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Candidates lay out plans to improve education, transportation, river at Mayorathon 2016

The city’s seven remaining mayoral candidates answered tough questions from area organizations and residents at the VMFA Thursday night.

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The seven remaining candidates vying for Richmond’s top position took the stage at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Leslie Cheek Theatre Thursday evening for Mayorathon, a forum focusing on some of the city’s biggest issues and how those in the running for mayor plan to address them.

In attendance at the event, which was filled to capacity with an overflow viewing area outside of the theatre, were Jon Baliles, Jack Berry, Bobby Junes, Joe Morrissey, Michelle Mosby, Levar Stony, and Lawrence Williams.

Organized by Richmond Magazine, the event was put on in association with Richmond Forward, the James River Association, RVA Rapid Transit, the Storefront for Community Design and Sports Backers.

Moderated by Richmond Magazine Associate Editor Susan Winiecki and TMI Consulting President and CEO Tiffany Jana, the evening focused on four key areas–improving public education, transportation, strengthening city neighborhoods and protecting the James River.

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Schools & Education Funding

The forum opened with questions regarding the annual fight over education funding and whether candidates would be willing to use the city’s meals tax to fund schools as other localities have. Richmond City Councilman Jon Baliles, who was addressed first, answered that schools “have to be better funded” and that using that particular funding model would provide “adequate funding” and help realize that goal.

Former Venture Richmond Director Jack Berry was questioned on whether his capital improvement plan, which would redirect savings from the city budget to the school system and re-order some of the priorities in the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Program, would be realistic. Berry largely skirted the question, prompting boos from the audience, but vaguely noted that “creative financing” and “tax abatement” would allow increased school funding. He provided no specific details on how the plan would work for the city as a whole, however.

Mayoral frontrunner and former Delegate Joe Morrissey was asked, “How does a ‘fighter’ with your background go about gaining trust in the network of stakeholders in RPS?”

Morrissey responded by touting his experience in municipalities around Central Virginia. “I am the only candidate who has represented five cities and counties; cooperation is required to get legislation passed. I’m amazed there’s such a disconnect between city leaders. If I’m elected I will work to connect School Board and City Council members.”

Bobby Junes, who has held positions in the past such as Henrico County’s Recreation and Parks Commissioner and the Board of Real Estate Evaluation Review, was pressed on his plan to make changes to the state code in order to better fund the school system. Moderators asked, instead, what he would do to take advantage of existing resources. Junes skirted the question and reverted to his plan to affect change at a state level, saying he would “lead a rally or protest to the State Capitol. I’d continue funding as is, but I would take rallies to capitol to change policies.”

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Transportation & Infrastructure

Moving to transportation, Baliles was asked if he would increase funding for bicycle and pedestrian access around the city. Rather than responding to the question directly, Baliles responded that he “put $400,000 towards pedestrian crossing infrastructure alone, and I realize Ricmonders are equally bad drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.” The quip drew hearty laughter from the audience. “It’s clear we need to work on all infrastructure in equal measure,” he concluded.

Former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney pledged to continue building out the city’s network of bike lanes, noting their current fragmented nature needs to be remedied. “There are some bike lanes people use where the lane just ends. Imagine driving on a street and the highway just stops. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Jana noted that the city had plans to add 10 new miles of bike lanes per year in the coming decade but that it had failed to add any new milage within the past 12 months. Berry responded that the city needs to do a better job using grant money. “We need to act on the grant money we’ve gotten and apply to more grants,” he said. “We weren’t granted any additional funding (for more bike lane milage) because we didn’t act on the original funding we applied for.”

Morrissey said transportation priorities would focus on connecting more areas of the city to the forthcoming GRTC Bus Rapid Transit line, The Pulse. Stoney noted that improved transportation infrastructure would be realized by bringing the surrounding counties into the conversation and have them join in on the funding and planning of the BRT and other transportation systems. “I am a proponent of getting every transportation dollar possible and think we need to connect Richmond and Henrico; we all need to be at the table,” he said.

City Council President Michelle Mosby agreed, but quipped that “I won’t get the applause others do (for her similar remarks)” before speaking, drawing boos and laughter from the crowd. “I think we need everyone at the table; people on the south side of the James need jobs and we need to get them to those jobs through the BRT.”

Architect Lawrence Williams said the city should use the BRT as a way to spur redevelopment. “We need to show property owners where to invest; if you look at other cities, they have major urban streets but have an urban scale smaller than Broad Street; shops and retail below residences. We need to develop our city around mass transit.”

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Protecting & Improving the James River

On the subject of the James River, which the moderators described as the city’s crown jewel and arguably its most valuable asset, all candidates generally agreed that more funding is needed to improve the James River Park System and protect it from increased traffic.

Berry, who helped plan many events on the river during his Venture Richmond tenure, called the James irreplaceable. “It’s one of the most important assets we have and it’s straining under the pressure of so many visitors–we need to make [improvement and maintenance of the river and surrounding parks] a priority.”

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Lightning Round

One of the more interesting moments of the night came when moderators asked candidates which competing candidate they’d most like to have on their team or in their cabinet as mayor, a question which brought mixed answers.

Williams began by saying Berry would likely be his economic development chair; Stoney says he’d hire Morrissey as his bodyguard should the mayoral security detail be done away with drawing laughter from the audience. Mosby says she would enlist Baliles’ help in her cabinet without naming a specific position; Junes vaguely and a bit oddly suggested he’d host a “mayoral lotto” to choose his teammates. Berry notes he would draft Baliles to be his planning director; Baliles wrapped up the round saying he’d choose Mosby because “she is really feisty and we need that.”

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Check out our live blog of the event as it happened here for more coverage and photos.

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Trevor Dickerson is the co-founder and editor of RVAhub.com, lover of all things Richmond, and a master of karate and friendship for everyone.

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Government

Henrico revising budgets to reflect uncertainties from coronavirus

Anticipating sharp drops in revenues from sales, meals and occupancy taxes, officials are preparing adjustments to the current year’s budget and are revising the proposed budget for fiscal 2020-21.

RVAHub Staff

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Henrico County officials have begun to brace for significant financial impacts caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Anticipating sharp drops in revenues from sales, meals and occupancy taxes, officials are preparing adjustments to the current year’s budget and are revising the proposed budget for fiscal 2020-21.

Officials have imposed an immediate hiring freeze and instructed all agencies to suspend all discretionary spending. The county also has put on hold all unfunded capital projects.

The Department of Finance plans to update revenue and expenditure projections on a monthly basis and request fund appropriations quarterly in fiscal 2020-21 until the financial picture becomes clearer.

“Recent announcements from Gov. Ralph Northam’s team regarding billion-dollar state budget shortfalls in the current year and next fiscal year reinforce the need to realign our plans and expectations,” said Meghan Coates, deputy director of Finance. “These important, cost-saving measures are going to be the backbone of our plan to endure the financial impact of this event.”

The Board of Supervisors had begun its review of the county’s $1.4 billion proposed budget last week, when the coronavirus outbreak triggered a global economic shutdown, with business closures, mass layoffs and stock market selloffs.

“The world has changed,” County Manager John A. Vithoulkas told the board at its March 24 meeting. “The budget that we worked on, that was presented to you, is no longer sustainable based on the revenue assumptions that were put forward – in one week.”

Finance officials are now looking at a revised proposed budget that would be significantly less than the current year’s plan. The proposed budget would likely not support additional positions or new initiatives and would allow limited cost increases, for example, for health care premiums and contributions to the Virginia Retirement System.

A revised proposed budget is expected to be presented to the Board of Supervisors in mid-April based on updated forecasts for state aid to localities and public feedback. The board will hold a public hearing on the plan at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 14 in the Board Room at the Henrico Government Center, 4301 E. Parham Road. Information will be forthcoming on how members of the public can participate and provide their input.

A vote to adopt the budget is scheduled for Tuesday, April 28. Once approved, the budget will guide operating and capital spending for the year beginning July 1.

The board on March 24 approved several emergency ordinances to help residents and businesses navigate the economic downturn by having the county extend the payment deadlines, without penalty, for various taxes.

Board Chairman Tommy Branin, of the Three Chopt District, noted that the relief efforts would be managed within the current year’s budget.

“This county didn’t leap forward with these measures and reductions without analyzing the budget and recognizing that the county will be fine.”

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Crime

ACLU urges release of some nonviolent offenders to combat coronavirus spread

As the coronavirus begins to hit correctional facilities, groups are calling for the release of nonviolent inmates to help prevent outbreaks. 

Capital News Service

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By Rodney Robinson

As the coronavirus hits correctional facilities, the ACLU is calling for the release of some nonviolent inmates to help prevent outbreaks and keep residents and staff safe.

The Virginia ACLU submitted a letter to the governor, along with the executive guidance document. The document focuses on reducing the overall populations in local and state custodial facilities, including reducing the intake of people. The organization called for an immediate release of all people identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as at-risk for COVID-19, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions, whose sentences would end in the next two years. The ACLU also wants the governor to begin a process of immediate release for anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, anyway.

There are a limited number of eligible parole cases that can be reviewed for early release, according to Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran, who said at a press conference Monday that an expeditious review is “still ongoing.”

“There are a number of challenges because by the code we have no parole in the commonwealth of Virginia,” Moran said. “It is limited to geriatric release and limited to those who are sentenced before 1996.”

Moran said the parole board has withdrawn warrants on technical violations for a number of individuals and has expedited release of parole for those already paroled, in effort to eliminate interaction between the parole supervisor and the individual.

 Three inmates at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections. One inmate at the Central Virginia Correctional Unit 13 for women has tested positive for COVID-19, according to VADOC. Four VADOC employees and one contractor have also tested positive for the virus. As of April 3, the Virginia Department of Health reports 2,012 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 46 deaths. From March 27 to April 3, 1,552 cases were confirmed, or 77% of all cases since the state’s first case was reported on March 7.

 “We need strong leadership that will move us more quickly toward a criminal legal system that is safe for everyone,” ACLU Executive Director Claire Gastañaga said in a press release. “To do this, we must jettison the ‘tough on crime’ hyperbole and recognize this pandemic as an opportunity to rethink the way we choose to use the criminal legal system to address issues of poverty, income inequality and addiction.”

Almost two weeks ago the governor announced measures to battle the coronavirus outbreak among residents and staff, such as modifying sentences, diverting offenders from serving jail terms, utilizing home electronic monitoring and reducing low-risk individuals being held without bail.

Elliott B. Bender, founder of Bender Law Group in Richmond and president of the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that the governor’s measures are great in theory “for the safety of all of us.” However, he is concerned that they are not being implemented consistently and completely. Consistency and getting all branches of government on the same page are important in this process, according to Bender.

Moran said state code mandates the victims involved need to be notified of a prisoner’s potential early release.

“And you have to provide victims time to weigh in on the decision,” Moran said. “And that is an ongoing process as well.”

To combat the virus, visitation and volunteer activities remain closed at correctional facilities, according to the VADOC. People entering VADOC correctional facilities will be screened using thermometers. In addition, the department ordered 112,000 additional bars of soap. Virginia Correctional Enterprises, which employs incarcerated people to produce a variety of goods, is now manufacturing about 30,000 sneeze and cough guard masks per day for inmates and staff, according to VADOC. All employees must assess their risk on a daily basis prior to work.

 Also, there are measures taken to ensure safety once a person leaves a VADOC facility. All inmates leaving a correctional facility are screened for COVID-19 on the day of their release, according to  VADOC.

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Government

Henrico makes changes at disposal areas, parks to accommodate statewide stay-at-home order

Henrico County has adjusted the services available at its parks and public-use areas in accordance with Gov. Ralph Northam’s temporary executive order for residents to “stay at home” to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

RVAHub Staff

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Henrico County has adjusted the services available at its parks and public-use areas in accordance with Gov. Ralph Northam’s temporary executive order for residents to “stay at home” to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Executive Order 55, issued March 30, directs Virginians to remain at their place of residence except for purposes deemed essential, such as obtaining medical care or governmental services, purchasing groceries and supplies, traveling to work or getting out for exercise. The order further directs the state’s residents using shared or outdoor spaces to maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet “at all times.”

The governor’s order is in effect until June 10.

The order has prompted adjustments at the county’s Springfield Road and Charles City Road public-use areas, located at 10600 Fords Country Lane and 2075 Charles City Road, respectively.

Beginning Friday, April 3, the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) will limit access to 10 vehicles at a time. Henrico Police and DPU staff will direct vehicles into the public-use areas.

DPU urges residents only to dispose of household garbage and household recyclables while the governor’s order is in effect. Vegetative yard waste and household hazardous waste, such as used oil, tires, and paints, cannot be accepted at this time. Disposal areas will be arranged to allow at least 6 feet between vehicles.

Solid Waste Division Director Jon Clary noted that residents should anticipate traffic backups and lengthy waits to access the public-use areas, which currently are open on a reduced schedule of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

“We want to accommodate as many customers as we can while recognizing the requirement to limit our services at this time,” Clary said. “We ask our residents to bear with us and follow these new guidelines while the governor’s order is in effect.”

The order also has prompted adjustments at Henrico’s parks. The Division of Recreation and Parks has restricted access to certain outdoor amenities, closing playgrounds, restrooms, shelters, dog parks, tennis courts and pickleball courts at county parks. The affected areas are locked or have signs posted regarding their closure.

The county’s recreation centers were closed March 16.

Recreation and Parks Director Neil Luther noted that some park features remain open, such as trails, fishing ponds, and open spaces.

“Henrico’s parks are a valuable outlet and resource for our residents, especially at this time,” Luther said. “We urge everyone who visits our parks to be mindful of the need for social distancing. Please enjoy getting outside while being safe and respectful of others.”

Henrico County Public Schools has closed the playgrounds, ball fields, basketball courts and tennis courts at the district’s facilities in accordance with the governor’s order. Tracks and open spaces on school grounds are still available for public use.

Additional information about the impacts of COVID-19 on Henrico’s facilities and services is available on the county’s coronavirus webpage and from the facilities and services hotline, 501-5655 (voice) and 376-9780 (text). Both lines are open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Friday.

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