Understaffing at the Columbia Police Department and the City Council's decision to approve tax increment financing to help finance a new tower at for a second tower at The Broadway Hotel were among the topics discussed at the first council candidate forum of the season. The meeting, which was held Thursday night, was sponsored by the Columbia Board of Realtors.
This year's City Council elections have Second Ward incumbent Mike Trapp facing another challenge from Paul Love. In the Sixth Ward, incumbent Betsy Peters is unopposed. The election is April 3. Thursday night's forum was open to the public and was moderated by KFRU radio personality David Lile.
Love, who is making his second attempt to unseat Trapp, criticized the incumbent's vote to green light $2 million worth of tax increment financing. The financing will help The Broadway hotel owner, David Parmley, expand the business with an additional tower that will cost an estimated $20 million. Tax increment financing allows developers to funnel the additional taxes they would normally pay when they increase the value of their property into their projects over a number of years.
Love said Trapp should have abstained from voting on the tax incentive, because Trapp's company, AAAAChange, has a contract with the Downtown Community Improvement District to do outreach work with homeless people. Parmley is a member of the district's board of directors.
Love said that conflict is one of the primary reasons he is running for the Second Ward seat again. "I'm not a huge fan of crony councilmen," he said.
Trapp called Love's assertion "inflammatory" and said his business had nothing to do with his vote on the hotel financing. He said he won the district contract because of his 25 years of experience.
"I can't be expected to recuse myself on every vote from every person who has those kinds of interests," Trapp said.
Peters said she favored the TIF deal, because it appeared no one but Parmley would have an interest in redeveloping the lot where the second hotel tower will be built. "If this isn't built, nobody makes any money."
All three candidates said they would put public safety at the top of the list of services the city might fund through tax increases over the next three years.
Love said the Columbia Police Department is drastically understaffed and cited "a staggering failure of leadership" in the department. He said it would take roughly $10 million to address a shortfall of 100 police officers. Some of that money, he said, could come from reducing the time police spend on paperwork.
Trapp said people often run for council and say that they'll increase the public safety workforce without a tax increase, then they go through a city budget cycle and fail to bring forward the budget amendments to make it happen.
Any tax increase, Trapp said, would require that the public have trust in local government.
Peters said the Police Department needs to re-establish the traffic unit it disbanded in 2015. She said she would consider asking voters for a property tax increase, especially in light of the fact that voters rejected a use tax proposal in November.
"We need to be clear that the tax that we get goes to our Police and Fire (departments)," Peters said. "It can't be pulled away for something else."
"There is no trust"
Former police officer Sean Moore told the candidates that he thinks it will be impossible for the city to get more money for public safety from taxpayers.
"Because there is no trust, we have a toxicity problem," Moore said. "All my brothers in the force ... they refer to their retirement day as the end of their sentence, as if they're serving the jail sentence."
Moore asked the candidates whether they have any solutions to police understaffing and the toxic environment in the police department.
Trapp said he would consider having the city charge a fee for events that require police to work overtime. He would also consider raising overtime payment rates for officers.
Love said he has talked to the Columbia Police Officers' Association and found that the officers were dissatisfied by budget cuts for basic safety equipment as well as the training for senior and basic officers. He spoke against the $15,000 raise City Manager Mike Matthes received last year and said the police deserved the same consideration.
Peters said some Columbians have called for firing Police Chief Ken Burton, but she doesn't see how that would turn the situation around. "I don't really see how one person determines the entire toxicity feel for the police department," she said.
Realtor Lisa Meyer said she was disheartened by the council's 2016 decision to spend $1.1 million to buy property at the southeast corner of Providence Road and Broadway to expand Flat Branch Park. Money for the purchase came from interest earned on the city's capital improvements fund.
"You purchased the park with funds that were not from that designated fund," Meyer said. "You hurt me personally, as a citizen who wants to trust her government."
Meyer also criticized the purchase when the council approved it, saying at the time that it was a conflict for council members who voted against a proposal to build a CVS pharmacy on the property. At the forum on Thursday night, she said she was deeply concerned about how the government would handle designated funds in the future.
Meyer said the forum gave residents and council candidates a chance to build relationships. She also thought it takes a lot of courage for the candidates to run.
"I think that they will hopefully reflect on a lot of the conversations and questions and points," Meyer said.
Supervising editors are Scott Swafford and Gary Garrison.