surplus revenue the Water and Light Department had in fiscal year 2020, but to date she has not responded.
Meyer: Our public safety resources have not kept up with population growth over recent decades. We need more police officers on the street so they can be more proactive in relationship building and deterring crime as opposed to being reactive as they are forced to be now due to staffing constraints. We need larger firefighting crews to effectively fight structure fires. We need more professional development for both police officers and firefighters to make them more effective. We need to make sure that our salary and benefit packages are appropriate for all our police and firefighters, given the size of our city and its budget. We need to first realign our budget priorities to increase public safety funding from current resources. When we have done that intentionally and credibly, we can then consider a tax increase of one kind or another with some confidence that it might pass a public vote.
Waner: Our public safety employees are overworked. We should better support these professionals by adequately staffing facilities and providing them with the safety equipment they need to better serve the citizens of the community and keep pace with growth while also respecting their collective bargaining rights. I would like to see what kind of reallocation of duties is possible to both relieve the stress on our police officers and also fund critical programs and services aimed at reducing crime and the underlying factors that can lead to crime. The solution to an overworked workforce of any kind is not to blindly hire more people. We need to look at what is being asked of the current staff and if any of that can be shifted elsewhere and ensure our staff are not put in positions that endanger themselves or members of our community because of a lack of equipment or rest.
Peters: Yes, we need more police officers to allow for community policing and support our growing population. We need to have officers in our neighborhoods who know the neighbors and can help make our neighborhoods safe. We also need co-responders with our police officers to address the issues of mental health and substance abuse that so many of our citizens have who interact with the police. We also need more firefighters. We have two fire stations in the plans, and we need to staff them as well as beef up our staffing overall. Our public safety workers are paid out of the general fund. If we can get the use tax in place (remember the same tax you pay if you buy something online or in a store), we can easily pay for increased staffing.
Minchew: I do believe our police and firefighters numbers need to be increased, and the need for extensive training is paramount for the safety of all our citizens. The only way to pay for more public safety is to make it a priority in the budgeting process now and in the future.
Merriman: Yes. As Columbia continues to expand in population, it will experience all the things that come along with that — increased crime, drug trafficking, etc. Local departments will need to expand at equal pace in order to keep up. More than this, we should be investing in the brave men and women who serve their communities in these roles. While they may benefit from more peers in their departments, they will also benefit from better training and newer equipment/tools.
Missourian reporters Dylan Joseph Schwartz, Anna Ortega, Paul Schloesser, Charlie Drape, Alexandria Wells and Kelsy Armstrong helped gather candidate responses to the Missourian questionnaire.