Political and economic tensions among Columbia’s neighborhoods took center stage Thursday night at one of the last candidate forums before Tuesday’s election.
Four contenders for the at-large and District 2 races were asked repeatedly what they would do to help revitalize the North Main Street area that many residents consider to be Columbia’s “redheaded stepchild.”
“We want someone on City Council who will do what we want. Don’t get on that council and turn your back,” said neighborhood leader Tommy Burkett, reflecting the sentiments of many in the largely African-American audience at the Eau Claire print shop.
Citywide candidate Robert Bolchoz made unequal treatment of north Columbia the theme of his remarks Thursday.
“There’s no question in my mind that resources are being spent in areas that don’t need them. We can’t keep spending money downtown that doesn’t benefit the entire city,” the attorney and former prosecutor told the audience. He cited City Council’s vote to upgrade Maxcy Gregg Park near USC, including a new pool. Altogether, the city is going to spend about $2.13 million on the park and pool.
Bolchoz returned to the theme six times during the 75-minute forum and the audience reacted in support.
Opponents Cameron Runyan and Joe Azar also said they favor improving the North Main Street area, though neither cited the spending on Maxcy Gregg Park. The park is in a largely white, well-to-do neighborhood.
Runyan favors using public seed money, including a controversial tax increment financing plan, to attract more residents and businesses that would become taxpayers. Critics, including Bolchoz and Five Points businessman Azar, say the plan might not work or could force higher water and sewer bills. Most TIFs, as the financing plans are called, are backed by revenues from utilities in the event the new taxes they generate don’t cover payments on money borrowed for infrastructure.
Runyan said TIFs are proven to work in Columbia’s Vista and around the nation. By reviving the tax base, the whole city benefits, he said.
Bolchoz also said he favors eliminating the city’s business license fees to make Columbia more business friendly. That fee generates about $25 million annually, Columbia’s chief financial officer said.
Runyan, a financial adviser, said slashing that much from the city’s income “might create its own doughnut hole in our budget.”
In the two-man race for the District 2 seat, only incumbent Brian DeQuincey Newman attended the forum. His opponent, Nammu Muhammad, did not attend.
“He probably won’t get elected,” Burkett said in explaining that Muhammad, a community activist, had agreed to show up.
Newman said he supports a penny increase in the sales tax “conceptually.” He would not commit to raising the sales tax from 7 to 8 percent until Richland County Council decides how the money would be spent.