Recently, Columbia Metropolitan Magazine Publisher Henry Clay sat down individually with Moe Baddourah, Steve Benjamin and Larry Sypolt, Columbia’s three mayoral candidates, and asked those questions that readers found relevant to our city and its future. Because we did not have space to print all of the questions we asked and their answers in the print version, we have included them at the bottom of the article here.
Editor’s note: Recently, Larry Sypolt withdrew his name from contention, but we are leaving his answers included here for your information.
Q: What ideas do you have to make our city safer?
Moe Baddourah: It starts with leadership. I was the only council member who asked to start the process of hiring a new police chief back in May after we lost our police chief in April. We still have not started the process. I think within our mayor’s time in office, we have had three different chiefs. The leadership at the mayor’s level needs to improve and make that department more stable.
Steve Benjamin: We have been able to cut city spending by $4.5 million and devoted all that to law enforcement. We have the Columbia police department fully staffed for the first time in 15 years and have boots on the ground.
Larry Sypolt: The biggest thing I want to do is merge the Richland County and City of Columbia police departments. There is a big difference between both departments and merging them will allow the city to be their own police force. That merger is really what needs to happen and when it does, we will have more effective policing resources and more officers.
Q: Why haven’t these ideas been implemented in the past four years?
Moe: The key word is leadership, and the mayor is the leader of council not just another member.
Steve: There are some challenges. I am going to try my best to not have every argument come back to a change in the form of government and empowering a mayor to make decisions. There’s a plan that the current interim chief of police has presented that calls for going away from the traditional model, and I support it.
Larry: I think the current administration doesn’t want to release control over its own police department. But, it shouldn’t be about having control over the police department, it should be about what’s best for the citizens in Columbia. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department is the main one I like to think about modeling ourselves after.
Q: What ideas do you have for the future?
Moe: I would love to have more police officers on the streets. I think that’s the key. I think we need to open the channels with Richland County and have a mutual contract to help us in any way possible so they can assist in a lot of issues.
Steve: I have asked the legislature during this last session to give us more tools to keep repeat offenders behind bars. Locally we are going to keep investing in good policing, keep investing in putting more officers on the street, keep investing in making sure they have the best tools and resources to do the job.
Larry: I think we need to have the police department more involved. The police department sort of has this image more or less of just driving along with their windows up from call to call and some may feel they are not approachable. I want to have them park their cars and get out, meet the neighbors.
Q: Will the city government continue to transfer funds from the water and sewer revenues to the general fund now that the EPA has fined Columbia for failure to properly maintain the sewer system?
Moe: I am a big non-supporter of any transfers from water and sewer. I’m on city council, and my biggest message is to stop the transfers. I did not approve the budget because they had the transfer still occurring, because they went up on the water rates and because they had transfers from water and sewer to the general fund. I would be the first mayor to stop the water and sewer transfers to the general funds. We were penalized by the EPA for the lack of maintaining our infrastructure for the water and sewer, mainly sewer, which has to continue to improve every single year. We can’t get away with it if we keep taking money from water and sewer and not applying that money to maintaining that system.
Steve: The City of Columbia should stop transferring funds from the water and sewer department. Now the issue as it relates to the EPA, we are dealing with the sins of the father here, and we’re talking about maintaining and rebuilding a pipe that is literally 100 years old. We are going to do it because it’s our responsibility to do so. We are currently transferring three percent of the water and sewer budget into the general fund of the city.
Larry: It’s hard to answer any of those questions about transferring funds. The first thing I want to see happen is a forensic audit. When I get into office, I want a forensic audit by an outside source over all of our funds. I want to see where the money is going, who’s getting paid and what bids have been put out that we’ve paid for. Has the work been done? Has the work not been done?
Q: Why did City Council shroud the Bull Street Development in such secrecy?
Moe: Ask the mayor; he is the one who started all of that. The mayor failed to bring all of the details and all of the plans to council for us to address and communicate with him as what the concerns were. He rushed through the public hearing twice and scheduled two public hearings during vacation weeks when no one was home to address a lot of the concerns. But not only that, he didn’t bring all of the facts to council.
Steve: We’ve debated Bull Street for 10 years. We have had no less than four public hearings on Bull Street and have publically debated the plan unit development agreement. We had two hearings after we published the development agreement. The reality of it is this city has a history of dragging its feet and not getting things done in a timely manner. Ten years was too long, and we needed to go ahead and get things done.
Larry: Having a law enforcement background I am going to obviously be suspicious of some of the improprieties. I can’t say for certain that anything really bad has happened, but I do have a problem with the way it was handled. It shouldn’t have been done so quickly. Some people will say we’ve had years and years, plenty of time, but we really didn’t. We have talked about it for years, but the plan didn’t get put out on the table for everyone to digest until the last minute. It should have been publicized; we should have had several city council meetings that were open to the public.
Q: Explain how the city will fund its obligations under the Bull Street Development agreement?
Moe: Good question. Three other members and I believe we need to slow down the process and figure out how are we going to find the money for it. The source hasn’t been found yet. One option is to take money out of the Capital Improvement Project, transfer that projects fund into Bull Street. Another option is to take some of the Storm Drainage money that we have allocated to fix storm drainage in the city and use it to fund Bull. He’s taking sources from buildings to infrastructures around the city and putting it into one area, and I think it’s wrong. So there are a lot of options, but the best option is for council to sit together with the mayor as a leader and decide what we can do to make this happen, because we need consent from each council member to make this happen.
Steve: It’s important to note that the city of Columbia is solid in its finances right now and enjoys a balance sheet of almost $400 million. If we had to pay cash, which no smart municipal corporation would do, we have the ability to do that. We are living in a time right now when capital markets have never been more favorable for a well-funded, well organized municipality.
Larry: We have to find a way to fund it — we’ve written a check that we have to cash. If we can’t operate a police department — we have had seven chiefs in seven years — how are we going to see this project all the way through over a period of what’s supposed to be 20 years to finish? I don’t see it being done. The funding needs to come from where it’s supposed to, not from the water and sewer fund and not from anywhere other than its specific fund. I couldn’t tell you for sure how we’d pay for it now because I don’t know where our money really is. That’s why I will go back to the forensic audit before I get into saying we can take money from this fund and put it that fund.
Q: Why hasn’t the city implemented a less intrusive form of city government with lower taxes and fewer regulations to foster economic growth like other bustling cities have?
Moe: It’s because they are not business friendly. You don’t have a business-friendly man sitting in the leadership chair to say, “What can I do to help businesses come here and to make them grow?” That’s my background. My background is to bring the small business perspective to the city government.
Steve: I believe that there’s an overly cumbersome process to doing business in the city of Columbia. There are some recommendations of the business friendly task force that are being implemented as we speak. They range from ideas as to how we deal with grease traps for restaurants establishing a business friendly ombudsman who actually helps businesses that want to do business in Columbia navigate their way through the process.
Larry: We’ve raised taxes. The penny tax came through, the hospitality tax, and I think we’re going in the wrong direction. You see businesses moving across the river from my understanding because the taxes are significantly lower and it’s much easier to get a business license. We have taken this role of being an enforcer and are constantly telling people why they can’t get a business license. Business license approval requests are down and inspections are way up. We should want people to open businesses and it shouldn’t take weeks and weeks or months.
Q: Given that small businesses represent the majority of the local economy, what has been done in the past four years to encourage small business growth?
Moe: Nothing, I am just going to be honest with you. Small businesses are not represented because the current mayor and the current government are not supporting the small businesses. There’s no incentives, no incentives whatsoever.
Steve: A number of different projects, everything from the Facade Program that is $428,000 grant dollars to facilitate $6 million worth of development and is growing as we speak with the Agape construction that’s happening on Main Street, to programs like Next Level. We’ve supported the USC Columbia Technology Incubator and IT-ology in their various projects to help young entrepreneurs start up.
Larry: I have only seen growth on Main Street. There are businesses opening and restaurants. They’ve focused on that area, but outside of that I feel like they are forgetting about areas like Five Points and the Vista. I hear concerns from new businesses there that pushing things so much in other areas is hurting them.
Q: Do you believe Columbia should have a strong mayor form of government and why?
Moe: Why do we need it? You know, I mean, there’s the question. Why do you need a strong mayor? I don’t need a strong mayor to hire the police chief or to have the number one police department in the country. Greenville doesn’t have a strong mayor, and they have the best economy. Everyone compares us to Greenville so let’s go with Greenville. A manager-council form of government works because you represent so many areas and many demographics in the city that all need to be brought to the table. One strong man or a strong mayor form of government does not focus on that. They are going to focus on special interest groups.
Steve: I believe that Columbia needs a strong mayor form of government because I believe it is the most effective, accountable form of government. When people vote for the mayor they fully expect to hire someone who is empowered to make decisions on behalf of the people of the city. Government by committee does not work effectively or efficiently.
Larry: I do if there is a safety valve. We have got to have term limits. If we can’t have term limits I don’t want a strong mayor at all because you see now a mayor that’s been here for four years, and he’s not a strong mayor, but he has aligned himself so well with people who can help him with his campaign.
Q: Do you believe that there should be term limits for all elected officials?
Steve: I believe the people of Columbia, the people of South Carolina are pretty savvy and they know when people are performing well. They can make a sound decision to reelect them and when they’re not performing well they can make a sound decision to send them home.
Larry: I think there should be term limits across the board, with the mayor and city council members.
Q: Do you support Cameron Runyan’s plan for the homeless?
Moe: Which plan? You have to keep up with that because there are four plans right now. The current plan, the Carolina Plan is not a good plan. I think the issue is taking the leadership and bringing all of the providers together. Number one thing the homeless need is housing. These people have to have a place to go and lay their head, take a shower and put there belongings somewhere specific, the same location every single day. Housing would be the key so I think the city should work with the county and the state to provide whatever we can so we can find housing for these people.
Steve: There are two different issues of course. We still haven’t discussed or acted on the original plan and it has been taken off of the table. The emergency response plan we voted on unanimously is designed to make sure that we have a city center and neighborhoods surrounding that city center where people want to live, work, play and worship and it’s important that we work to have a solution that lets businesses prosper but is also indicative of the incredible charity and humanity that I know the people of Columbia are capable of.
Larry: There are issues that I see with that. If a homeless person is breaking the law, if they’re loitering or using the restroom in public, it should be the same punishment as if you or I were doing that, to be held accountable, to go to jail for it. You can’t force them to go to a location. If you do we have the same liability as if we put them in jail.
Q: Many businesses resent the high number of regulations and fees that the city requires as these regulations and fees stunt economic growth for our community. How do you propose to limit government from being a drain on our growth?
Moe: When I opened my restaurant, it took me six months to get my plans approved. That needs to be cut down and you have to have a system where it doesn’t take that long for anything to get approved. We need to have a liaison person with every project that comes in. What can we do as a city to help that project move forward?
Larry: We need to shift the focus to attract new businesses here — not making money off the businesses on the front end but attract them here. Not just getting it as quick as we can when they move in.
Q: Do you think the city should risk spending taxpayer dollars to fund city government’s ideas of economic development?
Moe: There’s a difference between economic development and real estate development. Economic development, yes, you can use that tool to bring businesses to increase or provide jobs and economic growth to the city.
Steve: Yes. You realize the city can only use taxpayer dollars, because it’s all taxpayer dollars.
Larry: If the city government is going to spend money they should put it right back into businesses that are already here. If you’re going to spend money on advertisements, we do not need to help a company come from out of town to compete with other local businesses here.
Q: Most crime is committed in the low-income neighborhoods. Why haven’t specific steps been taken to reduce crime in these neighborhoods?
Moe: Number one, you have to have more officers patrolling the streets. You have to have cars for them to patrol. But not only that, right now we are lacking the leadership to tell them, to lead them to what needs to be done and to make the police department safer.
Steve: They have been actually. We have 265 police campuses around the city, including in some of the more challenged neighborhoods. We’ve invested and it’s important to understand the importance of investing in young people. Setting up free summer camps in order for young people to have the opportunity to do positive things.
Larry: I think politics plays a role. From what I’ve seen in the past, the mayor is trying to get more African Americans to vote for him and get him elected. Then afterwards he has distanced himself from addressing the problems that they have. Now it’s election time again and I see him drifting back towards them trying to lean on them, to help them and I can only think that translates towards lower income.
Q: Would you support a “stop and frisk” policy by the Columbia police similar to that supported by the mayor of NYC?
Moe: I don’t know if that is legal. When you “stop and frisk” are you targeting a specific kind of person? Who are you stopping and frisking? The homeless, making every homeless person a criminal? Black people? Foreigners?
Steve: No, I think there are some significant issues regarding constitutionality.
Larry: I would. I would. I absolutely would. If you’re not doing anything wrong then you don’t have anything to worry about. I don’t have a problem with “stop and frisk.”
Q: Why did it take the Mast General Store owner writing a letter to the newspaper to prompt action from our city government on this problem?
Moe: The homeless issues have been talked about for a few years and I’m not going to lie to you, every election the homeless issue comes up. So it doesn’t start with the Mast General. It started two years ago. It is just more publicized now.
Steve: It didn’t. The letter from Mast General is an endorsement of Cameron’s plan. It’s saying why they believe Cameron’s plan is the way to go. So it’s important to note that the letter was written in response to the plan, not the plan written in response of the letter.
Larry: There have been problems on Main Street, and it needs to be addressed. But we haven’t been in the newspaper this much for the last six months compared to three years prior, and it’s an election year so it’s time to start doing things.