Monday, September 29, 2008

The Market (not the building)

Today, news hit that Citigroup will buy the banking operations of Wachovia, which has a large local presence among the many banks that operate in the Roanoke Valley and western Virginia generally. This follows several weeks of tumult that have rocked the fundamentals of the U.S. economy.

For several years, mortgages as investments seemed like a good deal, where easy money was made and it appeared that there was little risk involved. We now know this to be entirely untrue, and many economists had previously predicted the situation we now find ourselves in. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that buying securities backed by mortgages were only good investments if 1) home values continued to increase at high rates, 2) the economy generally continued to grow as rapidly as it had been, and 3) there was not a significant increase in defaults on home mortgages. It appears that all three of these factors have gone against investors -- the perfect storm.

The good news to be found amongst all the bad news is that home values in the Roanoke Valley as well as the New River Valley continue to remain stable if not continuing to increase at a sound rate. We should remain confident that this trend will continue and that we experience an isolated market due to the presences of Virginia Tech, the CRC and within our own valley, the coming of the new VTC Medical College.

The main area of concern for me lays primarily with seniors and the disabled, most of whom live on fixed incomes. This is not to say that the rest of us will not face hardships, but a great deal of these folks receive Social Security, though this income alone does not fully subsidize the many expenses, including healthcare, utilities, home payments etc faced on a monthly basis. Often seniors and the disabled must dip into pension plans to make up for monthly shortfalls in income to pay for the entirety of expenses.

My concern is that, not today or tomorrow, but in six months to a year, many of these folks will wake up and see that their 401(k) or other pension plans have suffered from what used to be safe investments, namely, financial institutions. I believe that it is worthwhile for us to look at ways to help seniors and the disabled who may begin to see this happening and to work to try to find ways to help them should this scenario occur.

We should try to think outside the box and find any ways that we might be able to accomplish this within the budgetary constraints that we face nationally, statewide and locally.

This is a moral and fundamental need faced by those most financially fragile, and it will take all of us working together to help alleviate the difficulties that might soon become reality.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Community Summit: The Greening of Roanoke

Last evening, the City of Roanoke held a community summit to discuss ways to reduce the carbon footprint of our community. The goal to reduce our footprint, which is the total amount of carbon pollution we put into the environment, is 10% for the community over the next five years and 12.5% for our municipal government.

After hearing from Sean McGinnis, Director of Green Engineering for Virginia Tech, about the various sorts of pollutants that contribute to our carbon footprint, we broke into roundtable groups to discuss ways to encourage our community to help achieve this 10% reduction goal.

Some of the ways our group came up with were: the use of public transportation as an alternative to single-car commutes, more recycling across the city amongst residents, the use of compact fluorescent lightbulbs, and the planting of more trees to increase our tree canopy, which is thought to help reduce pollution.

We had students from Patrick Henry, William Fleming as well as Virginia Western CC in attendance. It was really exciting to see the energy in the room and the willingness of folks to volunteer to help improve our environment by taking small steps locally to encourage better living that will reduce our carbon footprint.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Virginia State Neighborhood Conference

This past Thursday through Saturday I was in Fairfax, Virginia for the 9th Annual Virginia State Neighborhood Conference. A rather large contingent from Roanoke attended this years' conference, including members of the Melrose Rugby, Melrose Loudon and Old Southwest neighborhoods as well as folks associated with the Roanoke Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

Also attending was Ms. Estelle McCadden, President of the Melrose Rugby Neighborhood Forum and Chairperson/Founder of the VSNC. It was obvious to all of us in attendence the level of respect that Ms. McCadden has of other neighborhood leaders around the state for her dedication to the conference and her dedication to making sure that neighborhoods have the leadership, programs and knowledge necessary to help build strong communities.

I participated in a number of workshops and learned a great deal from regional and national experts in community development and also from people from other parts of the state who are community activists and committed to their own neighborhood's development.

I hope to use what I learned to help improve relations between our government and neighborhoods. Strong neighborhoods help to make a strong community.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A long night

As many folks already know, last night's City Council meeting was a long one. There was a lot of debate over two issues that have been at the forefront of City Council for a few years: the future of Countryside Golf Course and whether and where the city should build an amphitheater.

If you watched or read the news, you may also know that at times things became a little heated. Suffice to say that I stand by my words and look forward to a more inclusive, respectful process in the future. I hope that we can work to make certain that every member of Council is aware of what is happening before it is set in stone.

Out of respect for my fellow members of Council, I don't want to focus on this debate and will leave it at that.

What I do want to focus on is the future of Countryside. I voted "yes" for the motion offered by Vice-mayor Lea -- a vote which may seem contradictory to my words last evening.

The motion is what the city attorney called "a statement of policy." It is a non-binding vote that essentially formalizes a process that was already beginning -- to delve into the numbers, issue an RFP for a management company to run the course and determine capital needs. This is the information that I believe is necessary to have to make an informed decision about the future of Countryside.

I fully recognize how difficult the last several years have probably been for residents who live on or near the golf course. There has been a level of uncertainty that would naturally concern someone who has made a large investment in a home and who wonders what the future holds for their neighborhood.

I truly believe that we are finally nearing a decision on Countryside, and I believe that the non-binding motion will speed the process along, allow us to gather the necessary and relevant information, and once and for all make a decision that provides certainty to the residents at Countryside but also is the fiscally responsible course of action for the entire City of Roanoke and its taxpayers.

Oh, and I'll leave the amphitheater for another time...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Self-imposed Policy

New policy: only city matters and local issues will be discussed on my blog. Though I am Democrat and obviously have opinions about the current presidential race, I am going to stick to my goal of being focused on diong what's right for our city rather than discussing current national politics.

When it comes to making Roanoke a better, more progressive city, it doesn't matter what political party one is affiliated with.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What do you think should happen to the Market Building?

A lot of debate lately has been centered on what the Market Building should look like once the city renovates it. I would love to hear from folks as to what you believe the city should do to improve this deterioriating building that is an anchor for our downtown.

As a city, I believe we need a vision and goal and should accordingly work to accomplish our vision for the future of the Market Building.

What do you think?

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Market Building

As you probably know, this past Tuesday City Council got into a lively discussion regarding the DRI/Coalition proposal to overhaul the Market Building. This was the only proposal received in response to an RFP issued seeking a public/private partnership for the future operation of the building. See the RFP here

There were a number of good aspects of the proposal, but one significant problem: it did not conform to the guidelines as set out in the RFP. Some folks within the Coalition dispute this, but a unanimous vote by a board of city officials all agreed on this point, as did a number of area business folks who were a part of the coalition. But this is beside the point. The point is that Council decided that the city should issue another, broader RFP that allows for flexibility and hopefully creativity in responses. And DRI/the Coalition will be able to re-submit their proposal, with improvements based on our discussions. To me, this is a good thing.

Additionally, there are legal requirements when a response to an RFP does not conform to guidelines. Though many of us would have liked to have discussed/negotiated/worked on the one proposal we received, the law requires that we issue another RFP that affords others the opportunity to submit broader proposals. I wish this point had been shared in media accounts more clearly.

But the main point of all this is that members of City Council were not allowed to read the proposal before we had to make a decision on whether to accept or reject it. This is a big problem.

In a City Manager form of government, the city manager should be the person responsible for working on the details of everyday business within the city. But when there are proposals, particularly ones of this importance, Council members should absolutely have the ability to ask for and receive a copy to read. Unless it violates a law, harms the civil rights of an individual or otherwise directly hurts the city's ability to negotiate with an entity, we as members of Roanoke City Council have a responsibility to know, question and understand what it is we are voting on and how we are spending taxpayer money.

It is true that I asked for a copy of the proposal the week before we were first briefed on the DRI/Coalition plan. And it is equally true that I was told it was against administration policy to receive one. Instead of arguing, I called a local business person and asked if they could get me a copy which was done and in my hands within the hour.

The administration works hard and we should all, whether we agree with or do not agree with decisions made, respect their efforts and know that they are doing what they believe to be in the best interests of the city. But as members of City Council, we are answerable to the citizens. We are the ones who must explain why we decided to spend taxpayer money in certain ways. We should always keep this in mind.

I will work to make sure that in the future members of City Council have access to any information deemed fit or necessary to make the important decisions that affect our everyday lives as residents of Roanoke.