2010-03-05 / Business

City Council District 4 fields campaign questions

By John Temple Ligon temple@thecolumbiastar.c om

All five candidates for District 4, Columbia City Council, responded to nine questions from The Columbia Star. The deadline was midnight, Sunday, February 28. All but Kevin Fisher made the deadline. The candidates were asked to drop by The Columbia Star for a portrait photo op, putting each face in the same light and the same background, but Tony Mizzell couldn’t make it, so he submitted a file photo.

Each numbered question was expected to be answered in less than 50 words. The answers are printed here as received. In other words, any opportunities to alter grammar, spelling, punctuation, or word count were not taken. What you see is what we got.

The nine questions are listed here, each followed by answers by the candidates in alphabetical order alternating with reverse order. The candidates are Kevin Fisher, Tony Mizzel l, Leona Plaugh, Walter Powell Jr., and Mary Baskin Waters. Reverse order begins with Waters’ answer to question #2.

Mary Baskin Waters Mary Baskin Waters (1) a: Why are you running for Columbia City Council? b: Why are you not running for mayor?

Fisher – a: I’m running for the District 4 seat because I know the district well. I’m a 30–year resident, having lived 15 years in three neighborhoods off Old Woodlands Road and 15 years on Devine Street. I’m proud of our area and the contributions it makes to the city, and take strong exception to The State’s recent characterization of us as “the district of no.” I believe we are the district of “yes,” including saying yes to the fiscal responsibility Columbia so desperately needs. b: I carried District 4 over Mayor Coble in the 2006 mayoral race, so I feel I have strong support here. I’m asking District 4 voters to join me again in order to bring fiscally responsible government to Columbia. And lord knows there are more than enough candidates running for mayor.

Kevin Fisher Kevin Fisher Mizzell – a: First and foremost, I believe in public service and giving back to the community. Secondly, many friends and neighbors urged me to get into the race, because of my experience and ability to use those experiences to reform Columbia. b: I’m more interested in running for City Council.

Plaugh – a: I love Columbia and am uniquely qualified to balance the City budget and stop the hemorrhaging of money. The last city surplus was when I was Columbia City Manager. Government encroachment into our daily lives must stop. b: This can be accomplished without financial cost associated with a mayoral race.

Tony Mizzell Tony Mizzell Powell – a: I am running for council because I care. I care about the direction in which this city is going. I care about creating a safer city for my children, and their children. I care about stabilizing our council and moving the city forward. I care about making Columbia prosperous again. b: I am not running for Mayor because there is no need. My platform of more effective public safety and conservative fiscal responsibility can be accomplished as a city council member.

Water s – a: I have a passion for this city. We are faced with many lingering or new challenges. Public transportation, crime, fiscal accountability, cultural partnering, protection of property values, efficient public services, and planned economic development need our attention now. Long range planning is a must, and district competition must yield to the larger community interests. My experiences have equipped me with the know–how to deal with these issues. b: (not separately answered).

Walter Powell Jr. Walter Powell Jr. (2) The 4–2 vote by Columbia City Council on Thursday, February 4, was in favor of a $193.9 million TIF plan to build streets, utility lines, and parks in North Columbia and the Innovista. a: Say how you would have voted on the TIF plan and why. b: Does that portend how you will vote on the decisions to actually borrow the money allowed by the TIF plan should you become the District 4 member of city council.

Water s – a: I would have opposed the TIF at this time. While I strongly support the much needed redevelopment of Columbia’s blighted areas and Innovista, I cannot ignore the financial risk of the undertaking, especially given the withdrawal of the support by Richland County and Richland School District One. I would, however, look for the first reasonable opportunity to join the county and school district in the TIF development opportunities.

Leona Plaugh Leona Plaugh Powel l – a: I would have voted no. No, because though North Columbia and Innovista are certainly worthy projects and are due for revitalization, the present economic climate demands that the city has to focus on the basic services and refilling the reserve. We should not put the city in another financially liable position. b: Yes. If there is push to act on the TIF plan before there is a reserve of at least $15 million in the general fund, or the water fund. I will advocate for the council to wait until such reserves are met.

Plaugh – a: No. Without the support from the county and school district, TIF plans only allocate precious city funds needed to balance the city’s budget and support essential city services, such as police and fire. We must first resolve City’s financial problems before tackling other initiatives. b: No TIF money should be borrowed.

Mizzell – a: I would have voted against the current TIF plan because the project is too risky without Richland County Council and the District One School Board not presently at the table. b: I don’t think the City should move forward on borrowing any money unless all three entities agree to move forward.

Fisher – a: Not only would I have voted “no” on the TIF districts, but I will also move to repeal them if I am elected to City Council. While both TIF plans may have merit, the idea that now is the time to embark on them shows a disconnect from fiscal reality. We have pressing basic service needs, public safety foremost among them. Siphoning money away from those needs at this time lacks both credibility and common sense. The fact that both Richland County Council and the Richland District 1 School board refused to participate in the TIFs demonstrates how isolated and irresponsible the one vote majority on Council is on this matter. I will be the fourth vote to reverse the TIFs and implement fiscally responsible government. b: I will not vote to borrow money allowed by the TIF plans until Columbia has its basic service needs met and its fiscal house in order. Again, I will also move to repeal the TIFs pending those occurrences.

(3) There’s a bus stop for riders heading downtown on Garners Ferry Road about a block west of the Woodhill shopping complex. It’s a bench. There’s no cover, no shelter, no protection from the rain. There’s no sign telling riders which bus comes by or when or where it’s going. There’s no opportunity to get change to pay the $1.50 fare. When bus service is reduced for the weekend, there’s no notification at this stop – or any other stop on the system, for that matter. a: Why is it Columbia has never attempted to attract bus riders? b: Why does Columbia have what appears to be the country’s least amount of bus transit service on a per capita basis. c: As a member of Columbia City Council, what would you do to improve bus transit service and its financial footing?

Fisher – a & b: Columbia has had poor bus service in recent decades because SCANA lost interest in operating the system and the city’s elected officials lacked the courage to make the company live up to its legal and moral obligation to provide good public transit in return for its monopoly on electric and gas service. Moreover, when they caved to SCANA’s demand to be let out of its iron clad legal obligation, City Council showed its lack of business acumen by failing to force the company to set up an endowment to fund future operations of the transit system. Similarly, Council showed a lack of fundamental negotiating skill in failing to get SCANA to renew its lease at the Palmetto Center on Main Street for another 25 years, as any savvy business person would have done in return for letting them out of the transit deal. The result is a failing bus system and 1000 jobs moved from Main Street to Cayce. c: As to future funding of the system, City Council’s mistakes have left us in a terrible bind. We will have to either dedicate and existing stream of tax revenue to the system or find a new one. All federal and private grant programs must be hotly pursued. As for a sales tax increase, I doubt that it would pass and would not support it unless it is linked to repeal of one or more existing taxes and/or fees.

Mizzel l – a: I can’t answer why Columbia hasn’t focused on attracting riders. I think the City took very little leadership on the transit issue and punted looking to Richland County Council to take the heat and solve the financing. b: A lack of leadership. c: Work collaboratively with region partners to finance the system.

Plaugh – a: Columbia’s transit system must be revamped so that it can be conducive to a broader ridership. b: The system needs to be smaller, cleaner and then build toward a regional ridership base. c: To accomplish this there needs to be a dedicated funding source identified and supported by Richland County.

Powell – a: That would warrant an attractive bus system, which costs money. b: Columbia cannot afford to fund an attractive transportation system by itself. c: I would research successful transportation systems in other cities, take that information and tailor a practical system for Columbia. We need to reinvent.

Waters – a: I think that SCANA’s financing of the system for several decades removed any perceived necessity on the part of City Council to increase revenues for public transportation. During my many years in Columbia, I do not remember any campaign by City Council to attract residents to ride the bus or embrace public transportation. b: The Central Midlands Regional Transportation Authority (CMRTA) has not been a priority with City Council. c: Funding is still a primary issue. Despite knowing that SCANA’s financial support would end, City Council failed come up with a viable solution for Columbia that will meet the community’s needs while balancing routes with user fees. We also need to consider the impact of hybrid, electric, hydrogen fuel cell powered mass transit for Columbia. And we need to support the findings and recommendations of CMRTA’s Comprehensive Operational Analysis to establish a viable transit system.

(4) a: What do you do for fun in District 4? b: What should be expanded in the District 4 arena?

Waters – a: As a former board member of the City of Columbia Parks and Recreation Foundation, I know that District IV has many parks with exceptional programs for citizens of all ages. For example, Southeast Park Tennis Center offers tennis, and hiking, and will eventually include camping and environmental education programs. As a retired military family, we have also enjoyed the recreational facilities at Fort Jackson. b: I will work to return the Gills Creek Watershed — SC’s largest urban watershed — to a healthy resource for recreation opportunities. Also, the city needs to reassess the financial support, staffing and programs of our parks to maximize participation of our residents.

Powel l – a: I enjoy spending all my free time with my family. b: I believe that there is a lot of potential for the “fun” to expand in District 4, by adding additional movie theaters, restaurants, shops, etc. Our neighborhoods would support it.

Plaugh – a: I am a jogger. I spend time running in the neighborhoods, enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. b: So as resources permit, I support the clean–up of the Gills Creek Watershed with the addition of more jogging trails; and bike paths throughout the area for the growing number of cyclists.

Mizzel l – a: Mostly spend time with my family and coaching youth soccer and baseball. b: Better connectivity and access to public parks. Strengthening neighborhoods through crime prevention and community based policing. Promoting community clean sweeps to reduce litter and improve the appearance of our neighborhoods.

Fisher – a: Walk, bike, enjoy the natural beauty of the trees and gardens prominent in our area. b: Unfortunately, the city’s finances do not allow the expansion of public recreation facilities.

(5) The Oliver Gospel Mission is on the corner of Taylor and Assembly. The Midlands Housing Alliance is proposing its new 51,000 sq. ft. homeless facility for the corner of Main and Elmwood, long the location of the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army is trying to move to Farrow Road near Richland Memorial. The city’s emergency winter shelter is between the former CCI site and where the interstate highway crosses the confluence of the Broad River and the Saluda River. Meals for the homeless are served by the churches downtown. a: Why is there no accommodation for the homeless in District 4? b: As a member of Columbia City Council, what would you do to help with the homeless problem?

Fisher – a: To my knowledge none has been proposed, which in turn is no doubt a function of where the homeless tend to congregate, i.e. the downtown area. If you’re going to help the homeless you have to locate services where they can access them. Artificially spreading these services across the city is doing no favor for homeless people who lack transportation. b: As a member of Council, the first thing I would do to help the homeless is have the guts to make a decision. Council’s lack of that quality is how we got into the mess we’re in.

Mizzell – a: There have been numerous homeless service center plans that would create a one top shop and consolidate and streamline services. These plans failed due to politics. b: Take the politics out of the situation. A consolidated center should be located where most accessible to citizens that rely on the services.

Plaugh – a & b: The homeless studies for Columbia that I have reviewed and even helped prepare several years ago have usually called for the homeless service center to be located in close proximity to where the homeless are located. Otherwise you compound the cost to address the homeless population with an accessibility issue.

Powell – a: Historically, District 4 has not had a homeless problem. b: As a council member, I would together with the nonprofits that serve the homeless do whatever is within the city’s capacity to help progress a positive remedy to the problem. I would make sure the decisions made would benefit the city as a whole.

Waters – a: A comprehensive solution is the wisest choice and a more practical approach than fragmenting services. b: This has been a long, expensive struggle for the city without a clear solution it has been willing to implement. The MHA’s proposal is the most realistic for the city at this time, and I support it efforts to provide a suitable center for the homeless.

(6) a: When was the last time you sat for a performance by the South Carolina Philharmonic at the Koger Center? b: The USC Symphony? c: Among the ballet companies in town, which is your favorite and why? d: Is the Koger Center adequate, up to the job? e: Is the upgrade of the Township Auditorium money well placed?

Waters – a: My husband and I are season ticket holders and financial supporters of the South Carolina Philharmonic, and we regularly attend the concerts. We are excited to see the community’s enthusiastic support of Music Director Morihiko Nakahara. b: We attend performances each year of the USC Symphony Orchestra. The symphony’s Music Director, Donald Portnoy, is acclaimed internationally for his exemplary work with the Conductor’s Institute, which brings participants each summer from around the world to Columbia to study. c: Columbia is incredibly enriched to have several outstanding ballet companies. All of these companies have dedicated dancers and sponsors that collectively produce our city’s rich cultural heritage. I support the arts, including dance, in Columbia as part of the necessary cultural development of our children and adults. d: Yes. The Ira and Nancy Koger Center for the Arts has been an excellent venue for USC and Columbia’s cultural events since its opening performance in 1989. Since then, my family and I have enjoyed attending the wide variety of concerts, dance, theater, and other performing arts events. e: Yes. The Township Auditorium has provided Columbia with a variety of performances since 1930. I think it is undergoing a very necessary update. The combination of The Koger Center and The Township Auditorium gives the greater Columbia area appropriate venues for a wide variety of performances and entertainment.

Powell – a: Years ago. b: Years ago. c: I have been very busy as a single father of two very active teenage boys and unfortunately have not had the time to enjoy a night out at the symphony, philharmonic, or the ballet. d: I have been to the Kroger Center in recent years and do believe that the facility is adequate and “up to the job.” e: Yes, it is a great place to see an event in an intimate setting.

Plaugh – a & b: It has been several years since I attended a performance by the South Carolina Philharmonic at the Koger Center. c: It would be difficult for me to select a favorite from the various ballet companies in town. d: (not separately answered). e: The Township Auditorium upgrade was needed to attract certain entertainment in this market.

Mizzell – a & b: I don’t know the last time I attended any of these performances. I’m pretty busy raising a young family and as my children age, I’m confident we’ll have the opportunity to attend performances. c: I don’t have a preference; however I’m supportive of the arts and more coordination between the entities. d & e: (not separately answered).

Fisher – a, b & c: Singling out the Philharmonic for an attendance check or asking which ballet company one prefers is both culturally biased and politically unwise. Columbia is ripe with cultural offerings across the arts spectrum, many of which I have attended, the most recent being Columbia Classical Ballet’s Life Chance. d: The Koger Center is certainly adequate, though we all wish it had a center aisle. e: The upgrade of the Township is a Richland County project, not a City of Columbia one, and therefore not a matter of relevance to the City Council race.

(7) a: Do you know an individual, a family, or a business owner who moved to avoid the combined taxes of Richland County and the City of Columbia? b: If you do, what was the new location? c: If not, what would you guess was the new location?

Fisher – a: No. b & c: (not separately answered).

Mizzel l – a: I am not familiar with any who have moved; however I have heard much frustration over this issue. We can lessen the burden by reducing duplicative services being provided by Richland County and the City and this will lead to more efficiency, therefore reducing tax burdens. b & c: (not separately answered).

Plaugh – a: Columbia appears to be losing its competitive edge to attract small/medium size businesses and their related jobs. b & c: Several businesses have located in Cayce rather than in Columbia. Their reasons were not only taxes but also the three (3) month time difference to open their doors in Columbia.

Powell – a: Yes, SCE&G (What a shame). b & c: Cayce.

Waters – a: No. b & c: N/A

(8) a: How do you plan to pay for the build–up of the police force and the fire department to full strength? b: What, exactly, is full strength?

Water s – a & b: My campaign is bottomed on making Columbia a safe community for its residents. Nothing can be more important than adequate funding for our police and fire professionals, and for staffing them at levels appropriate for a city of our size and complexity. Given my emphasis, I would prioritize the city’s budget to assure their appropriate staffing.

Powell – a: I will scrutinize the budget to find any wasteful expenditures, and make sure any monies found will be used to fund our public safety departments. b: Full strength is having enough boots on the ground in both fire and police, to make sure our families are safe.

Plaugh – a & b: We need to address the retention issues in the Police and Fire Departments, by requiring the Human Resources Department to conduct exit interviews so we can fully understand why officers and firefighters are leaving. As funding becomes available, resources must be directed to essential services, i.e. police and fire.

Mizzell – a: By making public safety a priority. Reduce spending in areas that don’t fit the core mission of efficiently managing a municipal government. b: I don’t know because I’m not currently on council; however I would meet with key personnel in both areas to address their most pressing needs and issues.

Fisher – a: Toughminded budgeting. b: Fullstrength is as much as we can possibly afford, up to insurance requirements and other independent standards.

(9) a: How do you plan to pay for the restoration of the city’s adequate financial reserves? b: What, exactly, is the dollar amount of adequate reserves?

Fisher – a: Again, tough minded budgeting is the only path to financial salvation for Columbia. The reserve fund is an important part of that, as it affects our bond rating which in turn affects everything else in a financial sense. Failing to have a strong reserve fund is failing to be serious about the good of the city, both financially and in terms of potential emergencies. b: The reserve fund should be in the $50 million range, as it used to be. Of course, City Council let that all get away without even knowing it, so we’re in a deep hole. It will takes years, perhaps even a decade, to get back to that level, but we must do it. The bind we are in now means we’ll have to take small steps in the next few years, then bigger ones as things improve under a fiscally responsible city government.

Mizzell – a: Develop a strategic plan and budget timeline. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. It’s taken several years of mismanagement to deplete reserves and it will take years to build them up. b: Most financial experts suggest that reserves should hold enough cash to operate for 6 months.

Plaugh – a & b: In the 2008 Financial Report, City’s fund balance for all governmental funds was $60.4 million ($9.7 reserved/ $50.7 unreserved). These unreserved dollars are in a multitude of accounts including $10.7 General Fund. The General Fund has historically maintained 10–12% Emergency Reserve Fund (calculated based on next year’s projected revenues).

Powell – a: Hard work, hard decisions, cutting out wasteful spending, and by creating an environment in which small businesses will thrive, and big businesses will want to locate. b: An adequate reserve is at least $15 million. A $20 million dollar reserve would be ideal, allowing the city to be comfortably progressive with new projects and ventures.

Waters – a: It is imperative that we continue to remove the fat from the budget and hold our officials strictly accountable for all expenditures. In addition, I would pursue business and employment opportunities for the city which will restore economic growth and generate revenues to meet the city’s needs. b: There is no magic number. The amount of reserves would depend largely upon the ability of our core tax base to provide essential services to the community at large. A starting goal should be the restoration of the $28 million reserve that was exhausted by poor financial management. As Columbia grows, so should its reserves.

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