Some time ago, nearly two years back, the fabric of a movement was starting to be sewn. The foundations for a campaign, the likes of which Lynchburg had never seen, were laid and nurtured. As the narrative of these last two years were daily inked into the volumes of history, we finally arrived at November 8th, 2022, where for the first time in nearly two decades, Lynchburg City Council will have a new political majority.
It has often been said to me throughout this campaign cycle, something to the effect of, “The city is less safe, taxes are too high, and students are struggling.” When I was talking to voters at the door all over the city, one in broad fashion, or two, if not all three of these topics were front of mind. These comments eventually led to the drafting and adoption of the “Lynchburg Pledge,” a document reciprocating these sentiments in written form, as well as a Republican commitment to provide pragmatically conservative solutions to them.
With the new year rapidly approaching, the time for this new Republican majority to deliver solutions on these issues is upon us, and our new caucus should not delay. What may the new trajectory of Lynchburg look like?
It is my hope that in sharing these considerations with you, as to what the new policies of council should be from my perspective, the reader would be firstly informed, but secondly – and most crucial to the success of its implementation – energized, animated, and compelled to support the direction of our government.
Further, that this be far from the single thoughts of a politician in city hall, but rather it be a repository entirely reflective of the platform we voted for.
This piece will not be a simple report or political talking point, adorned with rhetoric, broad generalities, and witty one-liners; rather, a multi-faceted playbook on how to best advance towards the endzone, a strategy that all players can unify behind. In other words, think of this as the huddle before the play, or film review before the big game.
I realize, just like on the playing field, everything planned for (discussed or proposed) may or may not be exactly what is executed, implemented, or adopted. Some of these items should be, however, and without exception.
In general, for this one council member, I fully plan on advocating for these items as presented below and am eager to hear the input of the new council.
So, together, let’s dive in.
Our public education system needs work.
For those who have been watching, my criticism of the division being laser focused on the school board is evident, as they are the primary governing body of Lynchburg City Schools, who have been appointed by the outgoing, twenty-year-old majority on city council.
We are seeing declining enrollment, lower graduation rates, dilapidated infrastructure, mediocre compensation (at best) for “boots on the ground educators,” a bloated administrative budget, failing Standards of Quality scores, poor transportation structure, and the list goes on and on.
The issues are derived from the appointments city council has made to the Lynchburg City School Board over the last twenty years and the actions taken, or not, by those appointed.
We need a wholesale shift in governance on the school board.
One of the key elements of the Lynchburg Pledge was to deliver on empowering parents, to vote for school board members, not a select few politicians. Lynchburg is one of a handful of localities left in Virginia whereby school board members are appointed by city council, not elected by the voters.
This piece is critical to the success of the Lynchburg Pledge, and it cannot be overstated.
Why should this be done? Well, much of this debate was held over the course of the campaign; however, to put it plainly, parents and voters deserve direct oversight of their public school system. And, if local Republicans were to backtrack on this item, thinking we know better than you, meaning we should control the appointments (and for whatever justification), our new majority is no better than the twenty-year-old one that was just defeated.
Empowering families to make their own decisions for the education and upbringing of their children is paramount to addressing the litany of other items previously mentioned.
Whatever your family makeup, however it may look like in your household, as the parent or guardian of a child, you know what is best for their well-being far more than we could.
So, we will empower parents.
I, and a majority of the new council, have committed to pursue strategies for placing this matter on a ballot referendum in a November election. I stand ready to act as soon as practicable so Lynchburg voters can once and for all codify this most important change.
From a “process” standpoint, at first, the new council will have to appoint some members, at least in 2023, as it is likely not feasible for changing to an elected board by November of the year.
So, our appointment process, unlike years past, must be fully open and transparent for all to witness.
Meaning, no closed-door meetings and discussions; respecting a council member’s desire to interview a particular candidate; and, publicly appointing our new school board members by incorporating a form of preferential voting on those interviewed, whereby final candidates are selected by councilmembers listing applicants from most to least favorable, finally appointing those who finish with the highest score.
This is the most transparent and open appointment process that I can think of.
For me, as I always have, I look forward to supporting school board appointments who will respect the responsibilities of parents for governing the education and development of their child; focus on academic success (emphasizing reading, writing, math, science, history, and the arts); prioritize investment in the classroom before other areas, while fiscally responsible; expanding vocational and STEM initiatives; and are accountable for their actions. These priorities should be at the foundation of the new direction for education in the city.
Safety for the students, staff, and faculty continue to be a chief priority for all school divisions, and Lynchburg has taken some positive steps on this front. Ensuring, however, every elementary, middle, and high school has armed security is a must.
Earlier this year, the local facilities study for our school buildings was released. If you recall, the results of the report were not pretty.
In short, there are too many buildings for the number of students currently in the division, and that enrollment continues to decline. So, what does this future council do, particularly in this economy, particularly over the next three to five years?
Does it build a new building and remove others? Expand our build out on an existing site? Or just remove assets and stop there? Nothing at all?
This issue will have significant impact on the future of our city. Candidly, I cannot cast a vision or proposal for this area until a few more items are checked off. Redistricting of schools comes to mind, chiefly. Yet, given the importance of this topic, it is worth noting. Over the next few years, it will be this council who ultimately decides where, how, and how much as it relates to the Facilities Study.
Most importantly, we must make financial decisions that are responsible and mindful. Transitioning to an elected school board would bring the thoughts and considerations of parents directly to the table as the plans are developed and executed.
Coupled with this aspect the conversation must be a form of a “lab” school. I firmly believe creating more educational opportunities in the city will only improve the overall graduate coming out of Lynchburg, regardless of if they are public or private graduates. An “all of the above” approach to education must include this.
Our neighbors to the South (North Carolina) are reaping the benefits of this kind of system. With a Lab School in the city, young minds will have opportunities to grow and develop like never before, both bolstering our local workforce development and economy. There is no better place in Central Virginia for a Lab School than right here in Lynchburg.
Now, a critical element of this whole section is the funding piece. What will it cost, and what outcomes may our decisions have? I have two thoughts.
First, council and the school board could find a “Education Funding Formula” to help all of us plan for the future needs of our division. Under such a formula, if the local taxes are strong, so is the investment into Lynchburg City Schools and educational programs; if taxes are down, we’ll all have to find ways to tighten our belts.
Second, council could direct funds to the board via category, meaning “X” for payroll, “Y” for capital improvement, and “Z” for transportation (and so on). This would be representative of how our Commonwealth and Federal Government operate; when Congress allocates funds, the Executive follows as directed (or should, at least).
For Lynchburg to do the things we need to do within the realm of education, a point of emphasis must be made on ensuring funds go where they are supposed to. In other words, just as police officers and firefighters in Lynchburg have the best compensation package in the region, so should our teachers. Right now, they don’t, in large part because the school board refuses to use the millions of left-over funds on the folks who make education happen in the city.
All to say, I can see a combination of these two ideas for how to best reconcile the financial impact on our taxpayers.
Concluding this segment, I believe the working relationship between council and the school board is not in a strong position. Historically, the leadership of council and the board meet on a regular basis; yet this cuts out the bulk of council, and leaves much of the content discussed behind closed doors.
Thus, a committee of three council members and several board members, meeting on a regular basis to receive reports on the challenging areas of public education, would help improve this relationship. This body could also entertain infrastructure needs, compensation, funding streams, safety issues, workforce pipelines, and more. The rollout of the facilities study for future physical schools in the city would also be a critical work of this body.
From council’s side, Councilmembers Wilder, Reed, and Taylor are my recommendations for this group.
With a litany of changes to come in the new year, it is clear to me that such adjustments will bolster the competitiveness of Lynchburg City Schools, and potentially bring it back into consideration for those families who have moved on to other educational opportunities.
On Public Safety:
Much of this cycle surrounded this key responsibility of government. In my view, it is the chief responsibility of government, and we must build up the bulk of our policy through this lens.
Clearly, violent crime has skyrocketed. While this may not be a “Lynchburg specific problem” as opined by many, as some justification to continue the same policies as in years past, such a statement accepts the broader national narrative on crime rather than the Hill City proving to be a part of the solution, not the problem itself. Lynchburg can and should be a leader, not a follower.
Hiring more officers is not the only solution. Yet, it is obvious that our Police Department does not have what is needed from a staffing perspective. Many of the factors associated with this fact, yes, are not “our fault,” but citizens are left with ever increasing calls related to violent crime on their streets.
It is worth noting we are utilizing the same sized police force as twenty years ago, and the city has of course grown. Hiring more officers would make the presence of law enforcement stronger in this city, and that alone would be a strong step forward.
Allocating resources, over a period of five years, for a specific number of law enforcement positions would be a path forward. For example, five new positions for five years would result in twenty-five new law enforcement positions by 2028-2029. If hiring issues continue over this period, whereby we cannot fill those positions, the city has worked up capital enough to reconsider compensation packages for those officers currently on the books, thus resulting in the city maintaining and building upon a competitive edge.
Additional staff would also position the city to utilize once again our “specialty units” that were taken off the street some time ago due to lack of personnel. These units generally work to proactively target those who are conducting criminal activity in the city, further combating illegal action. Units such as traffic, investigation, narcotics, street teams, and so on, would be brought back to a full roster.
On the backend of the criminal justice system, our office of Commonwealth’s Attorney needs support. To ensure Lynchburg is a city of law and order, our Commonwealth’s Attorney needs to be backed up, and our officers need this too (officers use the representation of the Commonwealth Attorney’s in court). Properly funding that office will bolster our prosecution of crimes and continue the narrative of law & order for our area.
Moving over to our Fire Department, all units (meaning, Medic Units, Fire Trucks, etc.) need the reciprocal “relief factor” or appropriate staffing. Currently, this is not the case, and causes various resources to repeatedly be out of service, lowering our response time and public safety coverage.
A similar rollout to the Police Department staffing should be considered here as well. It is also a fair criticism to note the lack of new physical Fire Stations in the city. In fact, it is my understanding the city is operating with the same number of stations since the last annexation (the late 1970s). This is most confounding, and council should promptly consider another station, particularly in the Wards Road area.
Next, I would offer the future council should create an Ad Hoc committee of the body to review our public safety standing on a regular basis. This group would be the backbone and policy mind of council when it relates to public safety in the city of Lynchburg.
Enforcement policies, staffing levels, compensation competitiveness, crime rates, resource utilization, even collaboration with local non-profits and other entities who have a keen understanding of the issues, and more would be excellent items to review, consider, adjust, and or affirm. They would then bring back recommendations for the full council to discuss and potential adopt.
At my first glance, Councilmembers Dolan, Reed, and Misjuns would be ideal members of this committee.
$100 million in “left-over” funds in the last two years for Lynchburg. In the common tongue, that’s $100 million in surplus. That includes additional revenue, surplus accounts, and so on. Approximately $15 or so million of this was additional, unexpected revenue.
All after a $5 million property tax increase in 2020 when I was first elected. Even though I vigorously fought against this increase, it went through anyway. Now, in the worst economic time some of us have experienced, it hurts even more.
Throw in a monthly charge on water bills for “trash pickup,” an 11% meals tax, dramatically higher than expected personal property or “car tax,” and a $1.11 per $100 property tax rate, it’s all too much and Lynchburg residents are paying 30% more in taxes than they were just ten years ago.
Additionally, Lynchburg has lost thousands of jobs over the last three years and is lagging in both economic and population growth. Clearly, Lynchburg does not have an environment conducive to growth. We need policies to counter this, and in my experience, economic growth does not occur without population growth.
Further, all the investments I have talked about prior to this point are built from a new viewpoint, that being with the taxpayer front of mind, and nowhere else. The city has priorities, yes, responsibilities, of course, but nothing is more important than the livelihood and sustainability of your bank account. With Richmond considering further tax breaks, Lynchburg can piggyback; with Washington continuing to fuel the fires of inflation, we can do our best to offset.
Thankfully, given the financials, our new majority can make strategic investments into the core responsibilities of government and lower the tax burden in the city at the exact same time, all while preparing for a potential economic downturn.
There are many options on the table for offering bold relief to Lynchburg taxpayers. Here are some I immediately think of:
- Equalization of the Real-Estate Rate
- Removal of the monthly trash fee
- At least a 50% ratio on Personal Property/Car Tax
- Partial reduction of the Meals Tax
- Removal of the Meals Tax on fast-food restaurants.
I’d hope we do all these things, if not more. This shift alone will bring a monumental change to the outlook of the city. By releasing $7-9+ million back into the local economy, imagine what kind of impact that would have on our city and region.
We should also consider a line-by-line review of every fiscal impact on individuals and businesses, both the rates and the taxes associated. If council isn’t informed, how can we begin to implement pro-business, taxpayer-friendly policies? By starting here, with the aim of cutting the impact of government, Lynchburg will certainly see both economic and population growth by 2033.
Spearheading this aspect of the vision, in similar form to the other components, should be the Finance Committee of Council. If Councilmember Helgeson, Misjuns, and Dolan comprised this group, they would be totally equipped with the information and resources for making courageous recommendations to City Hall and council.
It brings me great excitement to prepare for January. Drafting this piece helps me remember the vast array of items this new council will entertain (not all are even listed), all which maintain significant impact on the lives of residents in the city. There are many items that I would like to loop into this piece, but that would be far too lengthy.
Ultimately, this entire vision is derived from one simple perspective and truth – the core responsibilities of government are to be limited, though properly invested in; and the tendency of that government shall be to advocate for private empowerment or enrichment, rather than institutional or bureaucratic advancement.
As far as the workgroups and committees are concerned, I personally would be happy to serve on any of them.
Through aspects of these proposals, as well as actions on other items not specifically listed in this paper (issues such as local board/committee appointments, infrastructure/land use, council’s rules of procedure, how to best support mental health initiatives, regional economic growth, etc.), this new majority will start out on a strong footing. Lynchburg can be the premier example, a foundational standard for all the Commonwealth, for how to operate and govern a city. I believe, through the implementation of the various aspects of our platform, most likely with some variation, we will be that standard.
I am most humbled to be one of seven who are selected by this wonderful community to help lead us to that place. It is my hope on this journey that you would join us.
With your partnership, and diligent reliance on divine providence and wisdom, we’ll be off.