Housing, taxes and schools top issues for council candidates

Six candidates are vying for four seats on Danville City Council.

The biggest questions for them from residents are how the city will address a shortage of quality housing, whether there will be a cap on the real estate tax rate and what will be done about an underperforming school system.

According to survey results from a 2021 Health Equity report, 37.8% of Danville respondents said there was not enough housing for people to find a decent place to live. The majority of council candidates, during a candidate forum Thursday night at George Washington High School, pointed to incentives for home improvements and other help as ways to alleviate the problem.

“I would like to see more assistance for those looking to rehab houses that are still in salvageable states, more new homes built within that $100,000 to $300,000 purchase price range and for there to be fair measures of accountability placed on landlords,” said candidate Maureen Belko.

Up to 2,425 homes must be built in the city to meet housing needs due to both job-driven and pent-up demand, according to a recent housing study.

The candidate forum was held by the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Hunter Byrnes, chief legal officer at Infinity Global. It was sponsored by the Danville Register & Bee and SOVA Legal.

Byrnes posed five questions to candidates, chosen from among more than 80 submitted by citizens. Many of the questions overlapped one another, covering similar issues.

The candidates are incumbents James Buckner, Alonzo Jones, Gary Miller and Bryant Hood, and challengers Petrina Carter and Belko.

Regarding the housing question, Carter said public/private partnerships are beneficial in creating new housing stock and the city must reimagine how land is used to promote healthy, affordable homes and inclusive communities.

“This includes providing for those who have been homeless with the resources and support needed to stabilize their housing, enhance integration and social inclusion and ultimately reduce the risk of falling back into homelessness,” Carter said. “It is critical that there is continued focus on long-term strategies through political will, dedicated leadership and, most importantly, ongoing revenue to implement the policy and structural changes necessary to end homelessness and improve the housing stock in Danville.”

Hood touted providing incentives for low-income housing and tax breaks for property owners and working with them to address code violations. He also supports combining policies to improve housing quality and safety.

The city is working to provide mixed-use (business and residential) housing through public/private partnerships, Miller said.

“A few current projects include the Danville Mall, River District and the White Mill, along with other privately-built apartments,” Miller said.

Most of the city’s homes were built in the 1950s and 1960s and are poorly insulated, Miller said, adding that he has supported incentives to help correct that.

“I have in the past and continue to push for more rebates to homeowners and landlords that install new doors, windows and other insulation,” he said. “We must continue to encourage private investment in affordable but quality housing. We have a shortage of available space and condemned homes should be replaced with affordable housing units.”

Jones pointed to programs offered to landlords by the city and the Danville Redevelopment and Housing Authority to help resolve local housing issues. There are also programs for reducing lead in homes and incentivizing tenants and property owners to upgrade their homes to be more energy efficient, Buckner said.

However, there is not enough available middle-class housing and that is causing the market to suffer, Belko said.

“It is forcing more demand on the lower-valued homes, more people to stay in rentals for longer before they can buy, and the increased amount of people looking to rent allows landlords to price their units higher while providing less property maintenance,” Belko said.

Real-estate tax

Byrnes asked candidates if they would cap property taxes, especially with revenues anticipated from the Caesars Virginia casino project and a major industry expected at the Southern Virginia Megasite at Berry Hill.

Byrnes’ question did not specify whether it referred to real estate taxes or those for personal vehicles.

Half of candidates opposed capping the real estate tax rate, which is 84 cents per $100 of assessed value. One supported the idea and two others gave noncommittal answers.

That rate is one of the lowest in the state, said Buckner, a real estate agent.

“I want to see some of these projected revenues actually realized before altering our rate any,” he said. “But I don’t believe our taxes should increase any further, and hopefully with additional revenue expected to come in, we can look at lowering some tax rates.”

Hood and Miller were also against the idea of capping rates.

“At the current moment, I would not act to cap property taxes specifically due to substantial revenue additions,” Hood said. “We never want to limit revenue that assist city necessities, but I’m not in favor of raising our citizens’ taxes.”

Also, imposing such a cap would bind future councils, Miller said.

“A council cannot be bound by a previous council’s actions,” Miller said. “We can set rates, but these can be changed by the future council even if a cap is implemented.”

Capping revenue or spending not on hand is not a good idea, he added.

“The revenue from Caesars will not be realized until fiscal year 2025,” Miller said. The Caesars Virginia casino is expected to open in late 2024.

Also, revenue from a hoped-for Berry Hill project is several years down the road, Miller added, and the city is looking at new projects including a new parking deck downtown, improvements at Piney Forest Road and South Main Street, and new splash pads.

For Jones, “It is difficult to make that call when we are not seeing the revenue as of yet. What I would expect of the city manager and his leadership team is for them to continue looking for savings and tax breaks for all our citizens.”

But Carter expressed support for a cap.

“This is a way to ensure most of our citizens feel some benefit from all the economic boosts that are happening in our region,” Carter said.

In addition, a recent proposal to get rid of the $50 annual license fee for small businesses generating less than $100,000 in revenue will make almost no difference, Carter said.

“I would propose looking at a $500 utility allowance for our small business owners,” Carter said. “This would make a greater impact on their businesses and help toward sustainability.”

The city’s entire tax structure needs to be revisited, Belko said, pointing to a high meals tax she attributed to a “kick-the-can-down-the-road” approach and “duct-tape solutions.”

“It’s time to peel off the ‘duct tape’ and do a proper restructuring of our taxes with the city manager before we miss out on fair amounts of business tax revenue and cause unnecessary economic stress on our citizens and homeowners,” Belko said.

Education

As for the Danville School District’s dismal performance, with just two of its 10 schools fully accredited, Belko said “it will take an attack from every angle and that will require diverse perspectives on council to turn this situation around.

“We need to better support our parents and teachers so they can be the best influence for our students,” she said. “That means for parents — improve housing availability, lower utility costs, and bring better-paying jobs so our parents can be home helping with homework rather than picking up another shift just so there’s food on the table. Kids can’t be expected to teach themselves.”

Also, teachers’ quality of life needs to be improved, she added.

“They don’t want another software package to use,” Belko said. “They don’t want another pizza party. First, teachers want parents to take responsibility for their children and if we support our parents, they’ll have more capacity to do so.”

All the incumbents emphasized their efforts to visit schools and pointed to their consistent, continued support of the school system. Improving education is the city’s top priority, especially since the latest accreditation results were released.

Jones, Danville’s mayor, appointed two council members as liaisons between the school board and City Council, he pointed out.

“The liaisons meet with the superintendent and not only get updated on changes that have been implemented and the progress that’s being made but are able to ask questions and voice our concerns, as well as inquire how council can help,” he said.

Danville City Council’s increased oversight of local school funding by targeting where they money goes is “a great start,” Carter said.

“This is a great start, but must go a step further by identifying specific improvements to be achieved,” Carter said. “As partners, the council and school board can develop processes to identify, measure and record improvements. This information can then be used to determine the effectiveness of the overall spending plan and how it helped to improve the performance of our schools.”

Carter added that she would be diligent in partnering with schools to help them reach improved outcomes.

It will take a partnership and the school board holding its staff accountable to the rules and regulations to improve performance, as well as parental involvement, Hood said.

“It’s not just on the school board or its staff,” Hood said. “Parents must become more involved with in their child’s every day life and school participation.”

For Miller, increased per-pupil spending and newer, more modernized school facilities will help to improve schools.

“The minimum [per-pupil funding] is grossly inadequate to achieve positive results,” Miller said. “Larger and more affluent school districts regularly outspend us and have the desired results. How can we ever catch up if we spend less per pupil, less on teacher salaries and less on school buildings?”

Buckner said, “As a city councilman, my door has always been open to help or offer advice to any school board member that needs it. Together we grow and progress. I’m available to assist whenever I’m asked or needed.”

Article by John Crane | Register & Bee