Category Archives: Charlottesville

2018 Forum Watch Top 10

By. Neil Williamson, President

top ten listPerhaps the best thing that can be said about 2018 was it was not 2017.

As our community is still dealing with the very real ramifications of August 2017, The Free Enterprise Forum remained focused on monitoring local government, reducing regulatory burdens, promoting market based solutions, protecting property rights, and encouraging economic vitality.

None of this could be accomplished without the generous support of our donors and our regular readers. Thank you.  As we complete our fifteenth year of operation, we remain vigilant, and “pleasantly” persistent.

Each year, we select the top ten blog posts for our year in review.  There were many other blog posts that reached honorable mention status.  I would be remiss if I did not thank our Field Officers Brent Wilson (Greene County) and Bryan Rothamel (Fluvanna County) for their significant reportage in 2018.

With apologies to the now retired David Letterman, here are our Top 10 posts for 2018:

clip_image002#10 Greene E911 – “A Failure To Communicate”  “ …Representatives of the volunteer rescue squad and Fire Departments also addressed the Board of Supervisors. Their message was clear – we are getting “no clear supervision” and it goes back and forth who we are to answer to.

Several other citizens asked that the Supervisors have the courage to back up and revert to how E911 worked since 2012 and then have a committee analyze how best to address E911 services in the future. One of the final public comments was there seems to be “a failure to communicate” in Greene County”

#9 Lack of Infrastructure Investment Dooms Albemarle’s Neighborhood Model …”A funny thing happened on the way to Albemarle urbanization.  Elements of the Neighborhood Model of development [which had been sold as “A” model not “The” model] became part of the Albemarle County code forcing developers to put in curb, gutter, street trees and other Neighborhood Model “amenities”.  Developers built sidewalks interior to their development and Albemarle County has failed to connect the developments and thus failed to create the “walkability” they promised….”

#8 Is Charlottesville ready for Collins’ Affordable Housing “Marshall Plan”? “…At the end of the meeting, [Brandon] Collins presented a different pers

image.png

Brandon Collins

pective on the reports.  He admonished City Council to think big.  If they are really serious about fixing the housing affordability issue, they should stop depending on developers; they should do it themselves with their existing Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority.  Collins’ “Marshall Plan” might include $140 million dollar bond issuance dedicated simply to the creation of new affordable units that will stay perpetually affordable. When pressed by Councilor Wes Bellamy how the city might pay for that debt service, Collins admitted he had not figured that out yet but thought it could be resolved.”

#7 Delta Response Team Rescue Headed to Fluvanna …Fluvanna County will start with a new contract ambulance service this upcoming year.Delta Response Team (DRT), headquartered in Appomattox, was selected after a Request for Proposal (RFP) process was completed by the county. It will cost the county $438,000 for 24-hour services. The county budget $600,000 for FY19.  “We are not here to make a career service,” said Susan Walton, president of DRT.

#6 Albemarle Rushes Rural Rights Reduction “…This proposal has sped through the County’s approval process faster than any in recent memory.  Their “need for speed” is not clear and an e-mail requesting more information has not been returned.

Throughout this speedy process, there has been significant discussion regarding the impact of this land use change on property values.  In testimony before the Planning Commission several residents suggested the value could drop by up to 90%.  One speaker indicated that a potential real estate contract is in peril because of the proposed ZTA….”

#5 Government Tourism Coup Will Produce Poor, Politically Palatable, Promotion and Pitiful Profitability “…So now that the tourist tax dollars have been properly collected and turned over to the government, who should be in charge of making the marketing decisions designed to generate tourism?

The industry or the elected officials?…”

See the source image#4 Top Gun, BRT, and The Dog Bone Roundabout “…The Free Enterprise Forum believes BRT is dramatically better than light rail, but we are not yet convinced that a mere two years after widening North US29, the community is willing to give up a lane on US29 for bus only access.  Since the jury is clearly still out regarding BRT, should we be planning this critical infrastructure piece with the station as the center?

In addition, the long term connectivity plan calls for roads to cut through Fashion Square Mall to connect to a new access road paralleling US29 and a pedestrian/bike bridge over US29 and that’s just the Southeast corner of the plan….”

#3 Parking Is Driving Charlottesville’s Future  “…  Prediction: In 2056, Charlottesville’s Market Street Garage and City Hall Complex will be razed to make way for a new Hotel and Conference Center.  There are two distinctly different paths to this prediction, economic dislocation/collapse [think Detroit 2013] or a capstone of a visionary community investment program – interestingly, parking will be a leading indicator on the City’s direction.

Please let me explain….”

#2 Over 1/3 of Albemarle’s Entrance Corridors Are Illegal “…The Free Enterprise Forum has learned that eight of Albemarle County twenty-one Entrance Corridors fail to meet the state requirements for such designation.  Some of these have been in violation since inception in 1990.  This revelation, made by staff, calls into question the legality and enforceability of any ARB conditions placed on properties along the eight illegal entrance corridors….”

and the #1 post for 2019  Albemarle’s RAIN TAX Bureaucracy “…Albemarle’s Stormwater https://freeenterpriseforum.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/no-rain-tax-logo.jpg?w=175&h=175Utility Program’s 10 year budget is $52 Million dollars But note there is no new department….Albemarle County’s program budget (chart below) shows that roughly 1/3 of every dollar generated by the RAIN TAX foes to these two line items.  That between $1.2 – $2 million dollars annually.   The Free Enterprise Forum contends absent this funding mechanism, those funds could be used for stormwater infrastructure if they were not being spent on administration and enforcement.

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But most of all THANK YOU, the readers and supporters of this blog and our work in Central Virginia.  Without your generous support, we would not exist, thank you!

BRING ON 2019!

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

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Government Tourism Coup Will Produce Poor, Politically Palatable, Promotion and Pitiful Profitability

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By. Neil Williamson, President

Local government is poised to cook the golden goose — tourism.

After a series of political moves over several years, local government, not the local tourism industry, is now in charge of marketing our community to the outside world; they honestly don’t know what they don’t know.

And they are about to become more powerful.

Please let me explain.

Imagine if your business was required to calculate, collect and turn over to the government additional taxes purportedly to promote the region and therefore generate more business for you.

That’s how § 58.1-3819. Transient occupancy tax (TOT) works.  This is the taxes paid by those who stay in a particular locality (Hotel, Motel, Campground, AirBnB, etc.) for the privilege of doing so.

So now that the tourist tax dollars have been properly collected and turned over to the government, who should be in charge of making the marketing decisions designed to generate tourism?

The industry or the elected officials?

The state code section seems to have an opinion about that specific issue:

….may levy a transient occupancy tax not to exceed five percent, and any excess over two percent shall be designated and spent solely for tourism and travel, marketing of tourism or initiatives that, as determined after consultation with the local tourism industry organizations, including representatives of lodging properties located in the county, attract travelers to the locality, increase occupancy at lodging properties, and generate tourism revenues in the locality. If any locality has enacted an additional transient occupancy tax pursuant to subsection C of § 58.1-3823, then the governing body of the locality shall be deemed to have complied with the requirement that it consult with local tourism industry organizations, including lodging properties.

The Free Enterprise Forum joined with many in the tourism and hospitality industry raising concerns when the elected officials changed the structure of the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau (CACVB) Board from being industry led (a best management practice across the nation) to being led by elected officials and government employees.  The current Executive Board includes a representative from each elected body, as well as Charlottesville’s city manager, Albemarle’s county executive, an economic development staff member from both the city and the county and a representative from the University of Virginia and two industry representatives, one each appointed by the city and the county. This means currently two-thirds (66.6%) of the current board is elected or works for the locality.

The localities want this to change, they want MORE POWER.  Next week (12/12) Albemarle County will accept public comment on the proposed changes to the CACVB.

From their proposed proclamation:

WHEREAS, the County and the City desire to amend the Agreement to authorize two members of the Board of Supervisors and two members of the City Council to serve on the CACVB’s Executive Board and to making any corresponding changes to the Agreement as provided in the amended agreement attached hereto as Attachment A (the “First Amended Agreement”).

Regardless of the individuals in the positions, this means that marketing and advertising decisions will be made by a a board where 73% of the members are not directly involved in tourism (either elected officials or work for the locality).  Does this sound like the kind of consultation contemplated under State Code?

The challenge of getting officials to understand marketing outside of their world was made exceedingly clear in the October CACVB advertising pitch.  Allison Wrabel of the Daily Progress has the story

CACVB Interim Executive Director Adam Healey said that the campaign is aimed at 25 to 44 year olds in the Washington, D.C. area and Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill in North Carolina, who are looking for short or overnight trips.

“You are not always your customer when you’re doing marketing,” he said…..

…Board member Roger Johnson, Albemarle County economic development director, said he thought the same general concept, but with a regional brand that “wasn’t so Charlottesville centered” would be “better accepted by the folks in Albemarle County who are taxpayers” and the target group….

…Albemarle supervisors Diantha McKeel and Ann Mallek said they hardly saw the county mentioned….“It will be a surprise to no one that it took me seven years to get Albemarle on the logo and I’m not going to give it up,” Mallek said….

Many of the industry representatives on the board supported using “C’ville” in some fashion and said they thought the proposed campaign was a great start.

“In my mind, the C’ville six letters identifies the region,” said George Hodson with Veritas Vineyard & Winery, the county tourism industry representative on the board. “I think we can’t lose sight of the forest through the trees and kind of lead with our own baggage. C’ville identifies this region without saying Charlottesville.”

“Why try to gum up peoples’ mouths with phrases and long things that aren’t going to be marketable?”

The proposal is the groundwork of a good campaign, he said.

With the latest government expansion it is being made abundantly clear that the government, not the practitioners will control the marketing message.  It’s difficult for many to understand, the message that resonates to you (and your voters) may not be the message needed to attract young visitors with disposable income and free time.  If such decisions are left to municipal officials, it may be a very expensive lesson.

We believe this structural error goes against best management principles and is in conflict with the intent of the state code.  We believe the imbalance should be reversed, those who collect tourist tax dollars [and have a vested interest in their success] should have the ability to impact where and how the promotional dollars are spent.

In addition, many of the officials on the CACVB board wants to change the performance metrics away from hotel occupancy rates “Heads in Beds” to something else.  If the funding comes from those “Heads in Beds” shouldn’t that be the promotional focus and evaluation tool?

I really hope we are wrong about the officials’ CACVB marketing blind spots and the localities don’t waste millions of visitor (not residents) tax dollars in poor promotion.

If we are right, unfortunately, it will be the tourism industry that will first feel the pain of a poor, politically palatable, promotion producing pitiful profitability.

Respectfully Submitted,

 

Neil Williamson, President

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Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Photo Credit: http://angielskidlakazdego.blox.pl/resource/goldenegg.jpg

Thankful, Hopeful & Skeptical in Charlottesville

By. Neil Williamson, President

In this time of Thanksgiving, I have so much to be thankful for; unexpectedly, the Charlottesville Planning Commission is now on that list.

Please let me explain.

Late in last night’s Planning Commission work session, after hearing the Free Enterprise Forum concerns with the proposed comprehensive plan and the land use map, as it existed prior to Saturday’s meeting, Chair Lisa Green asked that the map and narrative they created be shared with the 4 members of the public in attendance.  Each of us took photographs of the map and narrative with the understanding these are just drafts.

https://freeenterpriseforum.files.wordpress.com/2018/11/image2.png?w=208&h=310

Charlottesville Comprehensive Plan Map Draft Before Saturday (11/17) Planning Commission Matinee Meeting

comp plan photo 2

Revisions to Charlottesville Draft Comprehensive Plan Map from Post Planning Commission Saturday Matinee Meeting (11/17)

Comparing the two images, I see hope for increased intensity, AKA density, in many nodes.

Green expressed a desire for folks to read the narrative- something I refer to as the “Intensity Spectrum”.  Staff attempted to type in new language on the fly during Saturday’s meeting – that is the image below – it will undoubtedly change but we like the direction it is headed.

We again see hope in the draft language that was captured includes the verbiage “Missing Middle Housing”.  The previous version went from high to low with very little room for middle housing.

Comp Plan Photo 4

It is our understanding that the Planning Commission will see staff’s rendition of the changes at their regular December 11th meeting but the documents will have already been submitted for the December 17th City Council meeting.  The Planning Commission will deliver an incomplete update of the Comprehensive Plan, the Community Engagement chapter is not yet drafted and the Land Use chapter is not yet complete.

Council will provide their comments on the draft and it will return to the Planning Commission for further meetings and refinements (and completion of the two unfinished chapters).

While I remain a healthy skeptic waiting to see the devil in the details, I sincerely appreciate the direction and conversations about making the CITY of Charlottesville a “Welcoming urban environment for all people”.

So I am thankful for the Charlottesville Planning Commission for listening to the public AND sharing the draft output from their Saturday matinee session.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

C-ville’s Height Slight Harms Affordable Housing

By. Neil Williamson, President

Adapted from comments presented to Charlottesville Planning Commission November 20, 2018

I want to be encouraged, but I don’t know that I should be.

Earlier this year, City Council received the Housing Needs Assessment.  This study indicated the City needed over 3,000 affordable units added to the inventory to meet the current need.   One might think the Comprehensive Plan that was being drafted by the Planning Commission would seek to address this need by increasing density.  One might be wrong – in fact you may have done the reverse.

Based on our reading of the proposed fuzzy line maps, before Saturday’s meeting, you are designing a City with significantly fewer by right residential units than your current comprehensive plan.  We do not know what the by right density of the new plan compared with your current plan.  We again ask for that data before you move this forward to City Council.

As we imagealerted you to back in January  [Cville PC Paradox — Build Less & Increase Affordability], the plan reduces ‘by right’ building height (and therefore capacity) across nine of the City’s thirteen zoning districts.

Considering the importance of the “Missing Middle” Housing that we discussed  back in August [ Affordable Housing Policy Makes Building Affordable Housing Impossible], the Free Enterprise Forum is disappointed at the dominance of yellow “Low Intensity” land use that dominates the proposed map.

Two days ago, you held your ill timed Saturday afternoon work session  – which was required because you were unable to plan and  complete your work on schedule in the previous work sessions.   – I understand in that meeting you recolored the map to allow increasing “intensity” by right.  I do not know because I had other plans on Saturday afternoon [William & Mary vs. Richmond Football] and I missed your matinee program.

Neither does the rest of the public because as of 4 pm today, the map has not been changed on the website.

Absent any information for the public to review, we can only be hopeful that the map of your plan for growing Charlottesville will see the yellow move to higher intensity.

I beg of you to be honest with the public and tell them exactly what this plan, as drafted, will allow is  fewer units to be constructed without a special use permit (SUP).

The political reality of the day is if an SUP is required the project is DOA because a vocal NIMBY minority, sometimes citing community values, will be empowered to show up at the public hearing and stand in the way of the additional density that could help the City meet its growing housing needs.

A Planning Commission, worthy of the name, should be planning for a future for all its future citizens not just preserving the status quo.  Failing to properly allow and plan for growth in a land locked City, will result in a failing “World Class” City.

I do hope the new map will have more purple and more intensity.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Photo Credit: www.missingmiddle.com 

 

 

 

The Countdown — Time to Think About 2019

By. Neil Williamson, President

Recognizing today is the ‘Morning After’ Election Day 2018, it may seem premature to start talking about 2019.  It’s not.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes the vast majority of the candidates for the 2019 races will make their decisions in the next 60 days.

That’s right, by the time you watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, who will be on the ballot in November (and the primaries) will likely already be determined.

Wait, we just had an election.

Yes, this is Virginia, we love elections so much we vote EVERY year.  What are we voting for in 2019?  So glad you asked — from Virginia’s Board of Elections:image

Some might look at that list (on the left) and believe this is not that important an election, we think otherwise.

While the Federal and statewide offices get a significant amount of publicity (and paid advertising), it is the local races that bring government home.  These are the elected officials you run into at the grocery store AND who control your property taxes, school spending as well as the majority of your land use decisions.

Who is up?

In addition to the House of Delegates, Virginia Senate, School Boards and Constitutional officers, here is the list for Board of Supervisors and City Council –

Albemarle County: Board of Supervisors Ann Mallek, White Hall; Rick Randolph, Scottsville; Norman Dill, Rivanna

Charlottesville:  Wes Bellamy, Kathy Galvin, Mike Signer [important note Primary Date is June 11th]

Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors Mozell Booker, Fork Union; Patricia Eager, Palmyra

Greene County Board of Supervisors David Cox, Monroe;  Michelle Flynn, Ruckersville; Dale Herring, At Large

Louisa County Board of Supervisors Willie Gentry, Cuckoo; Troy Wade, Louisa; Toni Williams, Jackson;

Nelson County Board of Supervisors  Thomas Bruguiere, Jr, West; Larry Saunders, South

Without question local (and state) government impacts your life.

The question is who will step up to fill these important leadership positions.

  • Will the current incumbents run again?
  • Will they have any opposition?
  • Who will step up?
  • Will there be a primary challenge?
  • Do you know someone who should run?
  • Should you run for office?

Once again we have more questions than answers but this much we do know – the candidates (and their families) will likely decide by NYE 2019.

The Free Enterprise Forum maintains an open door policy to talk with anyone regarding running for local office and what is required to serve.

As a non-partisan organization, we do not endorse candidates but we do support contested elections.  We believe uncontested elections make untested officials.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

The Hindsight Report Back in the News

The Free Enterprise Forum’s 2017 ‘Hindsight’ Report was mentioned in Allison Wrabel’s  Daily Progress  article this morning. 

For context, we are reposting our original post on the topic.  The Free Enterprise Forum welcomes the community discussion of the agreement.

By. Neil Williamson, President

Often the most enlightening questions start with, “What if?”

Working with co-author Derek Bedarf, we looked at developing empirical data to answer the question, “What if Charlottesville’s annexation was successful compared with the results of the negotiated Revenue Sharing Agreement?”

After significant research and deliberation, it was determined that this information was available but not assembled in a manner that made such calculations easy. Utilizing Geographic Information System (GIS) technology for the real estate assessment data and 15 years of Albemarle County budget documents for the other taxes (sales taxes, consumer utility taxes, business taxes, motor vehicle licenses  and prepared food and beverage taxes.  Other taxes excluded from this study, for a variety of reasons, include utility consumption tax, short term rental tax, clerk fees, transient occupancy tax, penalties  interest, and audit revenues), The Free Enterprise Forum calculated the tax revenue generating power of the study area.

The resulting “Hindsight Report” examines the tax generating power of the proposed annexation area as it compares with the revenue sharing payments.

  •  The Hindsight Report indicates that over the study period (2001-2016), Albemarle County received, from the study area, over $277 million in local tax revenue compared with the $212.9 million revenue sharing payments made to the City of Charlottesville (+$64.1 million).

  • Had Charlottesville been successful in the annexation and the revenue sharing agreement not been in place, the City would have received $304.7 million in tax revenue from the study area during the study period compared with $212.9 million in revenue sharing payments from Albemarle County (-$91.8 million).

 

  • During the study period, study area property owners paid $72 million less in real estate taxes by being in Albemarle instead of the City of Charlottesville. This “Non-Annexation” Dividend averaged saved (Albemarle) property owners between $3 million and $4 million annually topping out at $6 million in 2007.

The question the data does not answer is whether the Revenue Sharing Agreement was a good deal for all involved.  This is a subjective question that can only be answered in context.

At the time, the historical record suggests annexation was a very real threat and revenue sharing negotiations were heated.

The historical public record also shows many citizens at the public hearing raising some of the same questions regarding equity and fairness that remain part of the discussion today.

Was it a good deal?

Hopefully this data will help you decide.

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss the Revenue Sharing agreement during their second August meeting on Wednesday August 9th.

Founded in 2003, The Free Enterprise Forum is a privately funded, public policy organization focused on Central Virginia’s local governments.

The entire Hindsight Report can be accessed at www.freeenterprisefoum.org under the reports tab.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.

Dissecting A Decade of Data

By. Neil Williamson, President

Did you ever have a question gnaw at you?

Earlier this month, I attended the Charlottesville Area Association of REALTORS® Development Summit.  A panel of area developers were discussing Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce’s recently released 2018 Jobs Report and attempted to correlate how job creation related to the local housing market.  Absent any specific data, the panel inferred the new jobs in the region clearly were one (not the only) driver of housing demand.

imageMuch like Timothy Hulbert’s inspiration for the first Chamber “Jobs Report” fifteen years ago, I knew this data set could be assembled and I set out to obtain this objective new housing unit data.

Reaching out to each of the localities (two required Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)Requests) we assembled the new housing unit data (2007-2017) and compared it on a locality basis the Jobs report data for the same study period.

We then compiled this data on a regional basis and found (or perhaps did not find) a most interesting correlation and perhaps an impending tipping point.image

As of 2017, the cumulative number of new jobs since 2007 is growing closer to the number of new housing units created in the same study period.

There is a distinct lack of correlation between the number of jobs created and the number of new housing units.  Even when the region was losing jobs in 2009, there were over 900 new housing units created [It was the lowest number of units in the study period].

This line of inquiry led to considering the other significant impacts on the housing industry beyond Jobs.  The enrollment at the University of Virginia for instance increased by 2,408 students from 2007-2017.  Regionally the population increased by 30,633 persons.  Overlaying The Weldon Cooper Center’s population estimates with our other gathered data started to prove the population demand driver.

image

Examining the introduction of the population trend line leads to a number of new questions:

  • In 2007, just prior to the Great Recession, how many excess units existed before our study period?
  • If our regional household size is ~2.4 persons (US Census), then new housing units should equal 41.6% of the population growth.  In those areas with higher than 41.6%, likely have a lower number of persons in the household.
  • Considered on a locality basis, job creation does not have a direct correlation to new housing units.  We anticipate this lack of correlation is related to the relative ease of working in a different locality than you reside. Louisa and Orange Counties seem to have the closest direct correlation between job and housing creation.
  • Anecdotally, we continue to see an increase in the number of retirees relocating to the region.  While retirees are included in the Weldon Cooper population information, we have yet to find an objective metric to track this data separately.

Dissecting this decade of data (2007-2017), we again end up with more questions than answers.

But often, the best questions drive the best community discussion.

Respectfully Submitted,

 

Neil Williamson, President

Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

Charlottesville Engagement Enragement

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By. Neil Williamson, President

In private life, in order to be ‘engaged’ one person has to ask and another has to accept.   Things are not nearly as clear or complete in the public sector.

Charlottesville Planning Commission AND Housing Advisory Committee (HAC) are wrestling with the proper calibration of their independent public engagement efforts.  Hours of discussion and deliberation have been dedicated to not only with whom they engage but also the manner such engagement reaches (or fails to reach) underrepresented demographic targets.

For the Comprehensive Plan the Planning Commission has been using more traditional town hall style meetings and workshops, while almost concurrently the HAC is seeking City Council approval to spend ~$200,000 to conduct a much more involved public engagement process regarding their Housing Strategy Document.

Please let me explain.image

If you follow me on social media, you have seen my #SeatsAvailable posts from countless public meetings.

In the last year, there have been significantly more, and more diverse meeting attendees (especially in Charlottesville).  This is a good thing; but not everyone is coming to the meetings.

Much of the world of citizen engagement is now digital.  Released earlier today, the 2018 Granicus Benchmark Report analyzed 1.6 million emails, activity from 185 million citizen subscribers, and visitor behavior on over 400,000 web pages over a one-year period (June 2017June 2018).

“In today’s data-rich environment, public sector communicators are turning to digital platforms that generate real-time performance metrics and deliver insights that can enhance their approach to citizen engagement,” said Granicus CEO Mark Hynes. “Measured across 4,000 organizations, the Granicus Benchmark Report provides industry metrics for engagement metrics so that communicators can iterate on the strategies that are working in the public sector. Better engagement translates into better outcomes for organizations and their priorities such as program adoption, participation in public meetings, or voter turnout.”

 The Institute for Local Government defines six different types of public engagement:

imageBy defining the goal of the engagement helps determine which of these topographies best fit.

In my estimation, too often localities are in the public information /outreach mode, where they want to tell you what they are doing but are not truly listening to the response.

The other end of the spectrum is equally bad where elected (and appointed) officials are too fearful of the public response and seek to put a finger in the wind for every decision.  This is best represented in this chart by the sustained public problem solving.  In this case rather than leading, the elected officials are creating scapegoats to duck what statutorily is clearly their direct responsibility.

The Planning Commission has been working on community engagement with their Comprehensive plan work since early last year.  Starting in May 2017, the city held a series of community engagement workshops explaining the comprehensive plan process and seeking input from the public regarding the plan and the land use map.  The planning commission then held nine more public outreach sessions (July-August 2017) with more detailed maps and listening stations and a structured questionnaire.  After the initial public workshops, the commission took this public input and worked on adjusting the previous (2013) comprehensive plan with the new thoughts and concepts.

In May 2018, the commission held four identical public workshops in locations across the City. Last week, in a meeting with City Council, there was less than satisfaction regarding the level of public engagement with the plan especially with the low income community.  It was determined that an outreach document would be prepared to solicit feedback and some members of City Council (Wes Bellamy and perhaps others) would work to get that document created, printed, distributed, collected and collated in the next four weeks.

Meanwhile back at the ranch…..

Engagement is a critical part not only of the Charlottesville Planning Commission’s Comprehensive Plan work but also the Housing Advisory Committee’s (HAC) Affordable Housing Strategy.  City Council and HAC will meet tomorrow (8/30) to discuss their outreach efforts.  They explain the import of such engagement to the effort:

engagement
In Charlottesville’s history, the failure of institutions and city government to be accountable to low-wealth communities, particularly communities of color, has taken many forms: violent suppression, structural oppression, neglect, half-hearted or insincere attempts that serve to manufacture consent, and well-meaning attempts that end up failing due to their assumptions, framework, and processes favoring those in power and resulting in lopsided and inaccurate information, community inaction, or community harm.
Housing is at the root of historical structural inequity and oppression in the United States, and it came to be this way deliberately. As we build a strategy to achieve a local housing landscape that is healthy, ample, high quality, and affordable, we must be equally deliberate in dismantling the dynamics and the structures that perpetuate continued inequity—structures that often go unnoticed by those of us who benefit from them or don’t directly experience their harm.
To that end, rather than relying on the existing power structure to set the narrative and define the discussion, the community engagement strategy must leverage community relationships and expertise to genuinely engage our community. This methodology is vital to the project’s success and to the quality and legitimacy of the final Affordable Housing Strategy.

The scope of the HAC public engagement plan is significantly more robust, active and expensive ($200,019) than the Planning Commission’s efforts.  The objective of this data collection is made clear in the HAC proposal:

The city will engage with a consultant to plan and execute the community engagement process, which includes community outreach and response, training of citizen-interns to engage peer-to-peer conversations within their communities, data collection, data analysis, information delivery, and stewardship. The consultant will be an advocate for eliciting, amplifying, and accurately reporting resident voices. . .

[scope of work includes]  . . . Design a community engagement process that will engage the most citizens in the most personal and most meaningful ways possible. The emphasis will be on proactively connecting and engaging with low-income residents, people of color, and others traditionally underserved, underrepresented, and/or overshadowed by citizens who are more vocal, affluent, politically involved, and deferred to.

Methods and activities could include the following:

  • community meetings (all meetings must include childcare and meals or refreshments)
  • door-to-door outreach
  • training of peer outreach workers to engage in peer-to-peer outreach that will leverage existing relationships and distribute communication efforts across the city
  • focus groups
  • distribution of self-guided discussion toolkits
  • tabling/interviewing at local gathering places, work hubs, and commercial spots
  • texting platforms for communicating with participants
  • use of social media and website

The Institute for Local Government describes three orientations of local government public engagement: Passive, Active or Sustaining.  Their experience (and ours) indicates that most local efforts to engage the public are one time events focused on one time issues a roadway (Bypass), climate provision, school budget, etc.  They advocate localities need to move toward a more sustained public engagement  and “embed” a capacity beyond these “one and done” efforts.

the benefits of sustained, effective and inclusive public engagement are significant. They include: better identification of the public’s values and ideas; more informed residents; improved local agency decision making and actions; and more public trust and confidence in local government.

In reviewing the Housing Advisory Committee Housing Strategy document, we believe this is significant outreach effort but wonder if such engagement is designed to be sustained.  Perhaps the HAC is seeing this as a pilot and if successful it could be easily reconstituted with the already trained peer-to-peer networks.

The Free Enterprise Forum does not take positions on budget line items such as the $200K HAC engagement plan. That is a value judgement for City Council to make.

We firmly believe that outreach opportunities should be provided to all citizens.

We also believe public engagement requires willingness to engage from all involved.  We are concerned that a lack of a specific, requested, action may be used to prove “The City is not listening”.

We also know, we are a representative democracy and that requires leadership not governing by survey/poll data.

You’ll never have all the information you need to make a decision. If you did, it would be a foregone conclusion, not a decision.–David Mahoney Jr.

There is a time to listen and a time to lead, we hope Charlottesville’s leaders are able to discern the difference.

Respectfully submitted,

Neil Williamson, President

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Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

 

 

 

Pencils and Improving Charlottesville NDS

Adapted from Comments to Charlottesville City Council and Planning Commission regarding the NDS Efficiency Study 8/23/18

I sincerely appreciate the City providing the opportunity for public feedback on Neighborhood Development Services (NDS) Review  study. The Novak document is very complete and candid in its survey data regarding the department and the related approving authorities:

  • The Tree Commission has 75% positive impact
  • City Council has a 55% positive impact
  • The Planning Commission has 67% negative impact.
  • 71% did not believe the application submittal process worked well
  • a full 80% found the review process not easy to understand.

The recommendations in the Novak report do not exactly correlate with the identified issues are worthy of consideration but there are three critical components that are outside the scope of this report that must be addressed by Council to fix this broken department – Accountability, Reduction in Review, and Philosophical shift.

The report outlines a number of metrics that should be tracked to better understand, identify and fix areas of inefficiency. While laudable, absent 1 individual who will be held accountable to the targeted goals – this report will do nothing more than sit on a shelf. The Free Enterprise Forum calls for direct, individual, public accountability.

Reduction in review – Looking at the chart in the back of the report, is every level of this review necessary or are some of these items designed more to prevent the last bad thing, rather than encourage the next great thing? The Free Enterprise Forum calls for a reduction in application review items.

20180823_151742Philosophy – Several years ago, we provided the NDS Department (and other local planning departments) with pencils that outlined what we believe their marching orders should be. I brought the few pencils I have remaining to you all tonight.

The “Permit us to Permit you” philosophy does not cut corners on review nor approves everything that comes in the door. It is much more a mortgage broker mentality – this application process is tough, but I will help you, my customer, get through it. “The Permit us to Permit you” philosophy requires leadership and engagement – two areas, according to your efficiency report that are currently lacking in NDS. The Free Enterprise Forum calls for City Council and the Planning Commission to endorse NDS role in helping citizens gain needed government approvals.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight, enjoy the pencils.

Respectfully submitted,

 

Neil Williamson, President

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Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org