Waynesboro will get a $2 million-plus public park with an investment by local taxpayers of $125,000. Sounds like a good deal, right?
That $125,000 will be paid back many times over, not that you’d know that by the local media coverage, which amplified the 20 people, literally, who spoke out Monday night at a Waynesboro City Council meeting against the project.
“I’m just a little bit confused,” Mayor Bobby Henderson said after the two-hour-plus public hearing on Sunset Park, moments before City Council voted 3-2 to approve the project, which will transform the former city landfill into a public park with hiking and mountain biking trails and public space for festivals.
“You know, we’ve gone through the budget, this is my third year on the council, we’ve gone through the budget process for three years in a row, for three years in a row. We want to make stuff better for our public servants, for our employees that work for the city, our firemen, our policemen. But all three years, the same people that come and said, you’ve got to invest in the police, come and say, you can’t raise our taxes because we want our taxes to remain low. I’m just confused about this works,” Henderson said, addressing a chief concern raised by critics, that the city was committing money to a park that it could be using to address a manpower shortage on the city police force.
The police manpower issue is not anything new. I’ve been reporting on local politics in Waynesboro since 1995, when I was just a young pup. Among the recurring topics that I’ve written about for more than 27 years now is that, Waynesboro doesn’t pay its police enough, that our salary structure for police, fire, rescue, teachers and other municipal employees is embarrassingly behind our peers, that Waynesboro taxpayers end up paying to train employees who end up working at better salaries in Staunton, Augusta County, Charlottesville, Albemarle County.
So, yes, the city, with the vote to give the go-ahead to Sunset Park Monday night, did nothing in that vote to address the manpower issue.
It’s not true that it blew money on a park that could have gone to police, though.
“This is a one-time investment, what we’re doing now. We can’t take the money there to give pay raises to the employees, and then next year come back, and there’s no money there to make a pay raise without raising taxes,” Henderson said. “So, if you’re if you’re saying you’re supporting public police or police services, fire services, and all the employees, support it with your tax bill. Don’t come in here during tax time when we’re trying to build a budget and say, don’t raise my taxes, it’s the wrong time, it’s a bad time, it’s never a good time to raise taxes. But every tax season that I’ve sat here since I’ve been on council, I have heard that from the same people that are saying, we want to fund the police department, we want to fund the fire department.”
Brave words from a guy whose Ward C seat is up for re-election in November, but truer words are rarely spoken aloud.
Waynesboro has been trying to figure out what to do with the old landfill property since it closed the landfill in 2003. The problem with the eyesore on the mountain overlooking the city dates back generations, to when the city leaders of yesteryear, in their infinite lack of wisdom, decided to locate the landfill where literally everybody in the city could see it.
The River City has long since earned a reputation for spending money and years of time developing plans that end up collecting dust on a shelf, because of the dominance of do-nothing politicians who have long had a stranglehold on the 20 percent of city voters who come out every other May for the City Council elections, who skew older, whiter and tighter with money.
These folks, and the politicians they put in office every two years, could do without the plans that end up collecting dust on the shelves in City Hall, because every time one of them comes up for a vote, they make the same case that we saw made Monday night: that we can’t possibly have enough money to do whatever the latest plan calls for, because we have so many other problems to deal with that we don’t really want to have to deal with, either.
I didn’t call this vote going in the direction that it did, because no votes in 30 years have gone the direction that Monday’s vote did.
Waynesboro is the place where good ideas for what to do to get things moving forward are born to die.
“This is a getting-ahead investment,” said At-Large Councilor Terry Short, who voted with the majority to approve the park project. “A lot of folks talk about how government should run like a business. I kind of agree. I think government should run like a business. And, you know, what a business does, it reinvents itself, it doubles downs on on things that it’s good at. In our community, through our comprehensive plan visioning moments, we spent a great deal of time talking about our identity of a community, who we are and where we need to be, how do we compete against those that are competing against us, our neighbors, what sets us aside. And without a question in my mind, much in the way that I can’t think of one person who was opposed to Sunset Park, it is a top priority in our comprehensive plan as a getting-ahead investment. And I am grateful for the opportunity to turn our attention to a part of our community that has lacked investment, and to provide access to neighborhoods that don’t currently have active and passive recreational space, and to make investments in them as much as our city and our visitors.”
“Let’s not sit and look at that empty space for another 20 years and then say, gosh, we should have done it back then,” Ward D Councilor Sam Hostetter said. “Here is an opportunity that we are going to be using funds that have been given us with certain recommendations, certain restrictions, to invest, that was a word that a lot of people use, to invest in our community and utilize it to build, and 20 years from now, when many of us are up there enjoying that view, we’re going to look back and say, thank goodness that this was done.”
Hostetter, it must be pointed out, is also up for re-election in November.
It must also be pointed out that a new state law moved the city elections to November from May, which should have an impact on overall voter turnout.
The 20 people who spoke out against the Sunset Park project used to be able to throw their weight around more effectively because fewer people were voting every other May.
You’re going to see more participation in November, and every other November.
More participation might mean more life for Waynesboro, if nothing else, maybe a new lease on life for all the planning that we do here that ends up collecting dust.
Story by Chris Graham