Last week, I reflected on a few of the many accomplishments of the City in 2021, and highlighted some of the remaining challenges. This week, I will look ahead into 2022, and discuss a few of the initiatives that lie ahead.
I only wish we could say 2022, would not include a discussion of COVID-19, but alas that is not the case. With the arrival of the Omicron variant, though appearing less harmful, COVID remains just as disruptive. Just last week nearly three dozen City employees contracted the virus and dozens more were isolating due to close contact, just as hundreds more in our region similarly contracted the virus. The anticipated rapid rise in the number of cases is likely to place a strain on our ability to maintain levels of service–this will likely be as true for public safety as it is for the libraries or parks and recreation. All we can hope for is that this latest variant is indeed less dangerous and leaves as quickly as it arrived. For certain, we will continue to deal with COVID-19 and its many impacts throughout 2022–maybe by year’s end we will be able to say we are past the worst of it.
As noted in previous posts, the City received $64.5 million in federal assistance through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). As with the CARES Act, the Council formed a Citizen-based Advisory Panel to make recommendations on the most effective way to use the funds–in this case, how to respond to the impacts of COVID-19 in a manner that builds resiliency and transforms the community. The Panel made their recommendations to the Council in the fall, and implementation on those recommendations is in full swing and will continue through 2022.
As in the years past, Council has identified its strategic priorities through their Strategic Plan. A revised version of this plan will be presented in January and adopted in February and will continue to focus in seven priority areas. In 2022, this focus will include projects and initiatives as follows:
Education – The City will continue its substantial investment in education, continuing to fund at a higher level than any of the other strategic priorities. Further, the City will continue to support the School Division’s efforts at expanding equity in their programs. In 2022, these efforts will include greater pay for teachers and staff, continued implementation of the School Division’s Equity in Action Plan, which includes renovation of the recently purchased Roanoke Times Building and development of emerging Career and Technical Education opportunities at a new ROTEC facility at Ruffner. Additionally, the City will continue to fund investments in municipal library operations and support of students attending Virginia Western Community College.
Community Safety – The City will continue to focus investments and enhancements in public safety including the next phases of pay increases for Fire-EMS personnel, Roanoke Police Officers, and Sheriff’s Deputies. Funding will continue to support the efforts of the Gun Violence Prevention Commission, bolstered by the use of $2 million in ARPA funds. The City will continue its investments in building safety and code enforcement as well.
Human Services – The City will continue investing in social services along with its enhanced partnerships with Blue Ridge Behavioral Health and Bradley Free Clinic; advancing mental health services in the community; and the Collective Response to Substance Use, advancing access to prevention, treatment, and recovery services for those with substance use disorders. These activities will be further bolstered through the use of the dedicated ARPA funds and funds from the settlement of litigation with Opioid manufactures and distributors.
Infrastructure – The City will continue investing in streets, sidewalks, parks, greenways, and transit. 2022 will see the beginning of the Main Street Bridge replacement, continued progress on the new downtown transit transfer facility, initiation of the final portion of the Roanoke River Greenway, and the expansion of the paving program and sidewalk repair efforts. With the support of ARPA funding, work will get underway on replacement of the Eureka Recreation Center in 2022. We also will learn more about how the recently approved federal infrastructure bill may assist our community.
Good Government – The City will continue its efforts at updating its website, increasing access to and transparency of its Capital Improvement Program, and expansion of its language access program. Additionally, 2022 will see continued progress on focusing our annual budgeting efforts to ensure more equity and to reduce disparities in service delivery. Of course as always, the City will maintain a balanced budget, continue to place funds in its reserve accounts (rainy day funds), and retain its strong credit ratings, allowing us to borrow for capital projects under very favorable terms. 2022 will also see the beginning of the latest push to ensure the pay of our employees remains competitive–this began in 2021, with the first phase of pay increases for public safety employees, a series of employee bonuses and the establishment of a $15 minimum wage.
Livability – The City will continue advancing on its efforts at being as welcoming a community as possible–this includes continued support of our recently arrived neighbors from afar and continued support of our efforts to reduce homelessness in our community. 2022 will see the continuation of the most extensive investments made in our parks and recreation facilities in decades. We continue to work with various groups to better each of our neighborhoods. Through use of ARPA funds we will progress on two neighborhood hubs in the Northwest–one in Gainsboro, and the other on Melrose, focusing on job creation and access to health care and fresh food.
Economy – The City will continue its investments in economic development efforts. In 2022, these will include the continued marketing and development of the Wood Haven Technology Park, a joint development with Roanoke County and the City of Salem, located in Roanoke County, and continued support of the expansion of the Innovation Corridor. Through use of ARPA funds, the City will also invest heavily in new job training programs, seeking to connect those in our community with job opportunities in growing strong sectors, through targeted access to specific skills. 2022 will also see the preparation of the City’s first comprehensive strategic plan for economic development and the next steps in supporting the next village and neighborhood centers–or complete neighborhoods.
These are but a few of the challenges, projects, or initiatives that lie ahead for 2022. As it is said, only time will tell what 2022 presents us with throughout the year. I am confident that by the end of the year, I will be able to report on the many accomplishments and successes of our community, and also illustrate how we have tackled some of the most difficult challenges that have faced our City. To a prosperous, safe, and healthy 2022!
-- Bob Cowell