Impact of Waynesboro referendum to be felt beyond Election Day

Story by Chris Graham
freepress2@ntelos.net

Yes or no – whatever Waynesboro residents end up saying about five bond issues in a nonbinding referendum on the ballot tomorrow will go a long way to determining what happens in next year’s city-council elections.
“This is a good gauge for me, really, to see what the people want. If the people vote for all these things, then they’re looking at more tax increases – and I don’t know if I should be the fellow to represent them. On the other hand, if they vote against all these projects, then I’ll feel like I’ll have a feel for what the people want,” said City Councilman Frank Lucente, whose at-large seat is one of three that will be up for re-election in the May 2008 city elections.

Lucente was one of two councilmen – along with Ward A representative Tim Williams – whose public stance against committing $26 million toward bond issues for a new West End fire station, a new youth baseball-softball complex, improvements to the Waynesboro Public Library and a series of stormwater and sidewalk improvements forced the hand of the city-council majority into seeking Tuesday’s referendum.

Ward C council representative Lorie Smith is on the other side of the capital-improvements issue – but she agrees with Lucente that tomorrow’s results will do more than signal how city dwellers feel on the five specific questions being asked of them.

“I think the turnout tomorrow will be good. I think that in November elections the turnout is typically locally on the light side.But I do anticipate that the numbers will increase tomorrow given these questions on the referenda – because I do see a demographic change that’s been going on in Waynesboro. I really believe that we are trending in a different direction as a city – and we’re much more progressive. And I think that people are getting vested in some of the change that they’re starting to see,” Smith said.

To Smith, the referendum is “about moving Waynesboro forward – and about correcting infrastructure issues that have been around for quite some time.” To Lucente, though, the key factor is seeing the city do what it can do in a fiscally-responsible manner.

“I just think that we have a lot of debt right now. We’re obligated for future debt for infrastructure such as water and sewage that’s going to be approaching $100 million. I think this is just too much of a burden on the city taxpayers. I think that it’s more important that when we borrow, we borrow for infrastructure like water and sewage, things that are really important, not just wants,” Lucente told The Augusta Free Press today.

“If we keep borrowing and keep doing more and more things, it’s going to cost taxpayers more and more money,” Lucente said. “If this bond referendum passes, it’s, in my opinion, that taxes will have to be raised. We’ll pay $14 million for these bonds, and interest is roughly another $12 million – so we’re talking $26 million. And over the course of 30 years, it’s almost a million dollars a year in just payments. So right now you can see all the trouble we’ve had trying to come up with a million a year for stormwater – well, these would just about put a million dollars in added burden on the taxpayers for these projects.”

Smith counters that it will not be the case that the city council will have to turn around and raise taxes next year to pay for the new debt that would be incurred here.

“I do hear that same concern from folks as well – and I can tell you from my perspective when I voted for the 70-cent tax rate this past spring, it was with keeping in mind the projection on what debt service would be required to meet the demands of these projects,” Smith told the AFP. “And when you start weighing that we had a tax increase this past spring, and weighing that against projected future growth in Waynesboro in terms of our revenue growth, I think that the city will be well-positioned to manage not only the debt-service payments associated with these projects, but also the recurring expenses in terms of the expenditures that will be required annually with respect to things like the fire station where will have annual operating costs.

“So I feel very good in terms of the vote that I placed for the tax rate – and understanding that we could take on debt service and get these projects going within the city,” Smith said.

Smith also feels good about what a new West End fire station could do to improve public safety in the River City.

“Obviously the driving force behind having the substation built on the West End is due to the outgrowth of the West End of Waynesboro,” said Smith, whose ward includes the West End.

“When you think logically just in terms of all the new businesses that are in place now also in addition to all of the new housing developments that are online and that are continuing to come online, if you look at the response times – if you look at a topographical map of Waynesboro, and you see that we’re only meeting response times on the West End at a maximum of 20 percent of the time, you begin to see very quickly that we’re not doing what we need to be doing to meet the needs out here on the West End,” Smith said.

“In my estimation, one fire is one fire too many out here – and when you’re looking at that serious a gap in response times, you’re allowing fires to compound themselves exponentially over those three to four minutes in excess that it’s taking our guys to get out here. And that’s just not acceptable to me – and I feel that I would be negligent in my role as a council member if I did not acknowledge the fact that we are caring for the issues around fire safety on this end of town,” Smith said.

Lucente, for his part, worries about the projected $2.6 million cost associated with the fire station – and recurring costs associated with increasing staffing to get it up and running.

“That’s the big concern that I have – and that would probably be a million dollars a year. And that’s another million dollars that we’d have to come up with. And the new fire station will only improve service – and that’s just response time – in 18 percent of the city. The other 82 percent of the city gets no benefit from that,” Lucente said.
“I think we should spend a little bit of money to work on call times – that’s the time that the 911 call comes in until the time that it gets passed over to the fire department – and work on training our firemen a little bit more, putting in pre-emption lights, which will clear out the intersections, allowing fire trucks to get through quicker. These are little things that help the response time for the entire city, not just 18 percent – and doesn’t come with the high cost of what another fire department would entail,” Lucente said.

Regarding the biggest ticket of the big-ticket items on the referendum, the $6.2 million price tag for a series of stormwater-system improvements, Lucente wonders if it wouldn’t make more sense for the city to focus on the stormwater infrastructure that is already in place before adding more to the overloaded system.

“I realize that these eight projects are big projects in the city – but I also realize that we have a lot of infrastructure in place. Over 100 ponds are already in place. And our maintenance of this infrastructure is nonexistent,” Lucente said. “We have pipes that are three-quarters filled with silt. We have boxes that can’t let the water go through because they’re filled with debris. We have drainage ditches that are filled with plants and trees. And we have stormwater ponds where the walls have fallen down – and we have 20-foot trees in the bottom of them.
“Our infrastructure that we have is not being maintained – so my thought is, let’s take care of what we have before we add more infrastructure. If we can’t take care of the infrastructure that we have, why would we spend millions to create more infrastructure? If we don’t maintain what we have, then this added infrastructure will just be unmaintained, too,” Lucente said.

Smith, for her part, wonders aloud why the stormwater projects even had to go to the referendum in the first place.

“What it will mean if they don’t pass on the referendum is that those projects will be done at a much slower pace because of a lack of revenue to get them done in an efficient manner. So the borrowing done with these projects with an approved referendum obviously would expedite these projects in a way that we could complete them within a five- to six-year period – and I think, for me, borrowing the money to get these projects done now and keeping the expense down is the way to go,” Smith said.

Smith said she expects solid voter turnout across the city.

“I’ve been impressed with the feedback that I just get out and about around town with people that are focusing in on these issues – they’re requesting information, they’re wanting to learn more about some of the projects that they feel are more important to them, and I’ve been very impressed with that. At least in my perspective, I’ve seen some citizens get more involved with these referendum questions than getting to know some of the candidates in the past where we’ve just had school-board or city-council election candidates themselves.”
Lucente doesn’t see that same level of interest outside of a few special-interest circles.
“And the lower the turnout, the better the chance these referendums have to pass. That’s the crux of the problem. I just hope that there is a big turnout – and people say what they want,” Lucente said.

“This is a very important event. If the general voters do not turn out, and we have a low turnout, the special interests that favor their particular projects will muster up enough people to get 7, 8 percent of the people out, and they’ll win – and the people, the general public, will lose. So when the taxes are raised, then they’ll come back to city hall and say, What are you raising our taxes for?” Lucente said.

  

Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.



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