Tuesday, March 30, 2010

City manager predicts slow growth the new normal for Roanoke

Chris Morrill, Ann Shawver and Sherman Stovall

Chris Morrill, Roanoke’s new city manager started off the Monday afternoon’s budget development work session with city council on a somber note. “The future ain’t what it used to be …what we do today will effect future generations,” said Morrill. 

Director of finance Ann Shawver led off the meeting by telling council that Roanoke’s sales tax generation is at the fiscal year 2004 level. In years 2006 through 2007 the city experienced six and one half percent growth. By FY11 “the city will have had four years of consecutive decline,” said Shawver. 

In 2009 the city experienced a five percent decline and Shawver sees “no true turn yet.” Year-to-date the city is down sixteen percent in sales tax revenue from fiscal year 2009 while the state’s sales tax revenue is only down six to seven percent. “There’s no place for this to go but up – it’s just a question of when it is going to go up,” said Shawver. 

Council member Gwen Mason asked how the projections were estimated. Shawver explained that it is not scientific but is a comparison with prior months tracking which leaves allot of gray area. The severe decline in sales tax revenue Shawver attributed to an outlier comparison in 2009 related to construction. 

Maintaining the current level of school funding leaves the city out of balance to the tune of $10.1 million. 

With the general assembly borrowing from VRS (Virginia Retirement System) to subsidize schools there was a slight improvement in the schools shortfall at $8.8 million. School Administrator Rita Bishop added what she considered two critical items – summer school and crossing guards. 

Shawver explained that borrowing from VRS was like raiding the Social Security lock box. Bishop added that, “It will have to be paid back with interest too.” 

Rita Bishop and Curt Baker

 The school figure lacked council’s promised $500,000 yearly increase. It holds steady at the 2010 level of $1 million. Should council approve the two percent meals tax increase it would restore 23 of the 93 position reductions. Bishop still favors closing the Round Hill Primary school. The justification was that there is an opening for a principal elsewhere and Round Hill was the only K-5 school remaining. 

Morrill recommended elimination of the DARE at elementary schools saying measuring the efficiency of DARE can’t be proven. 

Recommended cuts in public safety include unfunding a training position, an assistant fire Marshall, an EMS battalion chief, a building inspector, middle school resource officers and support staff. 

Council member Anita Price voiced concern on the closure of Crisis Intervention and Youth Haven. Price asked, “where would they be absorbed to?” There is no place for them to go admitted Sherman Stovall director of management and budget. Assistant manager, Brian Townsend said, “not every community in Virginia has programs like this … there is not currently a private sector provider for that service.” 

Health and welfare will lose five full-time positions along with a reduction in funding to outside agencies. 

Public works will lose three positions and building maintenance will be reduced along with curb and sidewalk maintenance. 

Councilman Court Rosen wondered why efficiencies were not targeted earlier. Stovall said the shortfall “has forced us to look more critically at how to provide services.” He admitted that prior to this budget session it was done in a piecemeal fashion and now it will be done systematically. 

Discontinuation of Holiday and special event decorations was bandied about. Bowers lamented over the elimination of decorations saying, “we are becoming a colorless flowerless city.” 

This prompted a privatization discussion with Mayor David Bowers cautioning that the outcomes are not always favorable pointing to VDOT as an example. “We lose some control over it … there is always that profit motive,” said Bowers. Morrill agreed that “the private sector does not always do better … competition does it.” He explained that you always want to have the ability to “take it back over again.” 

Parks and recreation will suffer program reductions with closure of the main branch library on Sunday, Raleigh Court branch one night a week and Virginia room one day a week. The Washington Park and Fallon Park pools will operate three days a week. 

Judicial administration will lose a law clerk. The Commonwealth Attorney will eliminate an hourly employee. 

Community Development and Planning will lose two positions and there will be no more stipends for the planning commission and board of zoning appeals members. 

Valley Metro will charge $1 for a student fare and the Star Trolley service will be reduced by 5 hours per day. 

General government takes a soft blow losing one human resources position. The Citizen magazine and municipal calendar will be eliminated with other means found to communicate with the citizens. One Treasurer clerk position will be reallocated for an hourly employee instead. 

Technology will lose two positions and other funding savings of $689,000. 

A total of 64 positions will be eliminated and unfunded to balance the 2011 budget. A retirement incentive will be offered and acceptance required by July 1. Maximum payout is set at $9,000. 

Increases in fees and fines recommended include parking ticket fines and boot removal, building inspections, amusement fee increases, fireworks permits and a $2 court fee for civil actions. 

Bowers final request was for Morrill to look at economic development incentives to find “anything more we can do.”

Forums will be held Wednesday at the Roanoke Civic Center at 9 am and 6:30 pm. Council will continue budget discussions on April 5 at 9:00 am prior to the 2:00 pm council meeting with a public hearing on the two percent meals tax increase.

Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Education, Finance, Politics, Roanoke City Politics, Roanoke City Public Schools

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