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City candidates debate final time before election

Third and fourth ward Columbia city council candidates as well as the candidates for mayor met Wednesday afternoon for the last debate before the April 5th election.

Third Ward city council candidates include incumbent Karl Skala and Tom Leuther. Fourth Ward city council candidate Ian Thomas sat by himself at the candidate table because his opponent Daryl Dudley recently suspended his campaign.

Columbia Mayor candidates Brian Treece and Skip Walther also battled it out for the final time Wednesday.

Debate moderators asked each candidate three questions: their stance on expanding the Columbia Regional Airport, their stance on forum-based zoning and their plans to improve public safety.

Many candidate have said public safety would be one of their top priorities in office.

“I think we have to realign our budget priorities to invest in those officers and firefighters to really make sure our community is as safe as it can be,” said mayoral candidate Brian Treece.

Currently, the Columbia Police Department is about 30 percent understaffed.

As mayor, Treece said he would like to add 25 more officers to the department each year. He said this would be funded by revenue created in the city’s budget.

“We’re not going to make it in the first year, but we do need to stay on top of those rising crime statistics and make those incremental investments,” he said.

Treece said he’s not opposed to a possible tax increase, but doesn’t believe Columbia voters will support it. A similar measure was brought before voters in 2014, but did not pass.

Opposing candidate Skip Walther said Treece’s plan to hire new officers is not financially possible.

Walther said his plan to improve the police department would include setting aside a few full time officer positions in the city’s budget each year.

“If we intentionally focus on the police department, I think we can focus city resources and increase the department by a few police officers every year and ultimately get to where we need to be,” he said.

Walther said if he were elected mayor, he would like to create a new city employee position to act as a neighborhood development liaison. He said this would help “level the playing field” between developers and residents.

“The position of ombudsmen is a city employee who is there to work with the neighborhood associations, provide the resources that they wouldn’t otherwise have so that they would be able to effectively communicate with developers,” he said.

Candidate Treece said his other top priorities if elected mayor would include working with the Regional Economic Development, Inc. (REDI) to create a job readiness program and making improvements to the regional airport.

“A lot of companies and the University of Missouri rely on that airport to bring in employees to deploy employees,” he said. “We need to make sure that it meets not only peak and projected demand, but also homeland security requirements.”

Both candidates were unsure if creating a hotel tax would be the best way to help fund the airport project.

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