Story by Chris Graham
Staunton’s all at-large election system should make for an interesting time on Tuesday.
Six candidates – incumbent council members Dickie Bell, Dave Metz, Dick Robinson and Rita Wilson and challengers Doug Manning and James Welsh – are running for the four seats open on the seven-member public body.
We asked the candidates five questions pulled from the top issues that seem to be on the minds of voters this election season.
One of the candidates, Wilson, was unable to respond to our questionnaire.
1. What are your top priorities for improving the quality of life in Staunton?
We must keep the city safe, affordable and beautiful. Public safety for our citizens is mandatory. Reasonable tax rates that keep Staunton affordable for middle-class working citizens and retirees is essential. Responsible land use that protects green space, planned growth and development and clean industry that provides better paying jobs all contribute to our quality of life and must be priorities.
Expand the tax base in our city. We appear to be more interested in retail business than clean, light industrial business. We have one industrial park that is less than half full and a city-owned industrial park that has been waiting for the first tenant for about three years.
We need to continue to be very alert to activities concerning I-81. If the plan to remove the off-ramp to U.S. 250 when the addition of lanes to I-81 is approved, this will significantly reduce traffic to the Richmond Road businesses.
Our economy is very dependent on tourism. There are too many uncertainties to being this dependent on tourism. We need to find ways to diversify our revenue sources.
I firmly believe we have to continue to invest in our future. We have to grow the tax base through increased tourism and retail development, provide a public school second to none and continue to promote our precious architectural heritage.
I think it is very important that we improve the quality of life for our senior citizens. I think we can start by asking the seniors what they want. I would like to see a senior citizens’ center with many different activities.
I think we need to improve the quality of life with our youth. Once again, I think we need to ask them what they want. Then work in that direction. We have made progress in this area, but much more needs to be done.
The setting of common-sense budget priorities is critical. Public safety (police and fire), public works (streets, parks, water, sewer and refuse
pick-up) and education have been and must continue to be the city’s priorities. Only by properly funding and carrying out these responsibilities can the city be a place where a vibrant mix people can enjoy and participate in urban life.
2. Was the move to endorse the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center project the right one for Staunton?
I would not have voted to endorse this project when the cost went to over $10 million. There are risks involved with any project of this magnitude, and I felt the risks were excessive. The hotel is certainly dependent on sufficient parking, and since the city already had a sizeable investment in the parking garage, I did not feel the city should make the additional investment. When you look at the development in that area, it could turn out to be a good investment. The Blackfriars Theater, the R. R. Smith History Center and the planned Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, these could be sufficient to provide enough guests for the hotel to prosper. I’m sure the city informed possible investors of these plans. When they were unable to get private investors to commit to the project with more financing, I would not have endorsed this project as a member of council.
Without reservation, I think this project will be one of the greatest long-term investments the city could make. I believe the conservative estimates show that it will generate revenue far in excess of the debt service. I believe the risk is minimal as our debt is directly tied to a building. If the operating partner, Crestline Capital, were to default, we own the conference center, and we find another operator, just as happened in Charlottesville. Most of all, I think there is an enormous risk to do nothing. I try to imagine that building converted into a project that would be perfectly legal but not in the best interests of the city of Staunton. That risk seems too large to accept without trying to avert a disaster.
Yes, I feel the Stonewall Jackson Hotel project is very viable. Is there a risk? Yes, however I think it would be a bigger risk by doing nothing.
No. It represents a misplaced sense of priorities and does not represent good stewardship of the public’s money.
Absolutely. In the future we will look back on this decision as a key to the revitalization of our downtown as a viable profit center. A public/private partnership arrangement for a hotel project has been at the core of the vision for the city for more than 15 years. Now we have it. It’s time to proceed.
3. Do you support the institution of a 30-cent per pack tax on cigarettes?
At this point I would not support the full 30-cent proposal as recommended by the city manager. However, I am totally committed to starting construction of both school renovations as quickly as possible to save construction costs, interest costs, and above all to make our schools more desirable for potential residents. I feel the proposed alternative of 15 cents might be acceptable, but until we have a state budget, to make any concrete statement would be purely speculative.
No, I do not support a 30-cent cigarette tax. However, I am open for suggestions to other ways to raise money to renovate the two elementary schools.
No. The recent experience in Harrisonburg shows this to be an ill-advised tax. I would support it, if a similar tax was imposed in Augusta County. If only the city imposes it, the result will be a significant negative to the city and to its retailers, most particulary its convenience-store operators.
No. I believe that sufficient data has been presented to the council from the public about the adverse effect this tax would have on business.
4. Should Staunton undertake renovation projects at both A.R. Ware and T.C. McSwain elementary schools at the same time?
Yes, I think it is very important to do both schools at the same time, from an economic as well as a needs standpoint.
No. If this question had been asked before council committed to increase the city’s bonded indebtedness by $10 million for the Stonewall
Jackson Hotel project, I would have said yes. Doing both schools at once will add another $11.6 million in debt. The resulting 60 percent increase in the city’s general-obligation debt ($34.5 million to $56 million) is fiscally unsound.
If we could afford it without new taxes or tax increases, then by all means. The needs are without question. We have the money to do one school, and there was once a verbal understanding with the schools that we would proceed in that fashion. That has since been cast aside, and it appears the only way to do both at once is with a new tax or tax increase. While renovations are certainly in order, the quality of education is not determined by bricks and mortar, and the burden for these improvements should not be in the form of new or greater taxes. Having completed two major renovations in the past eight years, we are actually ahead of where we thought we would be on school renovations. I would like to see us stay on track to do all necessary renovations without becoming overzealous when the money is not there.
The city has funding to renovate one school, and I think we should stay with this schedule. The idea for doing both schools at the same time came from the school board when they would not make a decision on which to do first. The money for renovating the second school is not available without enacting the new taxes or raising existing taxes. I do not favor enacting new taxes or raising existing taxes. With the General Assembly and governor having a difficult time agreeing on a budget, you can bet this is not good news for the localities. I think we will see cuts from the state, and who knows what we may have to do to get a workable budget for Staunton?
Literary loans are not available for school renovation at the present time, and the city has no idea when they might return. Without the availability of low-interest literary loans, we may be wise to wait and see if and when they become available. We can always go borrow money from the banks at higher interest rates, which is what we would do now.
Absolutely! We cannot afford to wait any longer. We have an elected school board that thoughtfully examined all aspects of this issue and recommended this course of action. It has been speculated that construction would be better managed to close one school during the construction. Again, our dedicated school board believes that with the experience we gained in the renovation of Bessie Weller, this is an acceptable inconvenience. I truly believe we will save the taxpayers at least a million dollars on a project that is not a matter of if, but when. I cannot in good conscience let the citizens of Staunton forgo that kind of savings.
5. Can Staunton do a better job of upgrading public infrastructure outside the core of the city?
Yes. Street maintenance has been sorely neglected, particularly in the western sections of the city. Sidewalk improvements are also very needed to make the city more pedestrian friendly.
Yes. We need to make a concerted effort to extend infrastructure improvements, including roads and sidewalks, to all areas of the city.
I am not sure what you are making reference to with this question, so I am going to answer it as completely as I can. If you are referring to streets, then the answer is yes, but you will need to put the funds in the budget. The city manager’s budget reduces the paving from $310,000 in FY 2004 to $240,000 in FY 2005, a reduction of $70,000, so it is obvious that we cannot do as much paving in 2005 because the budget has been reduced. There was $25,000 in FY 2004 budget for sidewalks, and all of that money has been removed from the FY 2005 proposed budget. Public works has a defective asphalt machine used for heating the asphalt to repair potholes. The funds for replacing the asphalt machine are not in the FY 2005 budget. If the budget is adopted as the city manager has recommended, we will not do as much street repairs in FY2005.
The recommended budget reduces the Churchville Avenue storm-drain phase II by $390,000, but has $137,000 for Hunting Hills storm drain, $110,000 for Orange/Oak storm drain and $130,000 for the Wharf Area storm drain. Most of this work is outside the core district of downtown and will improve those areas designated.
Water fund capital: The city manager’s budget proposes $307,000 for replacement of water lines located outside the downtown core district.
Sewer funds for capital: The city manager’s budget has $385,813 for replacement of sewer lines, with about $300,000 being designated for outside the downtown core district.
Hopefully this will give you an understanding of the things that are being proposed in the city manager’s budget. The council has the authority to make changes, as they deem necessary.
Unquestionably, we can do better. Unfortunately, those types of projects cost a lot of money, and we are always dealing with needs way beyond resources. My idea would be to make a commitment of some dollar amount per budget year and hope that successive city councils would not eliminate this plan. During the past three years, we have committed approximately $700,000 per year for the Churchville Avenue storm-sewer project, and I think this indicates that we are trying to improve our infrastructure outside the downtown. This city is very old, and we have to have at least a 20-year plan that take into account replacement and upgrading of these critical needs before they fail and cause even larger expense that could be preventable.
Yes, I think it is very important to work on our infrastructure all the time. Downtown is in good shape. Now it the time to make a large effort on our streets, sidewalks, as well as flooding in certain areas.