Elections

Fire, police spur Columbia debate

Columbia's mayoral candidates on Thursday share a laugh during a debate. From left, Nammu Muhammad, Aaron Johnson, Steve Benjamin, Steve Morrison, Kirkman Finlay, Irwin Wilson, Joseph Azar and Sparkle Clark.
Columbia's mayoral candidates on Thursday share a laugh during a debate. From left, Nammu Muhammad, Aaron Johnson, Steve Benjamin, Steve Morrison, Kirkman Finlay, Irwin Wilson, Joseph Azar and Sparkle Clark.

After Thursday night's mayoral candidates debate at the Capital Senior Center - the third such forum this week - one thing is clear: The battle for the Columbia mayor's office will be won and lost on a spreadsheet.

In a city that ended the 2009 budget year with a $7 million deficit and had to make millions of dollars of cuts at the police and fire departments, voters will have to choose between competing visions of the city's financial future.

The first vision is from mayoral candidate Steve Benjamin, an attorney who wants to restore the police and fire department cuts and then some, promising to give the two departments whatever money they need to add more officers.

The second vision comes from candidate Kirkman Finlay, a city councilman who said the cuts at the police and fire departments were necessary to rein in wasteful spending on overtime and shrink the city's overall budget to a more manageable, responsible level.

In between is candidate Steve Morrison, an attorney who said he supports "smart decisions" at the police department that rely on crime statistics and "a little bit of overtime" to deploy officers in troubled neighborhoods during peak criminal activity.

All three visions were on display at Thursday night's debate, which focused on the city's aging but most politically active population, which will likely have the biggest turnout on April 6 - election day.

"Funding for law enforcement and the fire department has got to be advocated by someone up there, and I think I'm the only one who did that," Benjamin said shortly after the debate.

Benjamin attacked Finlay during the forum's first question, blaming him for crafting the city budget that included the public safety cuts.

But Finlay embraced his role as a budget cutter and questioned Benjamin's willingness to restore funding to what Finlay said was a wasteful system based on unneeded overtime.

"Why do you want to restore ... overtime to the police department?" Finlay asked Benjamin during the debate, adding that the police department is fully staffed for the first time in 10 years. "You are buying police officers at 1 1/2 times the rate, the benefits are costly to everybody here, and generally the officers are highly paid."

Benjamin scoffed at the idea of "buying police officers," saying "these are men and women who put their lives on the line every single day to provide the very blanket of freedom that we live under."

And he rejected Finlay's point that the police department is fully staffed, arguing that while all of the budgeted positions may be filled, the department still does not have enough officers to protect the city.

Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter set a goal of cutting Columbia's crime rate in half in five years, and to do it he asked City Council for 92 additional police officers - a request that was turned down because of funding.

"We are a fraction of the force that the chief of police said he needs," Benjamin said. "We have not fully staffed this police department, and the city is feeling the effects of it every single day."

Morrison, who along with Benjamin and Finlay make up the three fundraising leaders in the nine-candidate race for mayor, said the city could not "arrest our way to a crime-free city" and advocated cutting off crime at its source.

"Opportunity begins with youth in schools," said Morrison, adding that if elected mayor he would create after-school programs with the city's parks and recreation employees. "It encourages kids."

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