Richmond’s 5th District candidates all seek to put the city’s finances in order

Richmond 5th District Candidates, Left to Right: Montigue Magruder, Garrett Sawyer and Parker Agelasto

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Election day is coming up in just a few weeks. And while city council elections are getting far less press than the presidential and mayoral elections, 8News is taking the opportunity to inform the electorate about the people who are running in each respective district, where the rubber meets the road in creating the policies that impact residents the most. These range from issues of public security, schools and public works.

8News spoke with each candidate running for city council to discuss matters ranging from existing issues in the city, their proposed solutions to those problems and their motivations and qualifications for running in the first place.

In this edition, we will discuss the election being held for the city’s fifth district which runs from Hull Street in the south to close to Belt Boulevard and I-195 in the west to Elwood Avenue, Main Street and Floyd Avenue in the north and Belvidere Street in the east. The district includes the neighborhoods of Oregon Hill, Randolph, Carytown, parts of VCU, parts of the Fan, Woodland Heights, and Swansboro.

The three candidates running in this area are Montigue T. Magruder, Garrett Sawyer and the incumbent Parker Agelasto.

Each candidate was presented with the same general questions about their background, experience, qualifications for office, their priorities if elected, and their ideas for resolving major issues in their district and across the city.

This is what they had to say:

How did you make the decision to run in the first place?

Magruder: “The idea to run came up when I kept seeing city council and the mayor pushing these economic deals that excluded the community, making all these deals with corporations and not consulting the people, trying to shut them out of the conversation. I felt it was necessary for me to step up and be the voice of the people constantly shut out of the process.”

Sawyer: “I am a product of the district I am running for, born and raised in the 5th district … What really got me involved was I was tired of sitting on the sideline and seeing our city not move in the right direction. There’s so many great things happening in terms of growth and development, but if you look at city government as a whole, it’s stagnant. I think we need to focus on getting back to the basics and ensure that our house is in order. Your foundation is your finances, and right now our finances are all over the place.

Agelasto: “Originally, I got frustrated with affairs at city hall, the lack of communication and detail about issues going on around where I live. I had been doing a lot in terms of immediate community, doing cleanups, block parties to encourage a sense of shared responsibilities and to celebrate our own area, and saw other areas doing that despite the city leadership and thought about how if city government bought into that, how much greater it would be … and so I ran because I wanted to make sure I was part of that conversation.”

What do you see as the biggest issue in the 5th District?

Magruder: “People are concerned about the rising cost of water, Oregon Hill is worried about impeding developments and encroachments from VCU, some are concerned about the rapid transit bus system that just began construction, but the top issues that have come up are schools and transparency of the government.”

Sawyer: “I think there are two main things: There’s really not a lot of development, not a lot of opportunities in areas like West Swansboro and Randolph, to some degree … I’ve been focusing on trying to develop a community center within the area on the southside because I really want to give the opportunity for the youth to have after school tutoring and give them the opportunity to get off the street. I feel like that’s one of the biggest issues we’ve seen not only in the 5th district but in the city as a whole, a huge uptick in crime. So if we can give opportunities and a safe place for these kids and our young adults as well…I think we can combat that issue as a whole. The community center will also provide resources about financial management, how to start your own business … opportunities out there for you to own your first home … so many down-payment, grant assistance, out there but people just don’t know about it and it’s not being brought out to the forefront. So that’s what I think we should focus on … Rebuild the sense of community throughout the district.”

Agelasto: “For the fifth district, everybody is saying we need to have the investment in our schools, we need to invest in our police, we need to invest in our public works and to a large degree, 5th district has over half of the park acreage and so there’s some level of parks we have to be cognizant of … except grass cutting is within the budget of public works…so you need to know how the budget works to make sure resources are distributed … schools, public safety and public works — making sure our investments in streets, sidewalk repairs, grass cutting, ally maintenance, the basics that when you walk out your door, you aren’t seeing an adequate service there.”

How do you plan on better funding Richmond Public Schools?

Magruder: “If elected, I’d like to amend the meals tax ordinance so that the meals tax revenue all goes directly to maintenance and operations of the schools. Two other mechanisms we should go after is to legally challenge the local composite index [proxy for determining the ability of each locality to pay its share of K-12 expenses] the state has in place for providing funding to the schools and we need to challenge the state’s misuse of funds from the Virginia Lottery which was supposed to be used specifically as an additional boost to fund public school systems throughout the state.

Sawyer: “We need to ensure that we know what our available money is within our budget … there is so much uncertainty, it makes it hard to know that we don’t have available money to address the concerns within public schools … And we need to make sure that we are getting the taxes that are owed to the city, and there is tons of money there that we have not collected: personal property taxes or real estate as well. We need to figure out how to achieve that to be able to move forward to fund our public school system. One thing I know, you can’t just assume everybody has the money, many are on fixed incomes. There are many reasons people are delinquent, but we need to work out payment plans, figure out a way that’s fair to those who might have situations that are late. We need to be mindful of that while we collect.”

Agelasto: “The assumed delinquency rate on real estate property tax [across the state] is 1 to 2 percent. In Richmond, we’re budgeting at about 6 percent. If we improved that, for every 1 percent, we’re getting another $2.5 million into our general fund. If we hit the state average, we’re talking $10 million into the general fund, just by getting to a better collection rate. Otherwise, I think the city could look at [what the state owes in] payment in lieu of taxes. [Payment in lieu of taxes refers to a payment to help pay for services that a property uses if it isn’t required to pay taxes.] The State General Assembly makes an appropriation every year toward the city of Richmond. By code, they are supposed to make a payment in lieu of taxes at a certain ratio … frankly, they have been underfunding it and I think we need to make sure that the state is actually funding appropriately, because at the end of the day, it’s the state’s employees that are using these services, so we gotta do better there. And, from analysis that I’ve done with the city assessor, that could be about $5 million a year in additional revenue.”

Outside of your district, what do you see as the most pressing issue in Richmond government?

Magruder: “Transparency … It seems like a lot of [these economic deals] are negotiated behind closed doors and under the cloak of secrecy and in the case of the Stone Brewing Company, it seems like the City’s Economic Development Authority didn’t actually allow city council to review the details of the agreements related to it until they actually approved the ordinances in relation to the deal. I have two main issues on transparency … I think we need to repeal the ordinance passed in 2014 which ended the previous ordinance requirement that any nominee to boards or commissions appear at city council meetings to be confirmed by resolution … Before council would provide the chance for public comment [before appointments], and then after that, city council has their vote, then that’s what it was. I think that’s concerning because there are certain boards and commissions that city council pays and so I think people have the right to know who city council is choosing. I would like to push, if elected, to amend ordinance 2015-154-144 that requires that any economic development projects that requires the city to spend more than $5 million, there must be an economic impact study … I would amend that so that the threshold is lowered to $1 million and require that any projects subject to that study be put up to an advisory public referendum so that everybody is included in the process and gets the chance to say whether they support that project or not.”

Sawyer: “Biggest thing is getting our house in order. I hear time and time again knocking on doors, people really want to ensure that they know where their tax dollars are going. One of the biggest issues we have now is going to be our educational system. I know that’s one of the more hot topic issues, regardless of what race you look at. But I’m a product of RPS, I went there from kindergarten to 12th grade, so I understand there are some challenges there, but one thing I want people to remember is that RPS is an outstanding place to attend. There are so many lessons that I learned from the excellent educators there that are still there to this day that allowed me to go to UVA for undergrad and continue after I finished there. We need to be sure that we’re treating our educators with level of respect they deserve … We need to make sure that Richmond teachers are receiving adequate pay to take care of themselves in addition to being able to take care of their responsibilities within the classroom …That’s one of the things I really want to focus on, to ensure we’re supporting our school board and working very closely with the school board to ensure we’re supplying the necessary resources …developing a long term plan to improve the infrastructure of our school buildings … Not something we can fix overnight, but if we can’t develop a plan and fix that plan and make that available to the public, then we’re not doing our job.”

Agelasto: “I think the biggest issue from city’s perspective is the push and pull we get in investing in city services vs. what we get in investing in economic development. I have become a bit more suspicious of economic development initiatives when we’ve done some and yet they can’t tell us how we are performing based on what they projected would happen. If you can’t evaluate and assess what you’ve done, why would you do more? We need to put in more protections so that if projections aren’t met, the city isn’t left holding the bag. [Addressing the city’s high tax delinquency rates] is an area I’ve been working very diligently with staff to address, highlighting areas they need to be targeting. They’ve done a great job so that last year when they predicted a $4 million dollar deficit, because they did better tax collection, they ended up with a $4 million dollar surplus.”

What do you think sets you apart from the other candidates running in your district?

Magruder: “I have a proven track record of standing up and fighting for the poor, the public transit riders … people who have been traditionally shut out from the usual discussions that go on in city government … I served on the GRTC and transit study task force and I wrote 4 of the final recommendations including one … to have GRTC transfer from a go card system to an unlimited pass use system that’s now in place. People are now able to go on the bus, buy a day pass for $3.50 and get around the city as much as they need to for the entire day, and I’m proud of that. I’ve also worked to win some concessions on the BRT Pulse … because at the time they were [originally] going to charge a premium $2.50 fare. We were able to fight to have that made to be the same fare as regular bus services. What stands me out against the other two candidates is I have a proven track record of standing up for the people that are least represented in government. And I want to run so that the voices of those people have a seat at the table.”

Sawyer: “My experience. It’s one thing to get in and learn as you’re going … you can do a good job with that, but when you’ve been at the ground, building programming for a large sum of programs,, at ground of reviewing monthly bills and building quarterly and annual budgets for multi-billion dollar programs and being accountable to the clients which you serve, it sets you up to be more prepared to handle the challenges which we see in our current city government. We have thousands of employees. I personally supervise thousands of employees, handling all their staffing needs, helping with paperwork, making sure they’re being compliant with out different settlements. So, I think all that experience will be useful if I were to be elected, because I can hit the ground running. I’ll be able to begin looking at the budget to figure out where teh issues are, and partner with our finance department and the mayor and his or her administration to ensure that we have a full understanding of where we are and then relay that information back to the public. I want to build a level of transparency where people know I can go here to my city government and receive straight answers and not the runaround.”

Agelasto: “Several things. Relationships: The 5th district has 14 civic associations. I have strong relationships with each of them. Civic associations are the fabric of communities, relationships. Secondly, I have experience. Having been there 3 and a half years, gone through budget work sessions, understood complexities of city ordinances and zoning regulations, how the ordinances work, I can say experience is invaluable. It takes at least 2 years for even the smartest person to figure it out … Third, is planning and execution. One thing a lot of people like about me is you’ve got to be methodical, deliberate, set plans in motion, work with community to establish the vision, establish work plans, identify funding, secure the funding and then go into execution. We are now in the execution phase of several significant plans in the 5th district. So, I’d like to have the continuity of leadership/project management so that projects are seen through without interruption.”

Anything else that you’d like to share about yourself, this upcoming election or your candidacy?

Magruder: “Between the other two candidates and me, I feel I’m the best choice simply because of the fact that I believe the salvation of the city is bound with mine. I want to work together with other people who may be elected to city council or who may become mayor or members of the school board and help us save this city from the direction it’s going in where we’re starting to lose the conscience and the heart of the city in exchange for all this economic development. If you have all this economic development and it doesn’t have a conscience, a heart, or take into account the people who would be most adversely impacted by some of these policies, then what kind of city can we claim to live in? I have no problem asking the most critical questions that provoke people to think critically and further examine the issues … Rarely do you hear [candidates] come out and say I have a plan, here’s my plan, here are the policies I want to put in place to make my plan happen to make my plan become reality. I’m the only candidate that’s been putting his plan out there for public viewing.”

Sawyer: “The biggest thing about me is I am a man of my word. I am a person who puts 120 percent into everything I do. Even being out the last few months, knocking on doors I’ve encountered people who just didn’t know the resources that were available to them or who to contact within city hall to ensure they were getting the services they needed. The other day I ran into a lady on Crutchfield Street and she was facing some issues with her husband who is disabled and on her street, sometimes she would come home with her husband and to take him into the house she has to park in front of the house, so she was look for ways to put a handicap sign in front of her house so she might navigate easily in and out of her house with her husband. What I did immediately is I started calling around the next morning, to see who was the appropriate person to talk with. I got a contact and that contact called her directly and they’ve been able to begin working on the process. With me, it’s about action. I really want to be out there hearing people day in and day out. If elected, I want to do quarterly canvassing of the neighborhood because I understand that not everybody can attend meetings because some people work 2 – 3 jobs. But I want to hear their concerns and make sure I’m addressing all the concerns across the district the best I can.

Agelasto: “Serving is something I’ve always done, from high school to college, my college required community service. My parents put that into me and my brother. It’s something I’ve always done. I have committed a lot of time to it. Working as an elected official, you’re always on the clock, so you have to balance your other work responsibilities, your family and that factored heavily into my decision. Can I manage everything? And I believe the answer is yes. My wife agrees, so I feel strong with family support. People keep telling me, do it, you’re good at it, and I think it’s one of those things where the district would like to see me run again. A lot of people called me and said please run. There will probably be a time in the future where I won’t run for something, but now is not that time.”

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