Body blows: Staunton council challengers hit hard on spending, economic development

Story by Chris Graham

The six Queen City residents vying for the four open seats on Staunton City Council were on one dais Tuesday night … eventually.

“Maybe I can even be on time next time,” incumbent City Councilman Dickie Bell said after arriving 45 minutes late for the candidates’ forum sponsored by the Staunton Democratic Committee.

Bell, who was late because of one of his other jobs, as coach of the Riverheads High School girls’ soccer team, joined three other incumbents – Dave Metz, Dick Robinson and Rita Wilson – and two challengers, former council member Doug Manning and Staunton attorney James Welsh, at the forum, which drew 42 people to City Hall on a stormy night.

It was hard to tell who stole the show, if anybody – though the two challengers more than held their own.

Manning and Welsh hit hard against the seated city council for its decision to fund $10 million toward the $20 million-plus renovation of the Stonewall Jackson Hotel – with Welsh delivering perhaps the toughest blow.

“I’m running for a simple reason. The impression that I have with the way that the city council in recent years has run the city is that it has been done with a lack of fiscal discipline and responsibility,” Welsh said.

“Look at the investment in the Stonewall Jackson Hotel as an example. You’re talking about adding $10 million to the public debt that is already in the range of $35 million, and then adding $12 million in debt for renovations to the two elementary schools on top of that.”

Manning suggested that the city come up with money for big-ticket projects including the school-renovations matters on the city agenda – at Ware Elementary and McSwain Elementary – in part by taking a different approach to economic development than is currently charted.

“You look over at the expense side of the city manager’s budget for the coming fiscal year, and you see that we’re talking about continuing with the hiring freeze that was instituted last year because there were insufficient funds in the budget to meet the current spending requirements. And this is in spite of increases in collections of sales and meals taxes,” Manning said.

“We might need to look at taking a different approach to growing our tax base. The current administration has spent a good deal of time and energy on growing the city’s retail base at the expense of industry. We have two industrial parks, and there hasn’t been much activity in that area for some time here in Staunton,” Manning said.

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