COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Joseph Azar was born and raised in Columbia, and attended the University of South Carolina. He has owned Upstairs Audio & Video in Five Points since it opened in 1972.
Azar has been a volunteer high school sports coach, and is a past board member of Columbia Sertoma and AHEPA. He also founded Rolling Readers of the Midlands, a child literacy program.
Below are some questions WIS sent to all candidates for Mayor of Columbia. We'll add the responses to the questions below as we receive them. Be sure to check back soon!
Name: Joseph Azar
Profession: Small Businessman/owner/founder of Upstairs Audio & Video in 1972
Marital status/children: 0
Political experience: Plenty!
Favorite food: Good Food! There is too much to just have one.
QUESTIONS (word limit per answer: 300 words)
Q: Why are you running for mayor?
A) My passion for helping others and my desire to create a dynamic city of opportunity and achievement have driven me for years to run. Born in Columbia, I have lived here my entire life, and have seen the promise of Columbia, a promise that, unfortunately, has not been fulfilled on behalf of the city by recent leaders.
Q: What is the most important issue facing Columbia right now? How do you intend to address it?
A) Finances and declining revenue, of course. There is not much more in the budget left to cut, so revenue must increase, which means keeping our local businesses in Columbia from leaving and making a greater effort to helping them succeed. It also means recruiting businesses to Columbia that produce goods and services to export and import cash.
Q: What mistake in your life do you hope others, especially young people, will learn from?
A) Use your time wisely. Learn all you can while you are young and have the time.
Q: In 2009, the City of Columbia made millions of dollars in cuts to both the police and fire departments. If elected, would you work to restore those jobs or are the departments fully equipped to keep the city safe as they are staffed currently?
A) It is quite obvious, from comments at neighborhood meetings, that there is not enough security. I would work toward the goal of greater security through many means, achieving responsible levels of staffing.
Q: (Viewer submitted) Earlier this month, there were several reports that the City of Columbia and Richland County Unified Fire Service contract might be in jeopardy. However, an independent study conducted by the University of South Carolina titled, "The impact of improved public protection classification ratings on homeowners' insurance rates in Richland County," has shown that taxpayers save upwards of $5.5 million annually due to lower homeowner's insurance rates each and every year as a result of having the city and county fire service combined. Do you support that the city and county work to continue this public safety agreement?
Q: What is your detailed plan to make Columbia a safer place to live? Give specifics. Where can we improve? Where are we already strong in public safety?
A) As mayor, my job is not to micro-manage each department, but to develop an overall vision, hiring those who have the best knowledge, experience and initiative to succeed in their area of expertise. That means hiring the best city manager and department heads, and letting them do what they do best, taking their advice, watching their progress, and rewarding or replacing them as necessary.
One of many initiatives I would implement: monitored cameras in neighborhoods for increased security
Q: (Viewer submitted) Over the past several years, the city has lost jobs due to several companies moving to its neighboring communities. What is your plan to retain the existing employment opportunities and expand upon them?
A) Our property tax is far too high, as much as double or triple our neighbors, causing a loss of residents and business alike. As 66% of city property does not pay property tax, I want to implement fees in lieu of taxes, where everyone contributes their fair share for services received. This would reduce overall property tax, actually increase city revenue and keep services funded at proper levels, better protecting everyone.
If we do not find ways to increase revenue without any more burdens on existing businesses and residents, our services will deteriorate to the point that everyone, payers and non-payers alike, will suffer greatly. For instance, if we cannot keep up excellent fire service, everyone's insurance rates will increase as the rating services will downgrade Columbia. That also means that without excellent service, rather than a 10% loss of property to fire, it may mean 50% or more due to longer response time and inadequate equipment. As you can see, this is an expensive double whammy to all.
Q: What will you do to balance preservation with progress in Columbia's historic business district and neighborhoods?
A) Historic preservation does produce and enhance business and revenue. Zoning and design criteria must be correctly implemented with biannual reviews to ensure it preserves while encouraging, not stifling, growth.
Q: What commitment are you willing to make to the people of Columbia on reviewing and balancing the finances of the city under your watch?
A) Absolute commitment! Without proper finances, we can do nothing. If we again pay the same bills 3–4 times, I will call for a criminal investigation. If we start to get behind and council will not vote to act, I will let the citizens know, loudly and repeatedly, so they can pressure council to act quickly and responsibly. I will also move to replace administrators who fail to provide accurate, punctual information
Q: Columbia's arts groups are desperate for additional city funding. Would you support increasing the hospitality tax to help these groups?
A) No. There is enough money already collected in hospitality tax to responsibly fund the arts, but less than half of that collected is used for the arts. Over 50% (more than $5 million) is returned to the general city fund. Why?
Q: How do you plan to keep the CMTRA funded and solvent in the coming years? Does it include increasing ridership among young professionals?
A) Studies have suggested ways to preserve and improve the system, yet there has been no acceptance. The system cannot exist on city support alone; without regional support, it will fail.
First, we should re-examine need and demand, both from individuals and from businesses that need those individuals. This must be done quickly as the system will cease by next year without assistance. Then we must analyze the overall economic benefit and return. Once need, routes and benefits are determined, we must, as a region of governments, come to a reasonable and cost-effective agreement regarding funding the system without more restrictive financial burdens on our citizens, as currently proposed.
All community members' needs should be addressed, and most especially our senior citizens who no longer drive, yet desire community mobility.
Two ways to create funding and fill needs in public transportation:
1. Use inner-city buses as school buses in the morning and afternoon, as other cities do, saving the school district money by not having buses to purchase and maintain, thereby enabling the districts to pay less for student transportation while giving the city another revenue stream. If a child misses a bus, they can ride the next one, as the buses are on routes that include the schools and neighborhoods.
2. Put buses on rail wheels and use them for expedited routes to the northeast and northwest reaches of our metropolitan area. The bus will not be impeded by rush hour traffic, cutting much time off a trip from the outlying areas. It can then get off the track and move around the business district and neighborhood areas, delivering people to their destination. Monthly seat rental, coffee and a daily newspaper of choice make a welcome alternative to clogged highways. This creative idea came from Joe Roof, a local attorney and rail enthusiast.
Q: Your potential successor served more than 20 years as mayor. Should there be term limits for the position? Why or why not?
A) Yes, and for all positions. One of my campaign priorities is term limits, of which I have suggested at least 5 variations. My preference would be either a 2- or 3-term limit, with a mandatory one election cycle out, then the ability to run again for another 1-, 2- or 3-term period. This way a new person has an opportunity to serve, yet a good former council member may run again to serve at the will of the people.
Q: Do you support a plan to give Columbia a strong mayor government? Should the mayor have more power and what good would it do for the city?
A) Term limits first!
Does Columbia need a strong mayor? How do Charlotte and Greenville succeed and thrive with our type of system when we cannot? If our citizens hired their politicians as they do their employees, then Columbia would succeed fully. Years ago, Columbia had a strong mayor system and the citizens eliminated it due to corruption and cronyism. Columbia's historical successes and failures should contribute to any discussion of city politics.
Q: What is your plan to reduce crime and increase confidence in the City of Columbia Police Department?
A) That is answered above in: WHAT IS YOUR DETAILED PLAN TO MAKE COLUMBIA A SAFER PLACE TO LIVE? GIVE SPECIFICS. WHERE CAN WE IMPROVE? WHERE ARE WE ALREADY STRONG IN PUBLIC SAFETY?
Competent public safety officials should be allowed to solve problems as they know best. If they cannot, council should replace them with the best qualified people.
Q: (Viewer submitted) How would you change the city's culture of spending and prioritize projects? How would you change this spending culture on all levels of city government?
A) Being a frugal small businessperson who started out as a 19-year-old entrepreneur with $150 and a tool box, I am always searching for ways to save while improving revenue. It is incumbent for any leader in these times to develop creative solutions, a concept that we must instill in the city manager and department heads.
I would vote to keep us out of development deals such as airlines, hotels, and other private-sector-type development deals. I believe it more appropriate to be successful at responsibly running the city from the position of mayor, not diversifying with a series of businesses which are best run by the private sector, complete with attendant risks, which city council tried and lost to the tune of millions of dollars. Government never should compete with private sector in business, nor has our city been successful in business.
Q: Do you support investing more money into the revitalization of the north main street corridor? Why or why not?
A) I believe in treating all areas fairly and evenly. North Main St has been behind in development and neglected for too long, yet it has the potential to be Columbia's next renaissance area. Investing in this area with an intelligent business plan could return great economic rewards, much as the Vista has done over the past two decades.
Q: What's the best thing about living in Columbia?
A) Our people!