While city council candidates largely agree on the city's biggest issues, they differ on how best to address them.
Eight candidates for contested seats on the council this year -- Ward 1 incumbent David Kemna and challenger Jeff Ahlers, Ward 2 candidates Edith Vogel and Aaron Mealy, Ward 3 incumbent Scott Spencer and challenger Treaka Young, and Ward 5 candidates Alicia Edwards and Mark Schwartz -- joined the News Tribune's candidate forum at City Hall Wednesday evening. Ward 1 candidate Randy Hoselton did not attend.
Moderated by News Tribune Editor Gary Castor, the forum posed questions from News Tribune staff and community members.
Candidates agreed housing was an issue for the community, though how it should be handled split the group.
Last year the council split on a vote to support a series of workforce housing projects in the city that were vying for a state grant. The proposals were the subject of letters of support and opposition, a division that ultimately led to them being passed over by the state despite high rankings by its criteria.
Kemna, who supported the proposals last year, said the answer moving forward was to spread more information about what affordable housing is to avoid misconceptions.
"I think we have task forces that are currently having conversations to address this. Because I think some of the concerns that were brought up for it can be addressed as we talk through what these projects are, what they bring to the community, and maybe some of the concerns they have," he said. "I know some people talked about crime and I've looked up statistics where that's not necessarily the case, because we have (low-income housing tax credit) programs currently in Jefferson City where crime is not an issue."
Young said the area had a wealth of local experts on housing, including the developers, nonprofits and community groups that backed last year's projects. Education may be a problem, she said, but the city isn't making use of the resources it already has available to spread the word.
She said the projects could have been approved had those groups been engaged more during the process.
"All we had to do was sign, when they talked about lack of education didn't know how at the experts right here: We had Habitat for Humanity, we had the United Way, those people working directly with the community or could have educated us and the city staff on exactly what the needs of the people," she said. "My priorities are with the needs of the people in Jefferson City. When you talk about bringing in outside consultants, we didn't need it because Jefferson City is full of experts. ... experts that we have right here to educate ourselves."
Vogel, meanwhile, said the issue was up to private developers, not the city itself. She said the four projects could still move ahead without public funding and that it was outside of the city's parameters to fund private housing projects.
"The city's job is to make sure that it's easier for developers to come in and build their houses, build their apartments, build their duplexes, whatever is needed," she said. "There's not enough out there. And I just feel once again, I just can't emphasize enough -- it's not the city's responsibility to provide housing to the private sector. I'm all for anything that all of our agencies that we have in our area can help with that, and when they get it all settled out, then come back to the elected officials and ask or seek approval, but it's private. It's private development."
She said there was a shortage of homes for first-time homebuyers or senior citizens moving back to the area, but that it was up to private developers to handle it.
When asked how community needs should be prioritized through the budget process, Edwards said the council should follow her experience with nonprofits and put people's needs first. She listed infrastructure and housing as needs she's heard about most in the community.
"That should be top priority. So anything that has to deal with the citizens just living here should be the top priority and then when you're choosing your budget, and everything that seems to be on the table, those things would be infrastructure, waterways and streets and then housing," she said. "I know that housing may not particularly be a line item on the city's budget, but creating those partnerships and utilizing the funding that is handed down through federal to state for opportunities for development would be a top priority."
Schwartz said the city should put disaster relief funds from the 2019 tornado and the COVID-19 pandemic to use for city priorities, again emphasizing the need for housing. He said the process needed to bring stakeholders together to share their ideas and strengths to make use of existing funds rather than bringing in new funds to get the job done.
"What I think right now is we have over $7 million, I believe, in disaster funds sitting in the bank, losing value every day because of inflation," he said. "And we need to be looking at the bankers and folks that came to represent housing need to come up with a plan for us to do some sort of either loan buyback or loan forgiveness or something like that. We've got to get these funds into the arena on housing, so we can start digging ourselves out of this whole.
"I don't think government is the entire solution to our housing problem. I think we have to interject the private sector. However, by using these funds that are currently sitting in the bank doing nothing for us, I think that can help engage the private sector and dig us out of this hole."
He said budgeting was, by nature, driven by priorities, another of which he said should be the quality roads and public safety systems that could draw people and businesses to the community.
Spencer echoed the focus on public safety, saying he hoped to see them gain more attention during the next few budget cycles.
He also hoped to increase community engagement to gauge constituents' highest priorities, rather than making assumptions.
"That's what the government does. They provide the services that the private sector won't, and obviously as public safety and infrastructure, and those are priorities that really haven't had a focus for the eight years," he said. "A lot of citizens come in around the table with a lot of different experiences they bring to the table, and they're all helping shape what government will look like for the next 15-20 years. So I think that's going to have some real fruit to be able to help in future budgets as well."
Each candidate was asked to list the top three services the city government should provide. Most agreed that public safety, infrastructure and accessibility were among the top priorities, and graded the city's services within the A-C range, expressing a desire to improve areas like accessibility for businesses and crumbling roads.
Mealy said it was difficult to grade the city when vital areas, like public safety employees, weren't adequately provided for from his perspective.
"We have firefighters in Jefferson City starting out under $40,000 a year and that makes me sad," he said. "I want firefighters and public safety personnel including the police department to have salaries that support their families. It's the right thing for our community to do."
Ahlers gave the city a C overall, putting public safety at the top of his list and touting the boost from the public safety sales tax approved in 2021. Second on his list was paved streets and third was permitting within the city, which he said needed to be streamlined. With economic stumbling blocks, he said the process may be more challenging in the coming years.
"You want to shoot for the best and all that, but with a limited budget COVID high tax rates and all that it's a tough budget year," he said. "It's gonna probably be hard for maybe a couple of years, so we have to work through it to the best of our abilities."
Candidates also discussed the condition of the Simonsen Ninth Grade Center and the former Truman Hotel, as well as transit in the wake of the city shifting bus routes due to a driver shortage, during the hour-and-a-half-long forum.
The full discussion is available to watch on the City of Jefferson's YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJWr2GlpU9E.
CORRECTION: This article was edited at 7:32 a.m. March 9, 2023, to correct the spelling of Aaron Mealy's first name.
The story was updated to clarify Alicia Edwards is not the incumbent the Ward 5 race.