Candidates for two seats on the Cole County Commission discussed topics relevant to the office, including economic development, potential budget effects from the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for more courthouse space during a forum Thursday.
Two candidates are running for Eastern Commissioner and three candidates are running for Western Commissioner.
Commissioners are elected for four-year terms and are not term-limited.
Eastern District Commissioner
Two Republican candidates are running for Cole County Eastern District commissioner in the Aug. 4 primary election; the winner will face no opposition in the November election.
Rick Mihalevich is challenging incumbent Jeff Hoelscher for the seat.
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Hoelscher is serving his 12th year as Eastern District commissioner, is owner of construction and remodeling business Hoelscher Enterprises, and is a former St. Thomas council member.
Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the county could face a potential loss of revenue and need to make budget decisions based on that. If the need to make budget cuts arises, Hoelscher said any current staff vacancies would stay empty until the county had the funding to fill them.
While the county has a good reserve of funding, he said, if cuts were needed, he would put off any purchases that could be delayed. Hoelscher said the commission has already discussed slowing down on spending in case of a budget issue in the future.
Also due to the pandemic, more residents are working or attending school from home, which means more reliance on internet. The more rural areas of Cole County struggle to have good broadband access.
Hoelscher said there are good ideas on how to potentially expand broadband to the rural areas of the county.
"But how do you pay for it?" Hoelscher said. "That's the bottom line — how do you pay for all this? I really don't know what our role in that will be, other than to try to facilitate anything they want to do with it."
On the topic of Cole County's potential growth, Hoelscher said looking into expanding the area's sports venue options could be a good option for economic growth.
Hoelscher said the potential Missouri River Port needs more private investment and progress.
Cole County will soon be adding a judge and will likely need an additional courtroom.
Hoelscher said the commission should look at using the old jail with the potential of demolishing it, or a building owned by the county on Adams Street.
"We've looked at some different ideas, and it's going to have to happen when the judge gets here, the way it sounds," Hoelscher said.
While speaking with residents, Hoelscher said the concerns he hears most often are related to COVID-19, stormwater issues in the county and the purchase of county ambulances from a Canadian company in 2018 and 2019.
Mihalevich just completed an eight-year stint on the Jefferson City Council, where he also served as the chair of the city's budget committee. He recently retired from teaching at State Technical College and serves on the Jefferson City Port Authority Board.
On the subject of potential budget cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mihalevich said the county is in a unique and good position because it's primarily funded through the sales tax, including collection of a use tax on online purchases.
"I don't know that the county has yet to see a drop," Mihalevich said. "If there is a downturn, you have fund balances to protect yourself from those types of downturns."
Should cuts be needed, Mihalevich said his priorities for funding would be county roads and bridges, public safety and economic development efforts.
Mihalevich said the county needs to look into new technologies for providing internet in the rural areas of the county.
Gov. Mike Parson recently announced a plan for rural broadband with the potential for entities to sponsor costs. Mihalevich said he would want to look into finding interested entities for sponsorship.
When it comes to Cole County's potential for growth in the future, Mihalevich said it's important to create the right atmosphere for growth including infrastructure, roads and potentially incentives to encourage investment.
Mihalevich said the possibility for the Missouri River port is another good opportunity for growth and economic development.
"The fiscal impact of that could be very, very large," Mihalevich said. "So I think the county and the city need to continue to support those kinds of efforts and new ideas. We can't just think about things we've been thinking about in the past."
On the subject of a location for a new courthouse, Mihalevich said the old jail is a potential option, although he wouldn't want to see it taken down.
"I would also think that, by now, we should've had a plan in place knowing that we had this additional judge coming," Mihalevich said.
Mihaelvich said he has heard concerns from residents regarding the importance of buying local, the broadband issues and the lack of paved roads in some rural areas.
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Western District Commissioner
Three Republican candidates are seeking the position of Western District Commissioner: Gary Bemboom, Harry Otto and Kris Scheperle.
Scheperle, who is currently serving his second term as Western District commissioner, was unable to attend the forum due to a personal conflict. Scheperle is also the owner of All Seasons Landscaping and Construction.
Bemboom has been a business owner in Mid-Missouri for many years. He previously owned a heating and cooling business as well as some convenience stores, although he has now sold most of his convenience stores. He said he would retire from the other business if elected.
He also operates a cattle farm in Centertown.
Bemboom said if Cole County is going to grow in the future, growth needs to happen outside of Jefferson City.
"Right now, Jefferson City is kind of landlocked," Bemboom said. "I would like to see where, if we do grow, we grow outside the city."
Within the city, development of the Missouri State Penitentiary and the Missouri River port would lend to economic development and growth, Bemboom said.
The county has recently come under criticism for using cooperative purchasing agreements instead of seeking sealed bids from vendors for the purchase of some ambulances from a company in Canada instead of locally from Osage County.
Bemboom said, in his understanding, any purchase for more than $3,000 has to go out to bid, and he believes the ambulances should've been purchased locally.
Bemboom said he believes each ambulance should've been put out for bid individually.
Bemboom said the biggest challenges he sees the county facing in the coming year are effects of the COVID-19 pandemic like funding for the Cole County sheriffs department and health department.
"I feel I could be a voice that would be able to represent basically everyone in the county," Bemboom said. "I'm willing to listen. I'm willing to work for them."
Harry Otto has spent his career working in public accounting and spent some time working for the Missouri Department of Revenue.
From January 2011 to May 2015, Otto served as the deputy state auditor and was involved in more than 80 Missouri county audits and numerous audits of political subdivisions and statewide elected officials. He also served as a legislative tax fiscal analyst for the Missouri General Assembly and most recently as the legislative director for the Missouri Department of Economic Development.
Otto previously served as president of the Missouri Society of CPAs and also served on the Council of the American Institute of CPAs. He was born in Jefferson City and has lived here continuously since 1974.
Otto said a good measure of growth in an area is per capita income of residents, and the county needs to focus on the state of Missouri as an employer, since the state employs more people in the area than any other employer.
In response to the criticism the county has received regarding the ambulance purchase, Otto said he doesn't believe there is an issue with cooperative bids, but they should be used while following state law.
"The commission did not follow state law with the purchase of the first two ambulances," Otto said.
Otto said he did not think the commission's action of amending their purchasing policy to meet state law was the correct solution, and the commission needs to do something more formal to correct the issue.
The commission recently received phone calls from officials with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in relation to the ambulance purchases.
Otto said the biggest challenge the county will face in the coming year is COVID-19 and the unknown effects of the virus.
"We don't know what we don't know, and we don't know what this COVID situation is going to turn into," Otto said.
The county will need to figure out how to distribute aid funding to make sure it is does correctly, Otto said.
Overall, Otto said he believes he is qualified to be a commissioner based on his education, experience, available time and the desire to serve.