Council Recap: City continues optional retirement contributions, rezones land for student apartments

Alex Sirney -- June 25th, 2010

In a vote split along party lines, Council carried a motion to continue paying the employee contribution to the Virginia Retirement System for all new employees Tuesday night.

A change in the law had given cities and municipalities the option of requiring new employees to pay starting at the beginning of the next fiscal year.

The city will continue to pay 5 percent of employees’ salaries to VRS, rather than requiring them to make the contribution themselves. According to City Manager Kurt Hodgen, 23 of 29 cities and municipalities who had voted on the option as of Tuesday had voted to continue the payments.

The vote would only have impacted new employees, and Hodgen said that the city hires about 30 people each year. He said that for every 30 employees, the average contribution by the city is $60,000. The coming year’s contributions were included in the approved budget.

The 5 percent is in addition to the employer contribution, which varies from year to year. This year the city will pay 9.74 percent. Hodgen recommended not continuing to pay the employee contribution, saying that it was an opportunity for savings and that in 10 to 20 years as a full staff turns over the savings would be more than $1 million each year.

Council members Dave Weins and Richard Baugh argued strongly in favor of continuing the contribution, saying that this was the wrong place to look for savings and that it would be passing state budget problems on to new employees. They also expressed concern in remaining competitive for new employees.

Council members Carolyn Frank and Ted Byrd argued against continuing the contribution, saying that Harrisonburg offers a competitive benefits package and the budgeted funds could be redirected. They also pointed to future savings as yearly employee turnover continued.

Mayor Kai Degner joined Weins and Baugh in voting for the motion.

“It’s a $60,000 decision this year and I’m willing to do that,” he said.

Byrd and Frank voted against the motion. The decision is only binding for the upcoming fiscal year and can be revisited next year.

Other notable actions:

  • Council approved 4-1 (Frank) a motion to rezone land between Kaylor Park Drive and Boxwood Court, east of South Main Street to allow construction of apartments under a single owner. It had been previously zoned to allow condominiums under multiple owners. The property will be used for student apartments, and while council, led by Weins, strongly condemned the construction of additional student housing, the motion carried. Council felt that single ownership of the units on the property and the high number of proffers including some addressing bike paths, green space and parking, made it more attractive than the previous zoning.
    The property was zoned for this construction in 2006 and no current member of council was serving at that time.
  • Council heard the Downtown Renaissance quarterly report, which included mention of the progress HDR has made in bringing businesses downtown, including several new restaurants and shops. A recommendation was also made and strongly contested that the city look in to an ordinance reducing the number of newspaper stands in the city.
  • Council gave its approval for a “Welcome Home” garden honoring returning soldiers to be constructed in area behind the municipal building. Upkeep would be minimal and an effort is being made to have veterans groups contribute.
  • Illness and computer trouble led to the later-than-usual posting of this recap. I apologize for the inconvenience.

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17 Responses to “Council Recap: City continues optional retirement contributions, rezones land for student apartments”

  1. Deb SF says:

    Alex (or someone else who might know), can you expand a little on this: “A recommendation was also made and strongly contested that the city look in to an ordinance reducing the number of newspaper stands in the city”

    • Alex Sirney says:

      Eddie Bumbaugh asked council to look into enforcing ordinances that would reduce the number of newspaper boxes in the city. According to Bumbaugh there are now 20, and local business owners (notably Jess’s and Cally’s) have brought the issue up to Bumbaugh.

      The discussion was a lot more heated than I expected – basically council. led by Byrd, said that this was the first time they had heard of this problem and sent HDR packing until a more formal complaint was brought to them.

      • Deb SF says:

        Thanks< Alex. Can't owners of businesses get rid of newspaper boxes if they want, without the govt. getting involved, i.e., can't they make a phone call and say "pick up the box and get it off my property"?

        • I don’t think the owners can get boxes removed from city streets, which is what Cally’s & Jess’ are concerned about. FYI: Back in eightyone days, pick-up from street boxes was never all that fabulous. Grocery stores and racks inside restaurants were our hottest spots. (And after a while the boxes look junky and need to be painted.)

          • And … many larger cities have ordinances because of the visual pollution such boxes provide. It would be great if HDR or someone had an attractive, covered, outdoor place where the boxes could just go. The free publications wouldn’t even need a box per se, just a place where the pubs were protected from the elements and available 24/7. Publishers MIGHT even be willing to pay a small rental fee.

          • Anne Lorimer says:

            I’m curious what cities have such ordinances, and what newspaper boxes are in front of Cally’s and Jess’s.

  2. kuato says:

    The city council made a good move in continuing to pay the 5% contribution to VRS for newly hired city employees (and so did the school board when it made the same decision a few weeks ago, for that matter).

    Over all, the 5% contribution is a non-issue. It is only one part of a complex compensation package that potential employees will consider when deciding where to accept work. If the overall package is enticing, we’ll get well qualified applicants. If it isn’t, we won’t. Those facts will hold true no matter how we organize employee compensation. Ultimately, whether the money is paid directly by the city as a listed contribution, or indirectly as a deduction from the paycheck the city writes to the employee, the city pays the 5%.

    Having said that, since this is a public issue, continuing to pay the 5% directly sends a message to potential new hires that the city values the people it employs. Without incurring additional expense, I think the city council’s decision will give Harrisonburg a competitive advantage in attracting qualified employees over localities that have made the other choice.

    Good call, guys.

  3. blondiesez says:

    IMHO: I think the Council’s support of new student housing so far away from campus is nothing short of ridiculous, proffers be damned. I STILL fail to see how a single owner handling hundreds of student renters, and the attendant traffic problems, is somehow more appealing than individual condo owners, unless the assumption is that the condo owners would be absentee parents of students rather than full time residents.

    And while Carolyn Frank lost much of my respect for her recent lackadaisical GA campaign, she just gained a half point back for being the only council member to vote against the rezoning.

    • Alex Sirney says:

      The sense on council was that a single owner means there’s a unified plan and a single person responsible for managing the complex.

      The bigger issue was the number of proffers the developer was willing to make, including:
      – doing the engineering work for the bike path the city plans on installing
      – providing 110 percent of the required parked spaces
      – installing a traffic signal at their own expense
      – build emergency access route
      – several others aiming to reduce costs to the city and promote safety and access to public transportation

      Basically, Council saw it as the better of two options — either this, or allowing it to be developed without these proffers. It should be noted that all of council and staff were displeased that the property was being developed this way.

    • Deb SF says:

      I was fascinated by Carolyn’s vote. By the time discussion ended, it was pretty clear that a single no vote wasn’t going to affect this outcome, and as Alex pointed out in his report, council, led by Dave Wiens, condemned additional student housing. So it could have been a vote of principle, or alternatively, one aimed a voters just like blondiesez above, as something of a rehabilitation after “her recent lackadaisical GA campaign” (quoting from above).

      But the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good, and votes from the head are generally more productive than ones from the heart. The 2006 council approved the rezoning from industrial to residential. Given the certainty that the land was never going to return to industrial use, approving this proposal is arguably about the best we can do. Undeveloped land represents lost tax revenue to the city, and waiting for something better in this spot puts this in the hands of future councils. Condo’s, especially with families, impose a different (and possibly larger) burden on city schools, recreational facilities and transportation (school buses and the like) than JMU students. And families don’t leave town for 3 months out of every year. IIRC, either Don Ford or someone from the school board spoke against the original rezoning in 06 because of the potential impact on city schools. If this parcel *has* to be residential, college students may have an overall lighter impact than families and more K-12 kids.

      It’s interesting to note that if the city decided that the 06 rezoning was a mistake and attempted to downzone the property, the owner would likely sue the city, in part on the basis of the resulting decrease in value of the property that would ensue. Even though in 06, the city got nothing from the increase in property value due to the rezoning.

  4. Regarding this matter of the newspaper boxes, this has got to be one of the more bizarre and silly things I have ever seen brought up to the Council. “Visual pollution”? What? You have to be kidding.

    I presume that what is really going on here is that these business owners would like to sell the newspapers from inside their stores and view the boxes as competition. Otherwise, this makes no sense at all. Otherwise, would not a business owner like to have somebody attracted to be in front of their establishment to buy a newspaper and thus be more likely to go inside their establishment. As it is, I have never heard of anybody complaining about the “visual pollution” of newspaper boxes. Talk about an utterly inane issue, this has got to be it.

    • The visual pollution argument is made in larger cities, where there can be many, many boxes lined up in various states of cleanliness and disrepair, some empty or full of outdated publications.

      That argument was one behind the move a few years back to remove boxes from the downtown mall in Charlottesville. I don’t know how that move turned out or if visual pollution is in play in Hburg.

      Shop owners could want the boxes out for any number of reasons. Too many can be a hazard, impede snow removal, overcrowd a narrow street, etc. A deli owner in Waynesboro said my box got in the way of his customers who use wheelchairs. A gallery in Staunton just didn’t like the looks of a box in front of their artsy space. So I moved those boxes. No problem.

      Many of the publications (real estate mags, etc) in newspaper boxes are free, so it’s not as if Jess’s or Cally’s could make $ selling them.

  5. JGFitzgerald says:

    The paper boxes remind me of a story I read 15-20 years ago describing what people continually listed in polls as the three greatest bargains: a payphone call, a daily newspaper, and a first-class postage stamp. To most people under 30, maybe 35, those three functions can all be carried on one device in a shirt pocket. To those folks, a phone booth, a round-topped mailbox, and a square, squat brightly painted newspaper box range from a high of quaint to a low of too ugly to even be retro.

    As to the rezoning, we don’t need one more room of student housing, but that cow left the barn four years ago when the South Main property was rezoned from industrial.

  6. I will confess that I have a subscription to the Washington Post. The local delivery people are not totally competent, and quite often the paper is not delivered. While it is possible to get it a 711, I am near downtown and can easily walk to those boxes and get one. So, I am actually a consumer of them who would be hurt (not severely, I admit) by their removal.

    Maybe snow removal or wheelchairs? Maybe some artsy place? Otherwise, I would think my argument about possibly attracting potential customers would or should be somewhere in the minds of the storeowners. Guess I have never found them ugly or “visually polluting.”

    • Alex Sirney says:

      About the newspaper boxes – one argument (I suspect from Jess’s) was that they didn’t have street access for their garbage pick-up. They suggested moving the boxes, and Bumbaugh suggested putting them in the parking decks.

      Another point is that it’s not just newspapers, it’s advertisement boxes (real estate, cars, etc.) as well.

      • The eightyone box we used to have in the Water St. parking deck was stolen twice. Once we recovered it from Black’s Run. The second time we never saw it again and did not replace it with a new one.

  7. I grant that boxes that make it difficult to deliveries or pick up garbage could be problems.

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