Elections

Columbia council candidates: Just say 'no'

Walter Powell Jr. says he is running for Columbia City Council's District 4 seat because, "There needs to be somebody in there who can say 'no.'"

But the truth is, a "no" vote from District 4, especially when it comes to spending money, would not shift the power at City Hall, but rather maintain the status quo of a district that has been at odds with the city for more than a decade.

Former Councilman Hamilton Osborne voted no. His successor, current Councilman Kirkman Finlay, once quipped: "I am on the 'Island of No' all by my lonesome."

Now, with Finlay running for mayor, candidates are lining up to replace him in District 4 by saying "no" - in the hopes that voters will say "yes."

WHAT SETS DISTRICT 4 APART

Political consultant Tige Watts, who is working on Finlay's mayoral campaign and was briefly affiliated with Powell's campaign, knows District 4 well.

"Whoever wins the council seat in District 4 is going to have to, more than anything else, have the vision that the people of District 4 really relate to and are comfortable with: being a fiscal conservative."

But what makes District 4 so negative? Is it a mere coincidence that the city's bloc of fiscally conservative voters congregated in the same place?

Partially. But perhaps the biggest reason for the district's "no" mentality has to do with home values.

Columbia's general fund gets its money from property taxes, business license fees, building permits and municipal court fines and fees - but the largest funding source is property taxes.

More than half, 53 percent, of District 4's 30,801 residents own the house they live in - more than in either of council's other three districts. In contrast, 64 percent of District 2's residents are renters.

In District 4, the southern part of the city that includes Fort Jackson, Heathwood, Garners Ferry and the Hamptons neighborhoods behind the VA Hospital, the average assessed value for owner-occupied homes is $281,906 - far and away the highest of any other council district.

District 3, which includes Five Points, Rosewood and portions of Two Notch Road, is second, at $191,084.

District 1, which includes North Columbia, portions of North Main Street and Farrow Road and Harbison Boulevard, was third, at $104,855. District 2, which encompasses Main Street, the Vista and portions of Five Points and Harden Street, was fourth, at $91,846.

Homeowners are taxed at 4 percent of their home's value. Rental property owners are taxed at 6 percent. However, many of those rental property owners do not live in the city and cannot vote in city elections. And, in general, renters are less likely to vote in city elections than homeowners.

All of that means District 4 residents pay more taxes than anyone in the city, and it's why many think those residents pay the most attention to where the city spends its money.

"Somebody that has a $400,000 house versus someone with an $80,000 house doesn't get any more services in comparison to what they pay," said Tony Mizzell, the former Democratic chairman of Richland County Council who filed late Friday afternoon for the District 4 seat.

"Until you see some true tax reform at the state level," Mizzell said, "that (imbalance) probably is going to continue to exist. (District 4 residents) are going to put pressure on local government officials to say 'no.'"

APPLYING PRESSURE

District 4 resident Bruce Siron, a Realtor with Russell and Jeffcoat, is among those applying that pressure. Siron says he's been frustrated with the city for not resurfacing a ragged section of Old Woodlands Road because of a lack of money.

"If we can't even pave our roads and take care of what we have, why are we spending money on other things?" he asked. "I'm just trying to get the city to be fiscally responsible. I do it at my house, and I expect the city to do it, too."

Some say the days of District 4 voting "no" could be coming to an end. That's because the city's recent financial troubles - the city has had a string of multi-million dollar budget deficits and lost $24.7 million from its reserves - have forced all council members into an attitude of fiscal conservatism. Spending initiatives simply won't be proposed, goes the speculation.

Osborne, a Heathwood resident who spent 15 years as District 4's councilman before deciding not to run again, said he didn't differ greatly with his fellow council members for the general vision of the city. "It was just a question of what we could afford."

"The current incumbents, all of them, face challenges that we didn't face when I was there," Osborne said. "The entire country is in a period of historically unusual financial circumstances and financial stress, and that directly affects what the city faces and what the City Council has to deal with."

PART OF THE MAJORITY?

Finlay, Osborne's successor who is finishing his first term on council, voted against the city's annual budget plans his first two years on council.

This past year, Finlay led the council through the budget process, which brought furloughs for employees and massive spending cuts, including eliminating some reserves and reducing staffing at some fire stations. The fire station cuts have since been restored, and the budget did restore some money to the reserve fund. Finlay voted for that budget.

But last week, Finlay was joined by District 3 Councilwoman Belinda Gergel in voting against the creation of two special tax districts, one for USC's Innovista research campus and one for portions of North and East Columbia.

The tax districts proposal passed, 4-2. Councilman Daniel Rickenmann, who had voiced concerns about the plans, was absent. Eight of the nine candidates for mayor have said publicly they oppose the tax districts.

That gives District 4 candidate Kevin Fisher hope that a fiscal conservative majority could be taking shape at City Hall that could overturn that vote. If that happens, he said, District 4 would become the district of "yes."

"That's a function of who's got the four votes" to win the majority on the seven-member council, said Fisher, an advertising and public relations executive. "You're only in the position of voting 'no' when you're in the minority."

That idea has become Fisher's campaign slogan: "The fourth vote for fiscal responsibility" - similar to the strategy of newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who ran on the campaign of ending the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate.

"A very real opportunity is going to be there to get four votes," Fisher said. "I'd be glad to be the fourth to actually bring fiscal responsibility to Columbia city government."

Candidate Mary Waters, who with her husband is co-president of the Heathwood Neighborhood Association, said the budget is so important to District 4 residents that they "they see (it) as not just a document; it's a guideline for the city - and it can serve as a strategic plan for the city."

Waters said she wants the city to publish a "budget guide," what she envisions as a plain-spoken manual to the complexities of the city's more than $220 million annual spending plan.

"If I'm going to represent this district, I would want to make sure their voices are heard and aptly represented with a solid perspective of budgetary issues," she said.

It's the same message being touted by candidates Powell and Leona Plaugh.

Plaugh, a 28-year-city employee who served two years as Columbia's first female city manager before she was fired in 2003, says her experience as a chief executive with balanced budgets makes her the most qualified for the seat.

"I'm presenting myself as somebody who understands the finances of the city and knows that we have to live within our means," Plaugh said.

Powell, a commercial real estate agent and a volunteer firefighter, said it was the city's finances, and his ability to say "no," that prompted him to run.

"The way the city has been going, I keep shaking my head," Powell said. "When is this going to stop?"

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