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House candidates spin through policy at Henrico debate

Candidates vying for seats in the 72nd and 73rd House Districts engaged in a fast-paced debate and fielded constituent questions Tuesday at the Libbie Mill Library in Henrico County.

Capital News Service

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By Emma North

Candidates vying for seats in the 72nd and 73rd House Districts engaged in a fast-paced debate and fielded constituent questions Tuesday at the Libbie Mill Library in Henrico County.

GayDonna Vandergriff is running against incumbent Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, hoping to reverse the county’s recent switch to blue. Henrico’s 72nd and 73rd Districts both shifted from Republican to Democrat in the 2017 election.

VanValkenburg has raised $375,000 putting him ahead of his challenger by well over $200,000, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project.

For the 73rd District seat, Democrat Rodney Willett and Republican Mary Margaret Kastelberg are running for public office for the first time. According to VPAP, Willett has an almost $3,000 lead with donations, with both candidates raising over $280,000. Incumbent Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, flipped the district blue in 2017 in a tight victory over John O’Bannon. Rodman hopes to win the seat in Senate District 12 from incumbent Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico.

This was the last of three political forums ChamberRVA hosted ahead of the election. Candidates responded to a combination of pre-written and audience-submitted questions. Around 80 people had gathered for the event just before its 6 p.m. start.

Candidates from the 72nd District went first. Dan Palazzolo, a political science professor from the University of Richmond, moderated the event. Candidates had 90 seconds to answer each question.

The candidates shared their opinions on state budget priorities, workforce development, minimum wage increase, climate change, health care, and education.

VanValkenburg, a public school teacher, was adamant about raises for teachers and increased school safety measures. He also wants to see other parts of the state taking part in things that “Henrico does well” like encouraging the learning of trade skills and having kids sign letters of intent for jobs after high school.

Vandergriff is from the coalfield area of Virginia and is passionate about making sure people are educated for jobs that exist in their region.

VanValkenburg identified climate change as the biggest issue for today’s young people and thinks now is the time for action.

“Clean energy is something that’s ready to rip, that’s ready to boom,” VanValkenburg said.

When it comes to the conversation about climate change, “we need to quit being so dramatic,” Vandergriff said.

Climate action, gun control legislation, and increased health care coverage are all things Henrico Democrats hope to accomplish if they get enough momentum in November to help flip the House where Republicans have a slim hold, 51-49.

The crowd thinned out for the conversation with 73rd District candidates Willett and Kastelberg. They answered questions about what bills they would patron first, what committees they’d like to serve on, their first budget priority and what motivated them to run.

Kastelberg has a background in finance and Willett is a local entrepreneur; they both talked about financial matters such as raising the minimum wage based on cost of living throughout Virginia, and raising teacher salaries.

“I think we actually agree on this,” Kastelberg said in response to Willett. “Teacher salaries would be a top priority.”

Kastelberg does not feel like Medicaid provides all of the answers for Virginians in need of health care and wants more coverage options. “There is no one size fits all in health care,” Kastelberg said.

Willett serves on the Virginia Children’s Health Insurance Program Advisory Committee and said he wants Medicaid expanded to the over 300,000 people still in need of health care.

“We need to do better here,” Willett said. He also called out previous plans for failing to protect people with pre-existing conditions. Like Kastelberg, Willett said he supports creative solutions, but he emphasized a need to look into the details of all plans.

Despite the crowd being asked to hold their applause and remain quiet until the end, some candidate responses garnered loud reactions. Kastelberg previously said in a press release that she supports more gun control, including placing limits on high capacity magazines. During the forum, she echoed those statements and said she’s opposed to banning weapons outright, which drew whispers from the crowd.

“That was a surprise to me, I didn’t know that she wasn’t comfortable banning assault-type weapons,” said Lizzie Drucker-Basch, chairwoman of the Henrico County Democratic Committee.

Virginia’s 140 legislative seats will be up for reelection Nov. 5. The voter registration deadline is Oct. 15. Virginia residents can register online through the Virginia Department of Elections.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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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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