2006-03-17 / Government / Neighborhood

meet the city council candidates

By John Temple Ligon

Tuesday morning, March 14, The Columbia Star issued five questions to the candidates competing for the contested at-large seat on Columbia City Council. Tameika Isaac Devine is the incumbent, and she has three challengers: Chris Barczak, Kelly Coleman, and Antonio Williams.

All four candidates were asked to submit answers by noon Wednesday. Williams and Coleman beat the deadline, while Barczak and Devine made it within an hour past. Barely more than 24 hours, the allowed time to answer was a whole lot more than what could be expected on radio or on television or in front of an audience.

Next week there will be five questions put to the three mayoral candidates, and the following week, another five to the two city council candidates running without opposition. The election is set for Tuesday, April 4.

1.

City council member Hamilton Osborne resigned in response to a recent ethics ruling regarding conflict of interests. Are you familiar with the details of his decision to resign? There's no conflict for you, of course, because you wouldn't still be in the race. If you win this race, do you see any potential for conflict, something that may come up for you as it did for Osborne?

Barczak: To avoid any conflict of interest, or even the appearance of conflict of interest, my company initiated a moratorium on doing any business whatsoever with the city as soon as I announced my candidacy for office.

Coleman: It is unethical for anyone on city council to pursue or derive personal monetary gains through their position. City council positions have become quite lucrative for those who hold them, including Mrs. Devine. The issue resulting in Mr. Osborne's resignation cannot be applied selectively. With the exception of me and Antonio Williams, all other candidates are in a position to personally gain from this position.

Devine : I do not see any potential conflict for me. My law firm does not represent anyone appearing before city boards, commissions or courts nor would we accept any work that would require that kind of representation.

Williams: I do not have any conflict of interests in holding city council seat at large. However, conflicts of interest between public office and big business should be extremely limited at best. Such interests pose problems in making sound economical decisions for the citizens of this city.

2.

SCANA's downtown headquarters building master lease is about up. What happens to downtown if SCANA moves? What happens to Columbia if SCANA is sold?

Barczak: As the Vista begins to thrive, we see that the long-range master planning done by previous city councils (in the 1970s and 1980s) is paying off. We must have a new council which understands the value of long-range planning.

Coleman: If SCANA moves, it will allow new office space to be leased at much lower rates than what is currently available in the downtown area. This will have the effect of bringing more businesses back into the city at affordable prices. In the short run, there will be less people in the downtown streets, but this will be quickly rectified as people scramble to lease this newly affordable space.

Devine : The city should do whatever is in their power, within reason of course, to keep SCANA at its current location. However, this situation does demonstrate a need to diversify the job base here in Columbia, which I have been proponent of since I have been on Council.

Williams: The mayor and the city council talk about developing business in the city, but it appears they have allowed large business with big tax bases to leave the area. So what do they mean by developing business?

3.

Not too many years ago the city kept a financial reserves account worth tens of millions of dollars, reportedly, and now there's almost nothing held in reserves. Is that responsible city steering? Should the reserves be replenished? What should be the city's back-up plan in case of shortfalls in revenue?

Barczak: First and foremost, the city must develop a "business plan" to curb frivolous expenditures and prioritize basic needs. By curbing spending, reserves can be replenished to levels needed to assure future stability.

Coleman: The city is currently operating with a minimum of reserves. Officials may state that there is not a problem given the city still has water and sewage funds to utilize. Are these the same funds that have systematically been depleted to support special projects and private interests, such as hotels, trolleys, city banners, etc.? The city's reckless spending must be stopped. Support of private enterprise must stop, if we are to reinvest in our basic necessities and replenish funds. Run the City Like a Business!

Devine : The reports to which you refer are not accurate. The city continues to maintain a reserve in the amount of 10% of the overall operating budget, which has been the case for years. The reserve is $8.4 million.

Williams: I feel strongly that it is sound practice that the city should have a reserve fund. However, I do feel that the amount should be limited and its use specified before money is gathered. Any other excess funds should be returned to taxpayers. Not as programs, but as individual checks.

4.

The City of Columbia signed an agreement to pay Stevens & Wilkinson $2.3 million in architectural and engineering fees for the defunct city-financed convention center hotel. The convention center hotel under construction is expected to reach completion and occupancy for less than $400,000 for the full services in architecture and engineering. Do you know - or what do you suppose were - the city's reasons to paywhat must bemuch more than necessary?

Barczak: This is another example of the city's lack of over-all financial priorities, and the general disregard for the burden on the city's taxpayers/ratepayers.

Coleman: I believe that in cases such as this that we should 'follow the money'. A full audit should be demanded to account for these funds. Is this just another case of mismanagement of city funds, or is a larger agenda being served?

Devine : You can't compare these fees. The publicly financed hotel would have cost the city more than $60 million total. The fees in that deal (that never went through and were not paid) were for several firms involved in that project. The private developer has an in-house architect, and the hotel that was approved is half the price of the proposed public deal. That is why I supported the private hotel over the public one.

Williams: This is an example of how the council members are wasting tax payers' money for big business. Possibly conflict of interest is deeper than we realize.

5.

In the summer of 1991, a report was issued on thelocal bus system, then run by SCANA in response to a US Supreme Court decision in the 1930s. The report researched every city in the US up to 100,000 more people than Columbia in the bus service population and down to 100,000 fewer people than Columbia in the bus service population. The report concluded on a per capita basis the Columbia bus system had about half the service of the country's average system. That level of service, half the national average, is still the case. As a council member, what could/should you do about the bus system's shortcomings? How do propose to pay for it?

Barczak: The RTA provides a useful service to our lower income residents, allowing many to become productive wage-earners rather than a burden to taxpayers. Taking a more efficient, business-like approach to the system will make it more affordable now and could ultimately make it profitable.

Coleman: Before the bus system transfer to the RTA, SCANA made every attempt to turn the operation of the bus system over to the city. They even went as far as to reject available federal funding to replace older buses with new ones. The city has an obligation to provide, as a basic necessity, a system of public transportation. To address the shortcomings, I would first aggressively pursue the federal monies to purchase new buses. Secondly, I would publish the routes in such a manner that every day residents would be encouraged to utilize the services. The bus lines must be aggressively advertised as a safe mode of transportation to attract all economic groups. As in the case in Charleston a 1/2 increase in sales tax to cover public transportation may be inevitable, but other options must first be explored.

Devine : I serve on the RTA board, and we are addressing the inadequacies of the system. We are expanding service where necessary and reducing service in non-productive areas. We are exploring partnerships with entities such as USC to provide better coverage and increase sources of revenue.

Williams: I understand that the 10 years of continued financing from SCE&G to the city for bus service will be up in the next 2-3 years. The current bus system is failing because of poor planning and not meeting needs of it's customer base. The bus service should be paid for with the 3% Franchise Fees the city gets from it's citizens utility bills each month.

Return to top