Harrisonburg’s Most Important Issues

Brent Finnegan -- October 22nd, 2010

This is the fifth installment of the 2010 Q&A series with Harrisonburg City Council candidates.

hburgnews.com reader hhsparent writes, “I would like to know what issue or position they feel most strongly about and how they would seek to advance that position as a councilperson. Is it jobs? Is it education? If they could advance only one issue or concern, what would it be? And why?”

Photo by lramiro520

Photo by lramiro520 via the hburgnews Flickr group.

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Joe Fitzgerald: The most important issue facing the city, and the one where the council has the most control, is future development. There is little enough open land in the city that every change may be permanent. We’ve run out of room for mistakes. Development issues going forward should be decided not on a case-by-case basis, but in accordance with long-range policies tied to the city’s Comprehensive Plan. The policies should include a moratorium on new student housing and a greater dependence on the private sector. The city has put too much money in the past into speculative land purchases.

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Ted Byrd: For the last four years, the one issue that I have tried to advance is to Enhance Our Quality of Life. Every issue that has come before me, whether it is Education Funding, Transportation Infrastructure, Public Safety, Community Development, Parks and Recreation, Economic Development, or Taxes, has been held to the standard of how it will affect Our Quality of life. I have tried to balance the needs and wants of various constituencies, and base my decisions on what would be best for the whole community. If re-elected by you, I will continue to strive to Enhance Our Quality of Life.

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Greg Coffman: I have no personal agenda; I’m ready to pursue whatever priorities the majority of the taxpayers desire. However, over the past few years, a common complaint I’ve heard from all segments of the city has been the constant reassessments on property and the increasing tax bills that follow. Several years ago, the Council adopted a policy of yearly reassessments on residential and commercial property. This permits the city to increase your taxes without any formal action on the part of City Council. To put it another way, your taxes will increase yearly with no accountability by City Council because they never have to vote on the increase. In most localities, the governing bodies acknowledge their responsibility to be held accountable for tax increases, but the method we currently use lets our elected officials avoid this responsibility. I’ve had some home owners tell me that, when they tried to refinance their homes, the banks would decline the loan because the house was assessed at more than the current market value would dictate. I’ve had realtors tell me that an assessment every five years would allow for the actual value of a home to average between the highs and lows of the marketplace. Therefore, it would be a more realistic and fair evaluation of your property’s worth.

The rest of the country is seeing home values declining, but in Harrisonburg we’re told every year that our home values are increasing. Consequently, our taxes continue to increase while the Council deflects the responsibility to city employees who have to perform the reassessments.

With the economy in a serious recession, we need to make the maximum use of every tax dollar. Our core services (education, fire, police, transportation, water, sewer) should receive priority funding. This may require our City Council to make some difficult budget choices , but our taxpayers deserve their dollars being utilized appropriately. I’m open to a better and more equitable system for determining property values, and I think we could get many ideas from the taxpayers if we provided the proper forum. The last thing we should do now is to facilitate increased taxes on our taxpayers. Our taxpayers are not a bank.

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Charlie Chenault: It is difficult to advance only one issue that I feel strongly about; however, one issue that will surely rear its head next budget year is the school budget. At one time this year, our school system was facing the loss of approximately 38 full time positions until the state came through with additional funding. It was recently announced that Harrisonburg would receive $1.3 million from the federal education jobs fund. I believe the school board is now considering how to spend the money which is dedicated to compensation and benefits by the feds. Next budget year will be the true test. I am not sure anyone knows how much aid will be coming from the state and federal government. This brings into play the relationship between the school board and city council. I have always taken the positions that the school board runs the school system with a budget that is funded by city council. Unless completely out of line, the school budget presented to the city by the school board represents their expertise and the system’s expertise as to what it takes to run the best school system possible. It is council’s job to attempt to fund this request based on the reasonableness of the request and the available funds. It is my belief that it is imperative that both bodies and staffs be able to work together in a collegial manner to satisfy these needs. The coming budget year will mostly likely be a lean one unless the feds release more stimulus money. I trust the school board to present a budget based on realistic funding possibilities, and I embrace having the best school system that we can afford. I stand ready to work collegially in this process, but will also protect the interests of the taxpayers of our community as well. Very little is as important as the best education we can provide our children – they deserve it. If we do not watch it, we are going to spend their heritage out from under them. Let’s at least give them the tools to deal with it.

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Carolyn Frank: As a City Council member you seldom get to deal with just one issue. You are constantly balancing a plate that is full or overflowing. Education decisions are handled by our elected schoolboard. Our job on city council is to fund the schoolboard’s budget, since they have no taxing power. They decide how to spend the money. We were able to fund them at the same level for their 2010/2011 budget as the previous year, when all other departments experienced cuts from the city. I believe instead of advancing a personal agenda, it is more important to give citizens an avenue to have their issues and concerns heard and addressed. I have been involved in several council retreats were we evaluated our city and its needs, set priorities as a team and dream as if we had all the money in the world. We have had conversations with businessmen and visionaries on projects that they would like to see happen in our city. We, also, have a City Council liaison committee that meets with our County leaders to discuss concerns and develop ways to partner together to deliver services to our citizens. I believe the future of government is partnerships with other localities, JMU, EMU, faith-based organizations, civil groups and public-private ventures. Our best planning will be done with many voices at the table. Our city belongs to all the citizens. I do keep my eyes and ears open at all times looking for opportunities for our city. I hope you will find ways to become involved.

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Sal Romero: Education is definitely an issue that concerns me greatly both as an educator and resident of Harrisonburg. I must say that I believe education is one of the greatest resources we can provide to our children. There is no doubt our children are the future of Harrisonburg. Our schools are providing a great education service to our students and the talented educators are a big part of that. Over the last few years our school division has undergone some budget cuts. Very recently schools were close to reducing teaching personnel, but luckily that did not happen as a result of additional funding awarded by the state. As a city council member, I will support the school board in providing them the necessary budget that will allow our schools to continue to provide the best possible educational experience to our students.

One difference that separates me from my fellow city council candidates is that I have not being on council before; therefore, I bring a fresh outlook and new approach to local issues. I will do the job differently because I don’t know how it always been done. Another characteristic that makes my candidacy unique is that I bring equal representation to an important segment of our population. My personal experiences and diverse background allow me to understand and address the needs of our underrepresented city residents. Finally, as a city council member I will be accessible to every group and individuals in the community and make sure their voices are heard. My office will be the neighborhoods of Harrisonburg.

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A note about these answers: hhsparent originally asked, “How do you distinguish your positions from those of your fellow candidates?”

That was the original question sent to all the candidates. hhsparent then clarified that question with, “what issue or position they feel most strongly about?” I emailed all candidates the clarified question. In other words, there were two different questions that were sent to all candidates. Most answered the clarified question.

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22 Responses to “Harrisonburg’s Most Important Issues”

  1. DebSF says:

    One city council’s statement above deserves above some factual clarification. I’m writing as one who has gone through Hburg’s Citizen’s Academy and is currently a city Planning Commissioner.

    First, four of the six candidates on the ballot for city council are either incumbents (Byrd, Frank) or have previously served on council (Chenault, Fitzgerald) and have been directly involved in the city budget process. To say that “In most localities, the governing bodies acknowledge their responsibility to be held accountable for tax increases, but the method we currently use lets our elected officials avoid this responsibility” is a gross mischaracterization of the fact. Property tax rates are approved yearly during the budget process and are subject to public hearing. None of them avoided anything. The budget process stretches over several council meetings every spring, with opportunities for both general public comment and specific comment during public hearings on the budget itself. WHSV, WSVA and the DNR report on the budget. Citizens have ample opportunity to inform themselves about the issue through all usual means, including petitioning for reassessment.

    Second, this is simply false: “The rest of the country is seeing home values declining, but in Harrisonburg we’re told every year that our home values are increasing. ” Many property assessments in the city decreased last year. Like mine.

    Third, the candidate’s proposed “fair” idea of reassessing every five years can be exceptionally harmful to property owners, especially during times when housing trends change direction sharply. Suppose this year’s 2010 reassessment was on this 5-year plan. The last reassessment would have been in 2005, before the housing bubble. The sticker shock homeowners would get this year – seeing 5 years worth of housing price increases in one shot – would be enormous and would hit hardest in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

    Fourth: the candidate says “Council deflects the responsibility to city employees who have to perform the reassessments”. This is false. Assessments are performed by the Commissioners of Revenue’s office, as required by the state constitution. We elect the Commissioner of Revenue every 4 years.

    From http://www.harrisonburgva.gov/index.php?id=comrev — ” The Commissioner of the Revenue holds office as an agent of the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as local governments, and is the assessing officer on the local level for those taxes and licenses prescribed by state law and local ordinance.”

    • A bit of context for the most recent (2010) reassessment of city properties….

      The City of Harrisonburg has reassessed all real property as they do each year, and it appears that there wasn’t a significant (overall) shift in assessments.  Of the 12,000 parcels of real estate, nearly 8,700 had a change in their assessed value, with 3,100 of the values decreasing and roughly 5,600 increasing. 

      That is to say…..
      * 26% of city properties decreased in assessed value
      * 27% of city properties saw no change in assessed value
      * 47% of city properties increased in assessed value

      The median assessed value increased by $400, which equates to an annual increase of $2.36 in taxes.  Yes folks, that’s a 20-cent increase per month.

      Read more here:
      2010 City of Harrisonburg Real Estate Reassessment

      • Dany Fleming says:

        Thanks for that analysis, Scott. Of course, our tax bill is the product of our assessments X the property tax rate. It seems to me that the Hburg tax rate and total property tax burden are comparatively low when compared to other areas.

        So, as one of our property experts, I’m wondering if you have any input on these 2 questions. How does Harrisonburg’s total property tax burden compare to other locals? Doesn’t the system of higher property values and lower tax rates generally benefit local homeowners (assuming you have to generate revenue somehow)? I assume this is a scenario that realtors and developers think is desirable.

        I guess the converse questions apply as well. Can we lower assessments without raising the rate – that is without jeopardizing our core services? Would changing the formula to lower assessments and higher rates be advantageous to anyone?

        • Scott Rogers says:

          How does Harrisonburg’s total property tax burden compare to other locals?

          >> It is one of the lowest in the state. I’ll have to find the list I referenced recently, but we pay a very low amount comparatively.

          Doesn’t the system of higher property values and lower tax rates generally benefit local homeowners (assuming you have to generate revenue somehow)? I assume this is a scenario that realtors and developers think is desirable.

          >> For better or for worse, both figures can’t really be adjusted. The City is required to assess the property at 100% of market value. Thus, the only thing that can be manually adjusted is the tax rate. Certainly, the real estate market “adjusts” the market value up and/or down, but the only thing that can be adjusted by local government is the rate at which properties are taxed.

          Can we lower assessments without raising the rate – that is without jeopardizing our core services?

          >> Per above, this can’t be done. Assessments must be at 100% of market value.

          • Ross says:

            Scott,
            Sorry but, you sound like a true Politician above and the lord knows we don’t need anymore than we’ve already got.

          • Scott Rogers says:

            Ross — don’t worry — I live in the County, so I won’t be running for any elected city positions anytime soon. :)

          • Dany Fleming says:

            Thanks for the feedback, Scott. I found it helpful…but maybe that’s just me.

            Two comments:

            1. I hear what you’re saying about assessments. However, as much as records of sales are used, market value still involves some speculation. In any case, I personally trust they’re set with with integrity

            2. The bigger point I’d like to make. We have a relatively low tax rate and low total total tax burden. I’m loving’ that.

            However, we also have candidates who say that supporting education is a priority and point to the value of our education investment. I think it’s important to note that Harrisonburg’s spending/student ratio is relatively very low. I bet all the candidates agree that our city services are well-run and our school system has tightened its belt with a lean budget. I certainly agree with this. We also have a well-earned high bond rating. So, where else specifically can we squeeze more blood from our city budget turnip without jeopardizing services?

            The politically taboo question I think every candidate wants to avoid?! Are possible property tax increases on the table in order to meet a reasonable school budget? If not, where do you expect schools (and or other city services) to squeeze their budget more? Be specific about where that squeezing will be done. What are the extent of sacrifices we want to make in our kids education?

            I know this is a political “kiss of death” question, so I’m not really expecting candidate answers. However, to his credit, I think Charlie is courageously hinting at this approaching scenario. How long can we push our education budget questions down the road without damaging our schools and kids’ education?

          • Ross says:

            Scott, Just kidding. You do sound intelligent and up on things. :) Thanks!

        • Yeah, Scott. How dare you answer questions that people are asking. The nerve!

    • Frankly, my concerns about Coffman that I expressed in a Letter to the Editor this week ( http://dnronline.com/opinion_details.php?AID=51470&CHID=62 ), apparently have gotten to Coffman and at least one of his RINO buddies on the School Board, Tom Mendez.

      Mendez melted down on the DNR’s website at about 1:15AM this morning and called me everything about a child of God…

      Frankly, I’ve never seen a local elected official conduct himself toward a private citizen in this matter and, like Coffman, Mendez resorts to lies and distortion to attempt to cover-up the illegal act undertaken by the Harrisonburg School Board back in 2003.

      So we have Greg Coffman lying about the facts and circumstances of the Harrisonburg School Board’s decision, and now an additional school board member (both now and then) attempts to distract people’s attention away from their illegal act by engaging in lying about just about everything in his posting the morning.

      What a joke Mendez and Coffman make…I hope Harrisonburg voters aren’t stupid enough to swallow the Republican Kool Aid in the upcoming City Council elections.

      • Ross says:

        Mr. Briggman,
        I believe that all or most politicians cover up things, lie or are just down right underhanded at some point in their term.

  2. John Marr says:

    Joe,

    You’ve stated that you’d like a moratorium on student housing. How would this be accomplished? I could be completely wrong, but I think that currently there is no zoning designated strictly “student housing”. Instead the apartments and developments that we all call “student housing” are usually some type of residential zoning. Are you advocating a moratorium be placed on all residential townhomes and apartment-style buildings? How would this affect people who own land already zoned for such residential development? A broader question would be: how would you legally justify limiting development of personal property which is already zoned to allow such development? I’m not clear on how a moratorium can be accomplished without adversely affecting current property owners.

    In short – I’m not sure that a “student-housing” moratorium is possible. Which makes me feel that this may be a great sounding campaign promise that won’t ever come to pass, but will succeed in gaining a large number of uninformed votes.

    I’m hoping I’m missing something, and it is indeed possible. Thanks in advance for clearing this up.

    John

    In case anyone is interested I found this site which lists all our zoning classifications: (Title 10, Chapter 3) http://library1.municode.com/default-test/home.htm?infobase=10893&doc_action=whatsnew

  3. JGFitzgerald says:

    All the R-3 land was rezoned to R-5, which sort of means a developer has to bring a reasonable plan to the city before building multi-family housing. So it’s doable. It would really be a moratorium on permits or rezoning for new student housing. There are a number of ways to phrase it. Another might be doing everything within the council’s legal power to not allow any more student housing. A builder who is already beyond a certain point in the zoning and permitting process can continue to build. But under current zoning, no more Port Road style housing could be built without the council’s OK.

    • John Marr says:

      Joe,

      Thank you for the speedy response and clarification.

      I still don’t agree with your choice to use the term “moratorium”. I feel it gives a false impression to voters that, if elected, you will somehow stop all “student housing” projects, when in actuality you’re definition is “doing everything within the council’s legal power to not allow any more student housing.” I would expect several of your fellow candidates feel the same way and would vote in the same manner, however, none of them are promising “moratoriums”. To use the word “moratorium” implies that there will be some type of official decree that there will be no more “student housing”. I’ve spoken with several friends and fellow citizens over the last few weeks who have understood you to mean just that. That’s not entirely congruent with the actions you’ve outlined.

      Just to be clear – I do appreciate your commitment to using the system which is already in place to help limit “student housing” in the future, I just disagree with your phrasing. I see it as a way to gain votes from people who don’t understand a complete “moratorium” is not possible and that some rental properties will inevitably be made. The council does have the ability to stop these projects in some cases, but in others it doesn’t.

      Your explanation: “doing everything within the council’s legal power to not allow any more student housing.” rings more true, but it’s a mouthful and doesn’t have the impact of “moratorium”.

      Thank you for your time. I very much appreciate you, and all of the other candidates, taking part in this open forum.

      Thanks again,

      John

      • John Marr says:

        Sorry blogosphere. I should have used Your instead of You’re. I’m simply horrified by my egregious grammar errors.

      • LNPiper says:

        I think Joe is just saying that, if elected, blocking new student housing complexes would be a “done deal” before they even vote on it. Everything old is new again….

  4. June Hosaflook says:

    Regarding the general reassessment of real estate, Harrisonburg is required by state law to reassess every two years, based on our population (>40,000). An annual reassessment is the most advantageous to our property owners. It enables timely adjustments so that changes in the market are reflected in our property values in a timely fashion.

    • Scott Rogers says:

      “An annual reassessment is the most advantageous to our property owners. It enables timely adjustments so that changes in the market are reflected in our property values in a timely fashion.”

      I don’t think that annual reassessments are always the most advantageous to property owners. I think that annual reassessments are the most fair to both property owners and the City.

      If market values are going up, an every-five-year reassessment would be best for property owners. If market values are going down, an every-five-year reassessment would be awful for property owners.

      A frequent reassessment (annual, for example) strikes a good balance between property owners and the City. Nobody is an advantage or disadvantage for too long because of changing property values before the reassessments make things right again.

  5. Carolyn Frank says:

    State Law requires real estate assessments every two years for a city of our size. If the assessment increases revenues to the city by more than 1% a public hearing is required. The City Council in 2007 voted to decrease the property tax rate from $.62 per hundred to $.59 cents per hundred. We still saw an increase in revenue because of the assessment values. Our $.59 tax rate is the 3rd lowest in the state I believe. Galax is less, but they are not a full service city. I can’t remember the other locality. FYI 1 penny equal $393,607.00 in taxes at our current property values.

  6. Hey June, nice to see you blogging.

    Folks, make sure you understand that Coffman says he’s not for raising taxes, but as you can see and likely already know, Coffman’s got no control over assessments and has only one vote as far as rate increases or decreases…make sure you spell that out to your Republican friends who may be voting for the RINO in Coffman’s clothing.

  7. Regarding the tax issue, the real issue is spending. Given the balanced budget rule the city faces, and given whatever appears to be coming from higher levels of government in various forms (some of which is contingent on what the city does), the city must set tax rates so that it expects to earn enough money to pay for what it spends beyond what it gets from the higher levels. Beyond that, the matter of assessment is simply a matter of distributing fairly that burden of taxes.

    I would agree with all who support more frequent reassessment to keep that burden in line with actual property values, which the evidence suggests are not all moving together in one or another direction simultaneously.

  8. Ross says:

    Why are all BLOGS slowing down on participation?

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