City Manager's Blog

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

Nov 12

Contested Space

Posted on November 12, 2019 at 1:45 PM by Melinda Mayo

I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. last week to participate in a couple of panel discussions highlighting what we are trying to do here in Roanoke regarding disparities in health outcomes and racial equity.  During one of the breaks, I was able to walk much of the length of the National Mall, something I had not done in well over a decade.  Along the way, I encountered monuments to fallen heroes, to founding fathers, and to some whose history is now viewed a bit more dubiously than in previous generations.

A Capitol City 

I saw some of the greatest museums in the world, including a visit to the incredible National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Of course, I also saw the three branches of the Federal government, represented by the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court.  

A Disputed City

I also saw various protests along my walk, one highlighting the plight of an aging religious leader under house arrest in a distant foreign land, the other against inaction on climate change.  I also noticed the many barricades, fences, and near militant security measures in place in and around nearly all of these facilities.  I will admit my first reaction to the protests and the many security measures was one of sadness, sad that we are such a divided people and sad that we are such a violent place that so much security is deemed necessary.  

However, that visit to the Museum of African American History and Culture reminded me that we have always been a deeply divided nation—at our best, ideologically and at our worst, violently.  Indeed, the land I was walking upon has been the site of some of the most heavily contested moments in our history.  More than 400 years ago the first settlers to the area battled with the indigenous population, who ultimately succumbed to the ravages of European diseases.  An ideological battle ensued from the very moment of securing our freedom as to where the new Nation’s Capitol should be located. Soon after the formation of the City as the Capitol, it was burned nearly to the ground by the British.  Even the design of the Capitol City was argued over, eventually resulting in the firing of the original designer.  

There was, prior to the Civil War, strife between the Capitol City and its neighboring states regarding slavery and a burgeoning movement toward abolition.  Forts, encampments, and soldiers became common sights during the Civil War.  In 1919, a violent mob of whites attacked random African Americans in the City, resulting in the death of 15 people.  In the 1930’s, more than 40,000 veterans and their families encamped in Washington, protesting the lack of post-war support.  They were forcibly removed by Federal troops and their makeshift camps burned.

Some of the greatest Civil Rights marches and speeches occurred on the National Mall, culminating in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 speech, but the City also saw widespread riots in 1968 following Dr. King’s assassination.  And of course, the City was a target of the terror attacks of 2001.

Even Here

So too has our community long contested ideas and power.  On occasion, this has resulted in incidents of shameful violence or destruction such as the 1893 riot and lynching, or the periods of neighborhood destruction associated with urban renewal.  More often, these contests have involved impassioned debates, be it about an aged stadium, election dates, or a new bus terminal.

So, upon reflection and recognition of our history—national and local—I viewed the presence of protests and security a bit differently, less a sad statement on our current condition and more an acknowledgment of our long, often violent history of doing something no other Nation has succeeded with as well as we have: Governing of the people, by the people, for the people.

-- Bob Cowell

Nov 04

A Resilient City

Posted on November 4, 2019 at 1:53 PM by Melinda Mayo

This past week City Council members met with senior administrative staff at the annual budget planning retreat.  This half-day gathering serves as the official kick-off to budget preparations for the upcoming fiscal year.  In addition to the regular discussion of closing out the previous fiscal year, performance of the current budget, review and affirmation of Council priorities, etc., this year’s retreat included a discussion on building additional resiliency into the budget.  This included review of a five-year projection of revenues versus expenditures, as well as two scenarios—one where current revenue growth trends remain stable and the other where revenues decline in a manner similar to that experienced during the Great Recession.

Best Practices

The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA), the leading government budgeting and financial management trade organization in the Country, provides guidance on a number of governmental financial practices.  Relative to resiliency, GFOA identifies eight characteristics it feels represent best practices.  Three were particularly insightful for the purposes of the retreat discussion—fail gracefully, maintain flexibility, and exercise foresight.  Much of what was presented and discussed at the retreat centered on these three characteristics and how they may be applicable in Roanoke.

Five-Year Model

For the past few years, the City has made use of a five-year projection of revenues and expenditures based upon a set of assumptions around such things as property tax revenue growth, employee compensation increases, etc. 

Five-Year Model  Assumptions

The value of the model is to identify ahead of time any significant structural concerns associated with either revenues or expenditures, or both.  In our case, the model portrays expenditures increasing at a greater rate than revenues are projected to grow.  As noted in a recent report by the National League of Cities, this is becoming a more common reality for local governments as the goods and services government purchases increase at rates significantly outpacing inflation.  This is further complicated by local economies experiencing growth focused on so-called “eds and meds,” which tend to pay little to no property taxes.

Scenarios: One Good, One Challenging

One of the scenarios the Council reviewed assumed we continue to experience the revenue growth we have had over the past couple of years seeing, for example, property values increasing 2% to 3% annually and sales tax revenues increasing in the 5% to 6% range.  This scenario would continue to provide the city with “new” revenue, which would enable us to meet increasing costs, increase employee compensation, and address additional one-time capital expenses such as additional street repairs.  The Council spent most of its time focused on prioritizing how this increased revenue could be allocated emphasizing employee compensation, community safety, and neighborhood vitality.

The second scenario assumed we experienced revenue shortfalls comparable to that realized in FY09-FY10, necessitating planned expenditure reductions of more than $5 million.  The discussion reviewed how the City responded when such a reduction last occurred.  This included an increase in the meals tax to ensure Roanoke City Public Schools did not experience any harm from reductions in State funding; a reduction in the number of city employees (from 1,800 FTE in FY2009 to 1,676 by FY11); establishment of new fees (sanitation and storm water); and a reduction of expenditures in a number of areas (increased mowing cycle times, elimination of loose-leaf pickup, etc). The discussion allowed the Council to consider what tools might continue to be available and which they may choose to use or not, should it become necessary. 

Though discussion of these scenarios did not result in any definitive actions, it was beneficial to have Council consider and be prepared should such situations present themselves, helping them define how they may be able to “fail gracefully” and “retain flexibility.”

Preparing for the Inevitable

As most everyone is aware, we are in the district of the longest period of economic growth our Country has ever seen.  While no one wants it to end or knows when it will, the reality is it will and, when it does, we will be better off if we have prepared for it.  During this period of growth, the City has been bolstering its reserve fund, enabling us to secure credit at very favorable rates and ensuring we are protected against a catastrophic occurrence.  We have also used this time to begin establishment of a stabilization fund—a sort of “rainy-day” fund—that would allow us to respond to an abrupt interruption in revenues in the midst of a budget year.  

The consequences of the Great Recession are never far out of mind and, as a result, the City has aggressively sought to become more efficient in delivery of the services we provide.  This effort at continuous improvement has not only allowed us to do more with less, but also to do it better and to lessen the impact of any future economic downturn.

Better to Have Prepared

In planning for severe weather or other natural disasters, you hope you never have to put into practice what you have trained for. But should you need to do so, it is much better that the training and preparation took place.  So it is with planning for resiliency and budgeting. Better to be ready for whatever may come—be it positive or negative—short or long in duration.  

-- Bob Cowell

Oct 29

Goodbye Mr. Tarpley, and Thank You

Posted on October 29, 2019 at 1:56 PM by Melinda Mayo

Last Saturday afternoon, James Hunter Tarpley caused a group to assemble as only the “Angel of Grandin” could—Mayors (current and former), policemen, firefighters, a prominent local developer, and people from all walks of life.  As those who gathered to celebrate 86 years of Mr. Tarpley’s life— especially the most recent decades Grandin Village was blessed with his presence—told story after story of his kindness, helpfulness, and a good dose of stubbornness, the contributions of Mr. Tarpley upon Grandin Village became clear.

I had the honor last year of playing a part in recognizing Mr. Tarpley as Roanoke’s Citizen of the Year, a well-deserved addition to his previously awarded Key to the City for his conduct in disrupting a crime many years ago.  But it is actually knowing Mr. Tarpley as a fellow 7-11 patron and Raleigh Court resident that I treasure more.  Many a weekend morning while retrieving my Super Big Gulp did I see Mr. Tarpley perched in his chair scratching away at his latest lottery ticket or deep in conversation with someone from the neighborhood.  Most evenings on the way home from the Municipal Building, I saw Mr. Tarpley tending to the park that carries his name, sweeping a sidewalk clean, or sitting upon a bench—a well-deserved break.

How did this humble man end up with a park named after him, a star in front of the Grandin Theater, the subject of a mural, and the reason so many gathered on a Saturday afternoon?  Simple. He cared.  He cared for and about others, he cared that his park was clean and brought joy to area children, he cared that others were safe, and he cared that people had a bit of joy in their lives.  He cared for Grandin Village and its many people, regulars and those just passing through.  As Ed Walker said on Saturday, a good portion of what makes Grandin Village such a special place owes something to that magic brought by Mr. Tarpley.  His presence will be missed.  His absence presents a big challenge to the rest of us, to care where he no longer is able, and to keep that magic alive.

So, we say goodbye to Mr. Tarpley, but more importantly we say thank you.  Thank you for being so real, so authentic, for caring for so many, and most of all for showing us how wonderful life can be when someone takes the time to see others and do what they can do to better the lives of others, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Roanoke will miss you, Grandin Village will miss you, and I will miss seeing you on those mornings.  May we do your legacy justice.

-- Bob Cowell