Friday, April 26, 2013

City Council chamber fills with VCE supporters and strange dialogue

Mayor Bowers lays down the rules at the budge public hearing.

Mayor Bowers lays down the rules at the budge public hearing.

The public hearing on the fiscal year 2013-2014 budget was akin to the movie “Groundhog Day.” A rerun of years past.

Over half of the 22 speakers at Roanoke City’s public hearing advocated for restoring funding to the Virginia Cooperative Extension to the fiscal year 2012-2013 level of $67,267. The VCE had asked for a supplemental request of $7,695 but had funding cut by $10,000 to $57,267 instead.

The same issue with VCE funding swamped city council chambers last year and resulted in restoration of all but $1000. Council members gave no hint that funding would be restored again this year.

See Roanoke city council restores funding in three areas May 8, 2012

Most of the speakers were certified Master Gardeners.

Part of the funding goes toward training VCE Master Gardeners. MG training was created by the Extension to meet an increase in requests from home gardeners for unbiased, research-based horticultural information. This increase was a result of the urban and transient nature of modern American life according to their website.

To become a certified VCE Master Gardener, 100 hours of classroom instruction and volunteer service must be completed in one year. They must meet other requirements to keep up the certification annually. “Generally it costs about $150,” said Master Gardener Jack Frankel.

Sharon Burnham owner of GardenVitals, LLC

Sharon Burnham owner of GardenVitals, LLC

Sharon Burnham owner of GardenVitals, LLC in response to Councilman Bill Bestpitch’s question on how much would a person be willing to pay to be a Master Gardener said, “we pay through hours and hours of our time, we pay through donations of our own plants, our pots, our soil, our materials, our supplies for putting on the program. We pay for our gas which is never reimburse. We know what it means to the people that we reach and that passion is shown by the people here in the audience today.”

Burnham who is also an attorney urged no cuts to the VCE program and no cuts to the Community Garden Association that received half their funding request of $20,000 – A first time request by Director Mark Powell.

Jordan Watts and Lindsay Wyatt were supporting 4-H again this year. 4-H receives resources from the VCE. They both have been involved in 4-H for 8 years. Jordan a student at Patrick Henry High School said she had just received the outstanding 4-H award. “Everything I’ve accomplished I owe to 4-H,” said Jordan.

The Real Estate Investors of Virginia were there in force objecting to the increase in code enforcement officers who “go around measuring” this and that. They claimed though Roanoke’s population has remained stagnant code enforcement officers have been added and that didn’t make sense. Code enforcement and waste management costs was a repeat from last year’s budget hearing too.

John Kepley said his father had a saying – “a little leak will sink a big ship … it seems to me that the leak has grown into a large hole within the good ship Roanoke” through the actions of city council over the years. He hoped Roanoke would not sink under the weight of debt similar to other cities. “Some economists are saying that America is the Titanic.” He said council needed the financial insights of a Warren Buffett and vision of Bill Gates and the wisdom of a Solomon.

Budget_Hearing_webArchitect and Roanoke City landlord Andy Stowasser called code enforcement “a bloated bureaucratic department.” He said in the past 20 years code enforcers have increased from 4 to 19. “They drive around with rulers and measure your grass,” he said.

Stowasser objected to code violations for cars with expired inspection stickers, leaves in gutters and potholes in driveways. “This is not building enforcement,” he said.

He claimed the excessive number of code enforcers were wasting taxpayer dollars to the tune of $1.253 million. His point was that just 10% of that amount would fund all of the other unfunded requests. There was a discrepancy in the stated number of rental housing. Stowasser said 53% and someone else said 63%. Director of Finance Ann Shawver said she would get the correct percentage.

Councilman Bill Bestpitch asked what should he do when he gets calls about unkempt property. Stowasser told him he should tell them to mow their grass and take care of the gutters. “Code officials target unoccupied properties,” complained Stowasser. The dialogue was beginning to reach the argument stage before Mayor Bower stepped in saying only one should speak at a time. That effectively ended the exchange.

Attorney Charles Nave

Attorney Charles Nave

Another back and forth contentious dialogue broke out between attorney Charles Nave and city council members Court Rosen, Ray Ferris and Bill Bestpitch. Nave said he was asked to speak on behalf of the Roanoke City Republicans.

Nave was distressed over the automatic pay increases “without regard to merit” that city employees were receiving. He also questioned the school funding formula suggesting there was no accountability or performance requirement built in. He asked that taxes not be raised.

City council members seemed baffled because the 2% employee raises were not automatic and city council was not getting a raise and taxes were not being increased and the budget was balanced.

When questioned by council members he wasn’t able to give specifics on his allegations. Ferris pointed out that the 2% increase for city employees was not automatic but had to be agreed upon by city council.

Rosen explained that the increase was to keep up with other jurisdictions to hire and keep qualified city employees. “We have to compete with our peers to make sure we get the best employees we can because the better the employees we have the more efficient and the better services they deliver … there’s nothing automatic.”

City council members will mull the comments over at their next briefing on May 6 prior to budget adoption on May 20.

Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Finance, Politics, Roanoke City Politics

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