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City Manager's Blog

Learn about the City of Roanoke from the City Manager's point of view.

Apr 22

A City of Faiths

Posted on April 22, 2019 at 2:37 PM by Melinda Mayo

With the celebration of Easter on Sunday, being in the midst of Passover, and not far from the beginning of Ramadan, I thought it a good time to acknowledge the significance of the faith community in Roanoke and some of the work being done to bridge the gaps in understanding with one another.

Meeting and Learning 

The churches, temples, synagogues, Islamic centers, and other places of worship have long represented opportunities for the residents of Roanoke and visitors to come together and worship.  Increasingly, members of these are coming together to increase understanding of one another’s faith and to seek ways to build lasting friendships.  These efforts have grown from previous work of the faith community to provide help to recent immigrants, help heal racial divides, and meet basic needs of community members.

One such effort–“Changing the Narrative”–brings community members together around a meal and conversation focused on some of the most challenging topics of our times.  Previous discussions have included truthful history lessons of race here in the Roanoke Valley, and teens confronting hate and prejudice.  On Sunday, May 19, beginning at 6 p.m. at Temple Emanuel, a conversation about “sharing spiritual journeys” will be conducted. This event is designed to bring together people of all faiths to learn about and from one another, break down falsehoods about one another’s faith, and to seek commonalities in what we believe.  This event is free and includes dinner, but does require registration which can be accomplished by sending an email to this address.   

A second event is the “love thy neighbor interfaith breakfast” sponsored by the Roanoke Kiwanis Club.  This event will take place May 2 beginning at 7:15 a.m. at the Kazim Shrine Temple, and features a keynote address by Rabbi Jama Pursur from Beth Israel Synagogue and singing by Bernadette Brown from Green Temple Holiness Church.  As with the Changing the Narrative initiative, this event is the latest in a series of events that has brought together local Christians, Jews, and Muslims to share with one another the tenets of their faith and how they put it into practice.  There is a $7 charge for this breakfast and registration must occur prior.  Information about the event and tickets can be secured by contacting a member of the Roanoke Kiwanis Club or visiting their Facebook event page here

Different But Together 

These are but two current efforts to expand understanding and interactions among those of different faiths in our community.  In addition to seeking out your own path based upon your beliefs, it may be advantageous to gain a better understanding of what your fellow Roanokers believe and why–after all we live together, work together, and play together. It seems to make sense that we seek to understand one another even better.


— Bob Cowell


Apr 15

Following the Money

Posted on April 15, 2019 at 6:53 PM by Melinda Mayo

Last week I shared a bit about the process we use to create the City’s annual budget.  This week I will provide an overview of what is included in the Recommended Budget for Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20).  As I mentioned last week, under our form of government, I propose the annual budget to the City Council, based upon a community vision and strategic priorities established by the Council.  The Council reviews this recommendation, conducts a public hearing, and identifies any revisions they feel necessary prior to their adoption of the budget.

What Have We Been Provided and Where Did It Come From?

Essentially all of the money we have available to deliver services comes from tax revenue or fees paid for specific services such as solid waste, parking, or securing a permit.  The most significant source of revenue comes from taxes paid on real estate, accounting for nearly $88 million for the upcoming year.  This is followed by revenues from taxes on personal property ($23 million) and sales ($21 million).  In total, local tax revenues equate to $204 million or about 68% of all the revenue used for the annual budget.  The remaining revenues come from a variety of sources, with the two most significant being intergovernmental transfers ($75 million), predominantly from the Commonwealth, and charges for services ($16 million).  Once totaled from all sources, the revenue we anticipate having in FY20 to deliver our services is just shy of $300 million, nearly $8 million more than we budgeted for in FY19.

What Do We Propose Spending It On?

As in every preceding year, we propose that the vast majority of the funds available be spent in essentially the same manner.  This “base budget” equates to about $291 million and is what pays for such things as policing, fire protection, teachers, libraries, and parks.  Spending on education ($85.1 million) continues to be the highest priority, followed by community safety ($69 million).  In addition to funding the base budget, it is necessary to increase expenditures in a number of areas just to meet inflationary increases and contractual obligations.  These increases account for just over $3 million in new expenditures.  It is also desirable, when possible, to enhance or expand services in key areas.  The Recommended Budget includes additional funding for such purposes.  Likewise, it is necessary to increase employee compensation to remain competitive in attracting and retaining the workforce necessary to deliver City services.  The Recommended Budget includes around $2.5 million for this purpose, a 2.75% increase over the current year.  Finally, the budget includes a series of “one-time” expenditures for items such as equipment, grant matches, costs to conduct elections, etc. These expenditures total $2.6 million.

In addition to spending on the base budget, inflationary and contractual increases, service expansion, employee compensation, reserves, and one-time expenditures, funding is necessary to continue meeting our capital needs—that is our need to maintain, enhance, and build new bridges, streets, buildings, etc.  The City creates a five-year plan for capital needs to guide these expenditures. Over the next five years, it is anticipated we will need to spend $108 million on these items.  Most of these expenditures will be in the form of borrowed money or debt.  We will need to spend nearly $15 million in FY20 to “service” that year’s share of debt.

So there you have it, a balanced Recommended Budget: $300 million in revenues and $300 million in expenditures.  This is what it takes to educate our children, provide law enforcement, fire protection, safe and clean streets, parks, libraries, social services, arts, and so much more.  You can view the Recommended Budget online at the City’s website and City Council will offer citizens an opportunity to comment on the budget at the public hearing scheduled for April 25, at 7 p.m., in Council Chambers.

We are truly a fortunate community to be able to provide the resources necessary to deliver on many of the identified priorities.  We may not be able to deliver everything in exactly the way all would prefer, but we can and do deliver a myriad of high-quality services that our health, safety, welfare, and quality of life depends upon.

-- Bob Cowell






Apr 08

Planning to Budget

Posted on April 8, 2019 at 11:09 AM by Melinda Mayo

It is a fact of life that taxes must be paid, and just as true that our ability to provide the services we all depend upon is based upon revenue from those same taxes.  This post and the next one will focus on the City’s budget.  This week I will zero in on the process we use to develop the budget, and next week I will address what the FY20 budget proposal includes.

Start with What is Important

Several months before we begin talking about numbers, we start by talking about priorities.  In the early fall of each year, City Council members gather to discuss the priorities for the upcoming year.  This discussion is guided by the existing Strategic Plan which highlights the agreed upon goals, strategies, and performance measures for the City.  The staff will also often present relevant financial and policy considerations – for example, information about the local and state economy, and trends that may affect revenues or expenditures.  This meeting also represents the best time the Council has to review the progress made in delivering the outcomes we indicated we would achieve.  This is where we look at how graduation rates, crime data, job growth, street paving, etc. are doing, and where adjustments in expectations or approaches may be warranted.  The conclusion of these discussions should be affirmation of the Strategic Plan, any necessary adjustments in expected outcomes or performance measures, and a renewed set of “marching orders” for City staff as we begin the development of the next budget.

Provide Instructions and Prepare Proposals

In a Council-Manager form of government such as we have here in Roanoke, it is the City Manager who prepares and presents to Council the proposed budget based upon their priorities and guidance.  I initiate this process by relaying to the various department directors the results of the annual meeting with Council, and providing instructions for preparing proposals for revised or new expenditures.  This is where I indicate if I am seeking proposals for spending reductions or new programs, the areas we will focus on addressing, and other items they need to consider.  This is also when the Office of Management and Budget provides technical guidance regarding deadlines, forms to be used, etc.  Once instructions are provided, the directors begin preparing proposals for service reductions or additions, proposed purchases, etc.  Throughout this process, the directors serve as cross-functional teams, work closely with the Office of Management and Budget personnel and, from time to time, come together for further clarification from the City Manager.  This work will go on for the several months, culminating in submission of proposals in the late part of the winter.

Review and Refine

Once proposals have been received, they are reviewed and refined by the staff of the Office of Management and Budget for presentation to the City Manager.  I, along with the two Assistant City Managers, review the proposals, facilitate presentations by staff of the proposals, ask questions, request additional information or clarification, etc., all in an effort to develop a draft document that begins to move us toward a balance between revenues and expenditures.  While this work is going on, projections of anticipated revenues are being developed.  There will be projections of real estate taxes, personal property taxes, sales taxes, fees, support from the State, grants, etc., which are used to create the total revenue projections used to clarify what we will have available to meet our expenditure needs. 

Sharing with Council

In the early part of the spring we begin briefing Council of the progress—first how revenue projections are looking, then how expenditures are shaping up and, finally, how close we are to presenting a balanced budget.  Late in this process, as we begin to be very close to a balanced budget proposal, we begin briefing the Council members in detail, individually, affording them more time to ask specific questions of what is being considered. This all culminates in a proposed budget presented by the City Manager at a meeting in April, followed by a public hearing and a final Council work session.

Action and Reporting

In May of each year, after months of work, debate, briefings, and discussions, City Council will approve a final budget that will be used to enable delivery of the services we all are dependent upon to conduct our daily lives and business activities.  As we implement the budget, we have staff tracking revenues coming in and expenditures being made to ensure consistency with the budget, and to identify any deviations that need attention.  Additionally, outside accountants and auditors evaluate what we have collected and expended, and verify compliance with regulations, standards, policies and practices, and noting any areas needing correction.

It's a long and sometimes confusing process, but it is the process that we use to determine how to spend nearly $300 million annually needed to provide schools, streets, libraries, parks, law enforcement, fire protection, emergency medical services, stormwater management, solid waste collection and disposal, and dozens upon dozens of other vital services. 

For the next post – what is proposed for FY20?

--Bob Cowell