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City Council Restores Funding in Three Areas

by Valerie Garner

The state has increased funding to Roanoke by $163,000. This has allowed restoration of recent cuts to the three areas that have taken hits. At the April 26 budget hearing Council members heard from 17 speakers opposing cuts to the Virginia Cooperative Extension Agriculture and Natural Resource component. Other speakers asked for restoration of the 25 percent cut to the Arts Commission.

In the end they didn’t get full restoration but enough was restored to make the impact negligible. VCE gained back $18,000 of the $19,000 of their cut. A memorandum of understanding will be developed with measures that will include logging calls to the VCE by locality, explained Director of Management and Budget Amelia Merchant.

The Arts Commission gained back $59,000 still leaving it with a four percent deficit but more palatable than the original 25 percent reduction. The Human Service Committee had $86,000 restored which  was still five percent short of last year.

City Manager Chris Morrill said that all departments squeezed their budgets including his own department. Real estate taxes are down as a result of depressed assessments but sales tax increases have made up for it for now. The fiscal year 2013 budget increased one percent to $252.7 million.

The Citizen Budget Engagement Team was not all in agreement on Elmwood Park and streetscape expenditures. The team wanted to eliminate the 2.5 percent fees assessed when paying city taxes and bills by credit card. Councilman Bill Bestpitch said, “We don’t want to increase taxes to pay for that fee.” Private businesses are able to increase the cost of merchandise to compensate.

Vice-Mayor Dave Trinkle thought that some of the positions in these categories could be matched with the city’s own available resources. Bestpitch said that commercial services provided by the VCE “should have some kind of fee for training on pesticides.”  Bowers said he supported the city manager’s proposal for the VCE saying, “it is a popular program.” Councilman Ray Ferris said, “not to minimize VCE contributions but the issue for us is needs versus wants” but he went along with Council members Lea and Price who supported the recommendations.

Councilman Court Rosen said he’d “sure like to know what that $18,000 [for VCE] is going toward.” He asked to have the information before budget adoption. Morrill though said that he didn’t want to hold up the budget for it.

Finance Director Ann Shawver explained that the 1.5 percent cost of living adjustment for city retirees would not impact the budget until 2014. They had not received a COLA increase since June 30, 2007 the same as active employees. Retirees will see a $221 increase.

The future proposed COLA formula is 2/3 of the Urban CPI not to exceed four percent and not to exceed active employee pay raises. Shawver thought that the 1.5 percent increase “is kicking the can down the road … … their costs are increasing and not keeping up with inflation.”

Council will meet Monday at 2 p.m. to adopt the budget.

Code Enforcement Overview: Skip Decker, solid waste manager, said that they strive to provide a safe and sanitary neighborhood with citizen education being the goal. “We don’t want to cite anyone,” said Decker. They have four collection inspectors – one for each quadrant.

He said that illegal dumping has increased to 1101 for 2012. Container violations were at 539 but only 3-4 citations had been issued. Decker said that they are maintaining a database that keeps track of landlords. Police Chief Chris Perkins’ “walk through neighborhoods has been a big plus,” he said.

 Morrill said he didn’t want business owners to rely on the inspectors to check on their properties. He tells them, “It is your job to go around checking on your properties.”

Southeast and Northwest has a lot of weeds and cars, said Councilman Sherman Lea. He hears from area residents that enough resources are not allocated to these parts of the city. “I’ve seen that,” he said.

Dan Webb, the code compliance officer, said the top code issues are weeds and trash, inoperable vehicles and abandoned houses. Rental inspections correspond with higher violations but state code says the owner is responsible and not the tenant.

Tom Carr, director of Planning Building and Development, said that in their last survey 65 percent of citizens said they were doing a better job. The 20 code inspectors work in assigned quadrants throughout the city and become familiar friends of the neighborhood.

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