This week we are talking about the April 5 Columbia municipal election with mayoral candidates Brian Treece and Skip Walther, and Columbia Missourian Public Life editor Scott Swafford . Listen to our entire show to learn more, or read portions of our interviews below.
A selected transcription of our interview with Brian Treece.
Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to run for mayor and why you chose now as the moment to do it?
Sure, and it's great to be on KBIA again. You know Columbia is a great city but we have a few challenges right now and when we started looking at some of the issues that are facing not just downtown Columbia, but all of our neighborhoods and how Columbia is growing, those issues really began to rise to the city council level. And you know I chair the downtown leadership council, that's the group that the city council has to look at our infrastructure issues, and what we found was surprising- our sewer and water and electrical capacity hasn't kept pace with the rate of our city's growth. Our police and firefighters haven't kept pace with the rate of our city's growth. And I felt like it was time to really step up and tackle these issues head on.
Development definitely being at the top of everyone's mind, are there others that you'd really like to address as mayor?
Absolutely, and you know Columbia's population is set to double in the next 30 years and if we're going to be one of the fastest growing cities in the Midwest we need a blueprint and as mayor I want to use that blueprint to really build on what's great about Columbia. I mean, I think all of us have a similar story that we came here sometimes to college, sometimes for work, sometimes we were born here, but what keeps us here are those things that we love and I think that vanishing face of Columbia and everything that we love about this town is under attack right now. I think one of the things as Mayor that I want to do is build upon what's great about Columbia and really begin to make those improvements by investing in our neighborhoods, adding more community policing to keep our families safe, but also making city government open, honest and transparent.
In terms of development what do we need to do to attain your vision of positive growth?
Well I think my vision is that of a balanced growth, you know, that incentivizes the types of development that we want to occur but with all development making sure that it pays its fair share. Because right now our neighborhoods and frankly taxpayers are subsidizing a certain type of development in a certain part of town and we're all paying the price for that whether that's delayed sewer improvements in our oldest neighborhoods, or fast tracking high voltage power lines in our newest neighborhoods it seems like we're cannibalizing our neighborhoods just to subsidize a certain type of growth and development, and I think we need to take a longer view. I think we need to make those much needed delayed infrastructure improvements that really prepares Columbia for the next 20 and 30 years, but then balance the scales, if you will, to have a more equitable proportion of those costs borne by those that are generating the demand for that capacity.
When you talk about a certain kind of development are you talking about sort of high rise student complexes downtown?
It is, you know in fact I've probably knocked on 4,000 doors throughout this campaign and I haven't had a single person tell me they would like to see more student housing downtown, and city government should not be in the business of dictating what type of development occurs, but I think we can set the expectations for how that development occurs what it looks like, and to make sure that we are maintaining the balance that we all want in our downtown. You know I've always regarded Columbia's downtown as the front porch of our community and that's where my wife and I like to go to celebrate wedding anniversaries and birthday parties and enjoy the art scene and the Missouri Theatre there and I get my hair cut at Tiger barber shop. We like to go to Booches on Saturday and I think everybody sees those things that they love about Columbia threatened right now.
What do you think technically and legally needs to happen to maintain those things that people love about downtown?
Sure the downtown leadership council which I chair was part of the effort to update Columbia's outdated zoning ordinance. You know we have a Euclidean zoning code that was developed in 1950 when our population was 43-50,000 people and clearly we've grown beyond that. So one of the things that we have called for is closing the zoning loophole that allows unlimited development with no parking requirements without any indication of whether there are adequate utilities in place before that development occurs. So I think that is the first step. The second step is to update that zoning code and one of those concepts is called a form based code instead or regulating the use of that property, in terms of either residential or commercial or retail. We reward a mixed use that has a balance of retail on the first floor, some parking embedded integral to the structure and then a use of either an office or residential above. But I really think, you know you mention student housing, I really think there's a market here for young professionals, attorneys, doctors, lawyers that want to live downtown but also senior citizens that may have gone to college here that want to come back and be close to hospitals and close to the university that they love and are alumni of, and enjoy Mizzou sports and they want to have that feeling of living downtown and a vibrant, diverse, safe community. So I think we need to incentivize that type of development in a way that meets the community's expectations.
It's true there's a lot of talk about growth downtown, but the growth on the fringes is just extraordinary if not more so I think.
Yeah, and that also drives my real priority and that is making sure that we're making the commensurate investments in our police and fire protection. Right now the department of Justice suggests that we're down, understaffed by as many as 52 police officers. Firefighters tell me we need 2 additional fire stations. And when you talk about growth in the periphery of Columbia, we all pay the cost of that in delayed response times and it takes 19 minutes to get from Auburn Hills down to Thornbrooke for our police officers and our response times for the fire department are ticking up and in a crisis and emergency like that, seconds count.
Speaking of more police and more fire, there's costs associated with that. I believe that generally the money for the police comes from the general fund. Is there enough money there to significantly increase the police and fire forces?
I think there is on a rolling year basis we can make those investments. The city has a billion budget, about half of that is dedicated funds on the water and light side that you know if we balance those infrastructure development costs we can invest in the infrastructure we need there that leaves about 480 million dollars on the discretionary side. A lot of that is earmarked for voter approved parks sales tax issues, but what I want to do is ear mark the growth in that budget. Right now that growth is around 2 and a half to 3 percent, and that's attributable to more people moving to town, higher sales tax revenue, from SEC football games, earmarking that growth to really make those investments incrementally in additional law enforcement officers. I want to be clear, with or without a tax increase, we have to prioritize our public safety spending. It's the number one priority that citizens want their city government doing, and frankly if we don't get that right, the public isn't going to have confidence in those items that citizens may want the city to invest in like parks and rec and trails and some of those issues so I do want to make sure that we are making the proper investments in these back to basic infrastructure improvements but also for our public safety and fire protection.
When we talk about that 2 to 3 percent growth a year, how many police or firefighters could that pay for?
Each police officer costs about $100,000. That is salary, fringe training, a car that they share on that 12 hour shift, and so that 2 to 3 percent growth there is almost two and a half million dollars a year so that's about 25 police officers that we could add. And if we are down fifty, we may not get there in the first year but I think in the first 3 years we can begin to make those improvements there to meet the public’s expectation of what they say city government should be. 93% want crime prevention and public safety to be the city's number one priority, I think we need to align those budget priorities with those spending priorities.
A selected transcription from our interview with Skip Walther.
And what are the things that you think are becoming subjects of a partisan divide in Columbia that you'd like to work on uniting people over?
We've had what I call the development wars. You've got people who are in favor of development, people who are opposed to it, and there's no communication. We had a development fee tax measure that failed and I believe it failed because the proponents of the tax measure made no effort to communicate with those who are going to pay the fee. Now I've been asked to participate in promoting tax measures for a long time now for the city of Columbia and Ray Beck, the old city manager, told me in no uncertain terms, I mean it's just very clear, you cannot ask anybody in Columbia to pay more in tax unless you explain everything to them and you get them on board. You get their buy in. The development fee measure, the proponents of that measure didn't do that. They didn't get buy in and consequently there was this bitter fight and the tax measure failed. Well I believe that virtually everybody in town understand that development fees need to go up but we need to talk to each other about it. Get everybody to the same table and talk about the pros and cons. Come up with a program and move forward.
And what are development fees?
Developments fees are special fees that are charged to people who develop property. So the city of Columbia relies on a variety of income sources. You know, you pay your electric bill or your water and light bill, your trash bill, things of that nature. Those are what are called enterprise funds. The city also relies on sales tax revenue and property tax revenue to a limited extent and those taxes pay for an awful lot of city services. Then there are development fees that are charged just to those who develop subdivisions or buildings and they pay an extra fee because when you develop property, you are utilizing existing resources like streets and sewers and electric lines and things of that nature that the city, and the citizens of Columbia, have already paid for. So it makes sense for the developers when they're taking advantage of the existing infrastructure, it makes sense that they pay their fair share.
And speaking of the police and fire department, I think the police force here is relatively quite a bit smaller than in some similarly sized cities, small cities. Would you want to increase the size of the police force?
Yes, I think that's an appropriate thing to do. You know there are lots of ways to look at this. Historically, Columbia, even though there was a spike in crime within the last year, we're still at a 30-year low in terms of crime statistics on the one hand. On the other hand, we are understaffed at the police department and we are understaffed at the fire department. From the fire department standpoint, it would make our fire fighters much safer if we could put three people on a truck instead of two just simply the way they do their job, it would make their job a much safer work environment. We all benefit when we keep our public safety officers safe. The police force is, you know, depends on how you look at the statistics, but we may be 30 or 40 police officers short of similar size towns like Columbia in the midwest according to FBI statistics. So we really are understaffed, and then the questions becomes, well how do we pay for officers at $100,000 an officer? We don't have $3 million to spend each and every year right now. So I think the solution is to incrementally or gradually increase the police force by a couple of full time positions a year until we get to a point where we have caught up. There's just not enough money in the budget, contrary to what my opponent says. There isn't the money in the budget to pay for police officers this year and next year. I mean it's just not doable unless we have a tax increase, and I'm not sure if we want to do that.
So to add two or three officers a year, would that involve some sort of tax increase?
No, I don't think so. I think there is some growth to the city budget on an annual basis. The general fund, which is the fund that pays for an awful lot of city services like the police force and the fire department, the general fund is about $84 million. And between 2015 and 2016, the general fund increased by about $400,000. If you assume for $100,000 per officer, that increase, if 100 percent of the increase was allocated to police, that might pay for four, but frankly, it's probably closer to two because of the restrictions placed on the city revenue. So you could increase two a year just because we have this natural revenue growth. Then you're dealing with, well that means that none of the other city departments are experiencing more, seeing more income come in, and when we see that Columbia has gone from a town of 100,000 population in 2009 to 121,000 in 2016, you know with a 20 percent increase in the population of Columbia in such a short period of time, that's putting pressure on our building department, our public works. We need more people to clean the streets, to snow remove, to pick up trash, to do all the things that a city needs to do and the citizens expect the city to do. So the financial issues affecting the city of Columbia are complex. They're difficult to solve and that's why we need effective leadership who can bring people to the table and get both, if there are two sides to an issue, get both sides talking to each other and arrive at an intelligent solution.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.