Springfield’s City Council candidates for Zone 2 offered similar views on many issues such as the budget, economic development options and public safety resources during a forum Thursday.
Dr. Thomas Prater, Incumbent Zone 2 Councilman, is seeking to retain the seat he was appointed to in September 2016. He’s challenged by Helen Gunther. The event, held at Evangel University, marked the third of four town-hall style forums presented by the Springfield News-Leader this month.
Zone 2 is bordered by the city limits to the north and east, and generally National Avenue and Sunshine Street to the west and south.
Prater, the Zone 2 incumbent, is a graduate of Glendale High School in Springfield, received a bachelor of science degree from Southern Methodist University, and his doctorate from Washington University. Prater is an eye surgeon with Mattax Neu Prater Eye Center in Springfield. He’s previously served on the boards of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Community Foundation of the Ozarks, as well as on the Springfield Public Schools board for six years, including two of those as its president.
Gunther is a graduate of Hillcrest High School in Springfield with some college level study. She currently serves as a real estate agent with Murney Associates. She’s owned a series of small businesses, including a tanning salon, car lot and floral shop. Volunteer work has come through the American Heart Association, YMCA, Court Appointed Special Advocates and her church.
Like in last week’s Zone 1 forum, both candidates on Thursday were asked what repercussions, if any, should be taken against Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams. This after a jury awarded $30,000 to a police officer who had sued saying the department failed to promote him because he is Hispanic.
The question, as it did the week before, came from citizen Tim Haven.
For Gunther, the answer was no. “I think that he should be reprimanded, yes. And if there is an issue again – fired. I think that everybody deserves a second chance.”
Prater said the decision is not his to make, saying it is the City Council’s job to determine if the city manager is adequately addressing the issue.
“If the council is displeased with the way the city manager is managing his team, which includes the police chief, and the fire chief, the environmental services director, budget manager and all this kind of stuff, then the city council needs to take action through the city manager to fix the problem.”
Asked by Havens if Prater is displeased with the city manager’s performance on the issue, the Zone 2 candidate stopped short of answering.
“I’m not going to get into the weeds and critique the city manager’s management of the police chief. That’s not my job.”
Other questions on public safety ranged from the frequency of times officers are dispatched to Walmart and various retails stores, to the department’s budget.
Gunther brought up staffing, and the need to keep who they hire.
“In 2017 we had 10 people graduate [from the academy.] And that’s fantastic. But keeping in mind that it costs $100,000 to train a police officer in six months then we have to realize that is a very expensive investment. We have to keep ‘em.”
That requires a fair wage, she says. If a police officer is quick to leave after going through training, it is a big financial loss to the city.
Prater says spending on police in the current year is more than $3 million over the previous year, but more resources are needed despite what may be a tough budget year ahead.
“So I think council has to pay attention to that. I think some carry-over funds will be used for equipment. The ladder truck [for the Fire Department] is one, some replacement police cars is one.”
Prater notes while the police chief has authorization to hire more officers the budget is limited and recruiting is hampered by low wages when compared with St. Louis and Kansas City.
He believes there could be room in the budget to cut waste and apply toward public safety.
The topic was brought up in a number of questions Thursday, mostly from a citywide perspective rather than Zone 2 in particular.
But Prater did acknowledge “pockets” of his district that need addressed. He didn’t specify which areas.
“Part of Zone 2 does need a lot of attention. But if we can raise the level everybody’s boat rises higher. And if we can address poverty citywide I think that’s gonna help Zone 2,” said Prater.
Zone Blitz, the city’s poverty alleviation project that is focused in the city’s northwest quadrant of Zone 1, is about halfway through its 18-month term. Gunther says she’s interested to see how it plays out.
“I think in theory it’s fantastic. I’m not sure in practice how it’s going. But I think there is a lot of things that they are doing that would really help Zone 2,” she said.
Gunther feels the biggest issue facing Zone 2 is vagrancy.
“Standing on street corners, begging for money. Going into businesses and asking for money, or bothering their clientele. There’s a lot of issues with the vegrance.”
She says it’s affecting some business owners and landlords.
She also cites an incident from earlier this week where a person was hit by a car that jumped the curb. The woman, who was supposedly panhandling from the median at Sunshine and Zimmer, was thrown several feet. Her injuries were non-life threatening.
“As many are out there and as much as they’re out there I can’t believe it’s taken that long for one of them to get hit.”
Springfield City Council had to repeal its ordinance against aggressive panhandling last year after courts had struck down similar laws elsewhere. Gunther says after this week’s incident “it’s a safety issue now and so it may scoot that along a little bit more, but it is gonna have to be addressed. No question.”
Prater says City Manager Greg Burris is preparing proposals to that effect in the coming weeks.
Overall, Prater feels some homeless resources have been lost. At the same time, the shift in model for how to help these individuals is a good strategy, he says.
The Kitchen, Inc., sites Prater, is “Getting ready to open a new place right down the street at the corner of Chestnut and Glenstone that will be an emergency shelter, they’ll have a lot more case workers because trying to keep it at the Missouri Hotel they couldn’t hire all the case workers they needed, and it will help people transition into permanent, long-term housing.”
Prater points to the organization’s Beacon Village complex, which helped formerly homeless citizens obtain permanent housing, as part of a nationwide shift that treats the issue of homelessness more effectively.
He notes that it’s also key to focus on job placement opportunities for those living in poverty.
Gunther says many homeless people are isolated from the rest of society, and believes it can hinder their appetite for finding better solutions.
“And I think that the only thing we’re gonna be able to do to get them back into society is a very slow process of getting them more social.”
She believes the problem will continue for many years to come.
Prater notes Zone 2 offers an array of retail, manufacturing. It’s also a district, he says, that has both high income housing and lower income housing and is inconsistent across the board in terms of which students qualify for free and reduced lunch and which once don’t.
So he believes there are several three things that must be done to address economic development. Those are being attractive for business, having an educated workforce, and public safety.
“No one wants to run a business here if the streets aren’t safe, if the fire calls aren’t getting answered. That’s something that before I came on council I think was an obvious deficit that has been improving slowly and continues to improve and I think that’s gotta be one of our focuses for the next several years.”
Gunther expressed concern with the Springfield’s recent sales tax figures, which is the city’s main source of revenue.
“And we know why,” she says. “It’s because of the online stores and we’re losing a lot of our retail to that. I think that until we can start figuring out ways to get that taxed, I think we’re gonna be in trouble.”
Gunther adds that once that problem is solved, the focus should shift to brick and mortar stores.
“I would seriously hate to own the mall or shopping centers right now, because they’re going to start seeing vacancies in there. And so we’re gonna have to figure out ways to attract people that would want to come into those stores.”
Fire Department Coverage
The city is currently evaluating a series of options presented by its former fire chief, who resigned in January, on the future of its service capabilities and station locations. The 10 options include, among others, relocating services from the south side to more high demand areas in central Springfield, and building a temporary and then permanent West-Central Neighborhood station.
“I think the major thing we need to do is keep it well-equipped and we may need to expand on it. But as far as building a new fire station we can’t afford it,” says Gunther.
Prater says a grant the city is currently seeking could add fire staff, which could help equip a temporary space in central Springfield.
“Long-term, there’s a possibility of do we do an eight-cent; I think there’s capability for one-eight cent property tax to fund firefighting that would not raise taxes…that may be the solution in the next several years.”
Both candidates agree the city needs to remain proactive as it pertains to federal regulations, notably Springfield’s efforts to identify ways to reduce costs to cover unfunded mandates from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Prater adds the Springfield Department of Environmental Services is working to decrease the amount of downstream flow to the sewage treatment plant, which he says is over capacity.
“If we can prevent stuff – sump pumps from people’s basements or some of the industry waste – from going into the sewer system, then we don’t have to build a big plant downstream. I think the number is for every million dollars we spend upstream we save $11 million downstream.”
Gunther says the city has done an “amazing job” addressing these environmental issues, noting what was once federal grant money is now dried up and become loans. According to Gunther, the city manages 1,800 tons of trash and 40 million gallons of raw sewage daily.
“You start thinking about that, 18.5 billion gallons of storm water runoff. When you’re looking at numbers like that it just overwhelms you and I seriously think our people are doing a great job.”
A question about budget management led to opinions on the future of the Jefferson Avenue Footbridge, a more than century old structure that closed last year due to safety concerns. The debate has been whether to preserve the bridge, at a cost of $2.8 million up front and $16.8 million in upkeep over the course of nearly 100 years.
“We can’t afford it,” says Gunther. “We have to make decisions I ‘I wants’ and ‘I have to haves.’ And it’s gonna be some tough decisions. I grew up on the north side and I love that footbridge. But I don’t think we can afford it.”
The city has already dedicated $200,000 for the structural design phase of the preservation. The funding is available through its 1/8-cent transportation sales tax.
Prater, who was present at the January meeting during which the design phase dollars were allocated, says council expressed concern at the time given there was no funding source for the renovation.
“I think you’re going to find council very reluctant to do anything going forward without finding a funding source. And I think that may be a combination of public and private, it may be grants, it may be whatever. But I don’t think you’re going to find council saying ‘this is a great idea we’re going to totally fund that with public money.’”
What does Springfield’s current image reflect or should it reflect, asked the moderator Thursday.
“I would like to see us become a more thriving, younger, higher tech metropolis,” says Prater, adding he feels that’s what will draw young people here and drive economic development long-term.
He cites who Springfield has emulated some of development on that of other cities similar in size and demographics, saying the city doesn’t have to “reinvent the wheel” to be successful in crafting a unique image.
“What I’ve said is let’s not become the hole in the donut here,” Prater said. “Let’s not become a St. Louis city or a Kansas City where everyone is decided to live around that, everyone has decided to put their businesses around the city. Let’s make it so people want to be in the center, have their businesses, live here, put their kids in school here; I think that’s what’s gonna drive us long-term.”
For Gunther, Springfield doesn’t have a strong identity outside of the immediate region. She uses Route 66 as an example where the city can build upon that connection to strengthen its image.
“Whenever you say that we are the birthplace of Route 66 they get that. They don’t know where Springfield is but they know Route 66. I would really like to see us be more identified with Route 66. I really would, because I’m very proud of that.”
She’d also like Springfeild to be known as a thriving city that has good jobs, good pay, clean air, clean water, and known for that.
“A place where people are really proud of and wanna raise their family,” she said.
Campaign finance reports show Prater has been fairly active in fundraising, with more than $9,300 raised as of Feb. 22. Gunther’s campaign shows only $300 raised through the same period.
Thomas Prater: https://www.facebook.com/PraterForSGF/
Helen Gunther: https://www.facebook.com/HelenGuntherforZone2/