Jefferson City Ward 5 City Council candidates expressed different ideas for how to address the city's stormwater issues Thursday during the Cole County Republican Club's candidate forum.
For the last couple of years, stormwater topics have risen to the surface at the city level, leading Jefferson City Council members to have many conversations about how to improve the city's aging stormwater infrastructure.
With dozens of stormwater projects identified and a growing price tag to fix stormwater issues, candidate Jon Hensley said he would be in support of a stormwater utility fee that would help replace the Jefferson City's entire stormwater system. He said while the city could keep trying to "band-aid" the issues, replacing the whole aging system would be most beneficial to Jefferson City residents.
"This is affecting people's lives every day it rains, and if we're going to keep having large-scale problems like this, we need to look at this from a total system perspective," he said, adding the city needs to look at its budget to find some funding sources. "It's a long list, though, and to really fix the issue is going to be a $40-$50 million concern so I don't think it's realistic to rely (solely on city) funds to do this. Given the severity of the issue, treating stormwater as a small utility and possibly funding it through a ballot issue, as was almost attempted, is personally what I think is the most feasible way to address this issue."
While candidate Ashley Jones-Kaufman said she agreed there are growing stormwater issues, she did not think it was fair or feasible to place a stormwater tax on residents. Instead, she thought the city should work with the Jefferson City Public Works Department, engineering firms and emergency management agencies to come up with solutions.
"I think doing a unified system replacement would be too much for our city," she said. "Everyone knows that the city has a shrinking budget so the city itself can't afford to replace it. We also know that (as) tax payers, we just passed J + C (tax levy increase to fund a bond issue for the new high school and renovations at the existing) and have already been impacted through the passing of that. So, I think increasing taxes right now for our tax payers is not a viable thing."
Candidate Jim Crabtree said other communities have used various funding mechanisms to pay for infrastructure improvements like stormwater, including implementing impact fees and privatizing the sewer system. Since the city has millions of dollars worth of stormwater projects and 37 square miles of land with small waterways, he said he thought the best outlet for Jefferson City was a city-wide tax.
"I think the most palatable is doing some kind of tax citywide that would not impact citizen groups as much but (would) begin to work on the problem," he said. "It's one that's not going to go away and will probably increase over time if we don't fix the conditions."
The city currently sets aside $360,000 annually for stormwater improvement, and the council approved $750,000 last year to hire more stormwater staff and address a couple of stormwater projects.
Other Cole County Republican Club members asked what the candidates thought of a new conference center.
Since voters approved a lodging tax increase in 2011, the 4-cent tourism fund accumulated more than $4.43 for the conference/civic center as of January. The estimated funds available for the center totals $12 million.
Jones-Kaufman emphasized the a convention center is needed and the city should continue pursuing it, saying voters showed their support when they approved the lodging tax increase. The tourism fund may not cover the full amount of a conference center though, she said, so the City Council needed to be prepared to look at its budget and think of creative ways to fund the possible remaining amount.
Before the city starts constructing a conference center, Hensley said, it needs to conduct a feasibility study and decide if it would be useful for the community and if the community could sustain the facility. He added if the study showed the city does not have a need or location for a conference center, then the council would need to go back to the voters to decide how to use the tourism funds.
Crabtree agreed a feasibility is needed, adding conference centers do offer opportunities to bring in tourism dollars. While he thought the community needs a conference center, he wanted to be cautious when moving forward, looking at how those facilities' uses have changed since the lodging tax increase seven years ago.