2021 State of the City

Date: August 19, 2021, at 8:00 a.m.

Transcript from Mayor Sherman P. Lea, Sr.:

Good morning! It is my privilege to welcome you to the 2021 State of the City Address. This year has been an unprecedented year of challenge, and I want to take this opportunity to recognize my colleagues on City Council for their continued dedication and efforts to engage with our community.

Thank you, City Council members, for your commitment to work with City administration to navigate the many obstacles resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also must recognize our City employees who have continued to provide essential services during COVID-19 and throughout this year of transition, as COVID restrictions were lifted. Never before has it been more evident how essential the services the City provides are. Much of what we provide, private interests have deemed too risky, too costly, or too difficult and yet our community's health, safety, and quality of life depend upon them.

As we have learned all too well this past year, essential services go beyond public safety to include education, social services, public health, transit, and recreation, along with the myriad of other support systems needed for their success.

These essential services are provided by people—more than 1,700 dedicated professionals who showed up every day of the Pandemic, continuing to make a positive difference in the lives of our residents. I want to take this opportunity to thank them for their outstanding dedication and service to our City.

I also want to thank our Community Partners for their support during pandemic. Roanoke worked the private sector and with nonprofits like TAP, United Way of Roanoke Valley, and many others to meet community needs.

Although we are making progress in the fight against COVID, there is still much to be done.

The City has been working closely with the Virginia Department of Health to make the vaccine available to our residents. This is the only way we will beat COVID.

So, I want to take this opportunity to encourage everyone who has not been vaccinated to get the COVID-19 Vaccine!

Now we find ourselves emerging from these challenges to turn our attention more toward recovery from the impact of COVID-19 and strengthening our resiliency against similar future shocks.

The first step is to prioritize what we work on. This starts, of course, with the Council’s priorities established in the Strategic Plan, and includes priorities found in other adopted policy documents such as the Comprehensive Plan—City Plan 2040.

Priorities are guided by robust community engagement and data, highlighting areas of greatest need and where our actions may be most effective. This leads us to actions that prioritize certain services and approaches to delivery of those services.

The fruits of our labor included:

• The formation of the Equity and Empowerment Advisory Board,

• The establishment of the Gun Violence Prevention Commission,

• The addition of a COVID-19 Spanish-speaking Outreach efforts, and

• Successful distribution of the Star City Strong Recovery Fund and CARES Act funding, delivering more than $16 million in aid to our community residents, households, and businesses.

Building upon these, Roanoke will continue to follow its “Star City Strong” strategy, which we adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, consisting of three stages: Response, Recovery, and Resiliency.

The guiding principles for this strategy are Compassion, Respect and Dignity, Collaborative Partnerships, Trustworthiness, and Equity.

Phase 1 of “Star City Strong” was a plan to rise to our challenges.

Phase 2 of “Roanoke Star City Strong”, focused on recovery and strengthening our resiliency is now underway!

The City has:

• Reopened City facilities

• Supported the Virginia Department of Health in their efforts to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to residents by assisting with vaccination registrations. We also hosted the largest COVID-19 vaccination clinics in Southwest Virginia at Berglund Center, where more than 100,000 people received their vaccinations between January and May.

• Worked with our community to identify needs for the Star City Strong Recovery Fund, and

• Is now seeking the most impactful ways to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

This is unprecedented! Financial assistance from the Federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act will—for the first time in the history of the United States—allow all localities to receive direct financial assistance to aid in their recovery.

The City of Roanoke will receive over $64.5 million over the next two calendar years for this purpose. With local funds of this magnitude—especially if we are able to leverage them against other state and federal funds—the opportunity exists to truly transform aspects of our community.

And since the Fiscal Year 2022 budget is balanced and not dependent upon the use of these funds, they can be predominantly dedicated to transformational initiatives.

While the first phase of Star City Strong used CARES Act funds, this second phase will extensively engage the community in assisting Council to establish priorities and determine the most effective actions that may be taken over the next several of years.

As our bold plans unfold and intended outcomes are achieved, it is my hope that this time next year I will be sharing the success of our recovery and that we will be well on our way to building an even more resilient Star City.

In addition to these exciting developments, I am proud to say Roanoke’s local government has remained “Star City Strong” in its accomplishments for Fiscal Year 2020-2021. The work of our employees during this time has been nothing short of amazing, ensuring essential services continued without interruption.

As you know, Roanoke’s vision focuses on seven areas of strategic importance:

• Education

• Community Safety

• Human Services

• Infrastructure

• Good Government

• Livability

• Economy

I’d like to share some of the accomplishments from these areas with you today.

In Fiscal Year 21, our emphasis on Education was strengthened in several ways:

• First – Just a year ago we were welcoming Verletta White to the Star City as our new Roanoke City Public Schools Superintendent.

• I know you join me in thanking Mrs. White for successfully leading our students and schools through the pandemic, while always keeping the safety of students and staff as a top priority.

• We know it wasn’t easy and our teachers and school staff have been true heroes. They’ve made sure our students’ needs were met so they are ready to learn. This included, from March 17, 2020 through June 30, 2021, providing more than 3 million meals for students through neighborhood bus delivery, curbside distribution, and when students returned to the classroom.

• The pandemic didn’t keep our students and our schools from shining! Once again in 2021, The NAMM Foundation, named our public schools one of the Best Communities for Music Education. This is the ninth consecutive year Roanoke City Public Schools has been recognized.

• And this year’s graduating class saw 14 student athletes who were recruited and will play at the collegiate level for sports including lacrosse, track, soccer, football, basketball, and wrestling. We also boasted an unprecedented seven Regional Champions in our Star City.

• We know it takes all of us to ensure our youth have what they need to succeed. This past year, the public generously supported the students of Roanoke City Public Schools through the donation of clothing, school supplies and, through a partnership with the Roanoke Bar Association, 20 washers and dryers were donated to assist our students and their families.

• Construction has begun on the LIFT Clinic adjoining Fallon Park Elementary School. This clinic, which is scheduled to open in early 2022, is a partnership between Roanoke City Public Schools, Carilion Clinic, Delta Dental, and Freedom First Credit Union. It will provide our families access to physical, oral, financial and wellness resources in one convenient location at Fallon Park Elementary.

• I know everyone is excited for schools to return in August for in-person instruction, five days a week. Thank you so much to all our teachers and the staff of Roanoke City Public Schools who will make this possible.

• Our Superintendent’s vision reaches far beyond next year. We are excited for the establishment of the Roanoke Technical Education Center at Ruffner, near William Fleming High School, which was approved by City Council earlier this year. Our city will benefit from the expanded career and technical education programs and the home-grown professionals, who will receive their training while in school and who will graduate as Mrs. White says, “with both a diploma and a resume.”

• Thank you, Roanoke City Public Schools, for your strong contributions to our achievements as a local government!

Other examples of a steady emphasis on education include:

• Educational opportunities through Roanoke’s Conference Center throughout the year that helped inform the citizens of Roanoke and beyond. I want to thank Brian Mann, the City’s Enterprise Administrator for his leadership in this.

• Also, the opening of the newly renovated Gainsboro Branch Library on June 15 with many new amenities supported our education initiative.

• The launch of the Crystal Spring e-branch library in South Roanoke in March, providing service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

• A substantial donation of children’s books from the Soho Center to Roanoke Public Libraries and Star City Reads—41,778 books, valued at $538,000.

• The service of 78,711 meals from March 2020 through May 2021 through the curbside Feed and Read program, a partnership with Feeding Southwest Virginia and Roanoke Public Libraries; and

• Kids Farmers Markets held during COVID to allow children to shop for fresh produce with pretend money, increasing children’s math skills.

Community Safety is on everyone’s mind, especially when it comes to gun violence. Clearly, something terrible is going on across our Nation and, sadly, Roanoke is not exempt from this trend as we have seen higher numbers of gun-related woundings and homicides in the past two years when compared to previous years.

There is, obviously, a vital role for law enforcement and for the City government in addressing gun violence, both in the immediate timeframe and over the long-term.

Leading the City’s response is our Police Chief, Sam Roman. Chief Roman has realigned his officers to place a greater emphasis on addressing gun violence, especially perpetrated by gang activities and known offenders.

This has included the formation of a gang unit, increased use of intelligence and data gathering, and renewed partnerships with various state and federal law enforcement agencies. These efforts enable the police to focus on locations experiencing the highest incidences of gun violence and on those most likely to be perpetrators or victims of gun violence.

Let me assure you that, though the number of officers in our police force, which remains the largest in Virginia west of Richmond, has lowered due to resignations and low recruit numbers, the number of officers on the streets each shift has not diminished.

By realigning our officers, in many instances, the numbers have actually increased for targeted patrols and special units.

Still, we must hire more officers to restore our Police Department to its full complement so it can function to its highest capacity.

To this end, City Council approved, with this year’s budget, over 1.5 million dollars in salary increases for police officers, with further increases over the next two years, resulting in pay increases over a three-year-period of as much as 26%. It is our hope these efforts will aid with retention and recruitment of officers.

Other efforts to ensure public safety in our community include the funding of a RESET Volunteer Coordinator, which was previously grant funded. RESET stands for Rapid Engagement of Support in the Event of Trauma.

Citizens are also safer due to success stories like:

• The opening of our new Fire-EMS Station #7: After six years of planning, and more than a year of construction, Roanoke Fire-EMS completed its newest facility, Station #7, bringing a modern Fire-EMS facility to the Grandin Court community that will meet the needs of the fire service for the next 75 years. I want to thank our Fire-EMS Chief David Hoback for his leadership on this project.

• The E911 Center’s successful re-accreditation through CALEA for the fifth time. Our 911 staff are critical to public safety because without their work, officers and firefighters would not be able to respond quickly and keep our citizens safe. Thanks go to our E-911 Manager, Sonya Roman, for the dedication to lead her staff in achieving and maintaining accreditation.

Roanoke reached out to our community in a mighty way to offer services including:

• A CARES Act-funded program to assist citizens impacted by COVID-19 with unpaid bills. The program provided $389,703 in assistance for 315 approved applications;

• Benefit Program Staff disbursed over $285,000 in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which included emergency assistance for rent, utilities, transportation costs and childcare costs;

• The Homeless Assistance Team served 269 unsheltered individuals who were at high-risk for COVID-19 by providing non-congregate shelter services during the pandemic;

• Eighty-two of these individuals exited the program to permanent housing destinations. Funds received by the City through CARES Act were used to provide these services in conjunction with community partners; and

• Once again, the Family Services team finalized 49 adoptions from foster care, the highest amount for any local Department of Social Services in the Commonwealth

Roanoke’s capital improvement projects are in good shape, with completion of:

• Fire Station 7 and the Barnhardt Creek Bridge, installed on the Roanoke River Greenway—connecting City of Roanoke and City of Salem.

• The City also paved 50 lane-miles of streets in five City neighborhoods, made repairs to 13,000 linear feet of sidewalk and 9,000 linear feet of curb; and installed touchless pedestrian signal push buttons at 20 signalized intersections.

• In addition, Hotel Roanoke Conference Center installed more than 500,000 in AV Hybrid Streaming Technologies, with help from the CARES Act funding allocation from the City.

• Brian Mann oversaw this work, as well as the Parking Fund’s successful contracting for a structural maintenance firm to identify capital improvement projects for the seven City garages across five years.

To support Good Government practices, the City flexed its muscles to:

• Adopt a Comprehensive Plan Update: Plan 2040, to guide improvements in the city's health, economy, and environment. Our appreciation goes to the Department of Planning, Building, and Development for their work to complete this task.

• We successfully began the incorporation of Equity and Empowerment in the Fiscal Year 2021-2022 budget development process. Staff will continue the second year of expanded implementation for Fiscal Year 2022-2023.

• Roanoke sold $64.165 million in General Obligation and Refunding Bonds, of which $22.05 million was for new capital projects, $33.24 million was to take out an existing bond anticipation note, and $8.875 million was to refund existing debt to realize savings associated with lower interest rates.

• The cost of borrowing the funds was approximately 1.6%, which is a historically low interest rate. By refunding existing debt, the City will reduce its annual debt service thereby saving $539,000 over the life of the debt.

Good government means ensuring Roanoke is getting its name on the map! We continue to be recognized by outsiders, including:

• Roanoke’s participation in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Better Building Challenge. The City was recognized for exceeding its goal for energy reduction one year before the target year, saving the City more than $257,241 in energy costs.

• The City’s ranking as a Top 10 Digital City is a status we’ve retained since 2001.

• We earned the Government Finance Officer’s Association (GFOA) Certificate of Achievement in Financial Reporting for our Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for June 30, 2019, and the GFOA Distinguished Budget Presentation Award for the Fiscal Year 2019-2020.

• Roanoke retained its outstanding credit ratings with the top three rating agencies in the Country.

• The 2021 Bright Spot community award was received for Roanoke Public Libraries’ responses to the COVID crisis.

• Bronze Level Bicycle Friendly Community status from the League of American Bicyclists still belongs to Roanoke.

• And, the Outreach and Media Award was achieved for Roanoke’s Virtual Flood Preparathon from the Association of State Floodplain Managers.

When it comes to Livability, Roanoke is definitely coming on strong:

• Even under government restrictions and guidelines to follow COVID protocols, Berglund Center was able to host more than 200 events.

• We are investing in our parks and recreation facilities by:

o Repaving the parking lots at Fishburn Park, Shrine Hill Park, Piedmont Park and the Grandin Court Recreation Center,

o Renovating tennis courts at Highland Park and Eureka Park, and

o Renovating basketball courts at Fallon Park.

• A great boost to our livability this year was the inaugural Carilion Clinic IRONMAN 70.3 Virginia’s Blue Ridge triathlon, which took place on June 6. Roanoke hosted athletes from all over the Country participating in this event.

• This also marked the first time for Carvins Cove to allow swimming, enabling the competition’s 1.2 mile swim.

• And the Roanoke River Greenway was ideal for the 13.1 mile run as the final leg of the race.

• Many thanks to the work of our partners—including Visit Virginia’s Blue Ridge and our Parks and Recreation staff—as well as local organizations, businesses, and volunteers for assisting with all the details that made it possible to host the event.

• Good news! IRONMAN 70.3 is scheduled to return in 2022 and 2023.

• For events like this one and more, people are coming to Roanoke! I am so proud to be Mayor of a city that boasts over 100,000 residents, and that does such a good job of showing off our outstanding amenities to the world!

• To promote local and regional tourism, the City of Roanoke and Downtown Roanoke Inc. worked collaboratively to install the first Virginia’s Blue Ridge regional wayfinding signs.

• Pedestrian wayfinding is now in place throughout Downtown Roanoke. Next steps include kiosks, gateway signs and vehicular signage in key locations.

• Roanoke’s livability was recognized in tourism-related articles in various publications around the Country including The Washington Post, AAA World, and Southern Living.

• Roanoke also received accolades from USA Today’s “10 Best” Reader’s Choice Award for Best Urban Kayaking, and was voted Top Adventure Town by the readers of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine.

Another thing that makes Roanoke livable is the availability of suitable housing. This year, in our target communities, 42 homes were constructed or rehabilitated.

Shining attention on our sustainability efforts, Roanoke participated in an Urban Heat Island Mapping last year. Local citizen scientists collected specific weather information for the National Oceanic & Atmosphere Administration.

This data, an indicator of increased risk for heat factors that affect residents, will be used to inform decision-making on an urban scale, and better manage extreme heat that impacts those who live in our City.

Our Economy has not faced the likes of COVID-19 impacts since at least the Great Depression. Layoffs and furloughs were measured in the thousands, significant revenue losses occurred, and supply chains were greatly disrupted.

But, with the help of significant Federal and State aid, Roanoke sustained its Economy in a powerful way.

• The provision of CARES Act funding was critical to sustaining local government and business activities, as well as ensuring support for area youth, individuals, and households, as they struggled with the impacts of COVID.

• The input from our community through surveys, focus group meetings, stakeholder interviews, public meetings, and the formation of a citizen-based Advisory Group yielded a set of recommendations for financial support.

• Those resulted in the form of loans and grants to area small businesses, financial assistance to individuals and households, support of virtual learning academies, assistance to area non-profits and arts and culture groups, enhancement of neighborhood recreation facilities, and more.

• I am proud to say the City successfully expended all CARES Act funding and streamlined distribution of Cares Act Funding to our local small businesses; staff worked with local businesses to secure 252 grants in assistance.

• Finally, in the middle of a pandemic, the City launched its Financial Empowerment Center in July 2020. The Center offers professional, one-on-one financial counseling at no-cost to Roanoke area residents. Since that time, more than 900 financial counseling sessions have been held, resulting in $278,712 total debt reduction and $39,859 total savings increased for the Center’s 459 clients.

Even though we are just now beginning to emerge from the grip of COVID-19, the City of Roanoke remains Star City Strong. Thankfully, we are recovering in a relatively strong economic position, with the State and Federal government as committed partners.

And again, I want to say how much I appreciate our private sector and nonprofit Community Partners for playing their part. They have been and will continue to be crucial in our recovery!

However, challenges remain. Front and center is continued support of the community. Key to this recovery will be the successful implementation of the $64.5 million the City received from the Federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Much has changed since the onset of COVID-19 regarding the demands for social justice and greater equity, following the tragic murder of George Floyd. The expectation is that City government and how it spends its tax dollars will similarly change to meet these challenges.

Though the new fiscal year will no doubt present its own challenges, those hopefully will pale in comparison to what we faced in 2020 and early 2021.

I am confident as a community, we can face whatever may come our way—we have just proven that. Similarly, I know this organization can face whatever may come our way—we too have just proven that!

As we support the community's recovery and strengthen our resiliency, it remains critical that we maintain a focus on the vision for the desired future of our community, the strategies that represent the best path forward, and the actions that it will take to get us there.

Done well, we can continue to make the City government, the community, local businesses, area families and residents stronger and more resilient.

There is much more to come. As we begin Fiscal Year 2022, we will be looking for ways to further our success and address ongoing challenges.

I invite you to work with Roanoke City Council and City leaders to build on the work that has been done and create a strong future.

Our partnership is key to sustaining momentum as a progressive, successful community—one in which everyone plays a role in making our incredible potential a reality.