Five-Year Capital Improvement Plan Rolls Over for Passenger Rail

David Carson answers questions from Roanoke City Council at Monday's Meeting.

Mayor Bowers’ fiscal cliff for Roanoke City Public Schools comes to fruition

David Carson answers questions from Roanoke City Council at Monday's Meeting.
David Carson answers questions from Roanoke City Council at Monday’s Meeting.

In January of this year Mayor Bowers and Vice Mayor Court Rosen had a bit of a tiff. Bowers saw a fiscal cliff looming for Roanoke City Public Schools and the arts. Rosen on the other hand was confident that the city had covered all the bases.

If School Board Chairman David Carson didn’t signal a RCPS fiscal cliff at Roanoke City Council’s last meeting then it was at least a crisis heading for one.

In January Mayor Bowers was chastened by Rosen for saying, “I’m becoming concerned that Roanoke’s fiscal cliff is looming just beyond the horizon.”

Bowers, in a phone call, said his remarks came from a meeting with School Board Chairman David Carson just before Christmas.

Bowers said that “if the Vice Mayor wants to dispute the fact he may do so and should I be wrong and [School Board Chairman] Dave Carson is wrong then OK we are wrong … time will tell if Carson and I are right or Court is right.”

Did Bowers get it right? You decide.

At Monday’s Roanoke City Council briefing council thanked State Senators John Edwards and Ralph Smith for their efforts in supporting the Commonwealth’s transportation bill. The bill, assuming it survives Governor McDonnell’s amendments in the General Assembly, will bring passenger rail and Amtrak to Roanoke. But the coveted passenger rail service becomes a mixed blessing that brings an “all aboard” bout of heartburn and heartache to Roanoke City School Board Chairman David Carson.

In February city council was surprised to learn that RCPS was seeking $7 million for the Round Hill Elementary School expansion. Round Hill absorbed the students from the closed and now sold Huff Lane Elementary School and according to Carson over 150 more students have further increased capacity needs.

To make way for $1 million of broadband funding for 2014 and 2015, fixing a culvert to withstand passenger rail locomotives at a cost of $6 million over three years and the city’s share of the police academy parking lot expansion ($250,000) there were sacrifices made elsewhere.

Funding in the city’s 5-year capital improvement plan reduced the 2014 library master plan by $700,000. The Parks and Recreation master plan was reduced by $500,000 for three consecutive years and funding for repairs to the Civic Center was reduced by $500,000 for five years. Funding for replacement and renovation of three fire stations was pushed off the five-year plan entirely. All that remained of it was $750,000 for planning in 2015.

The rest of the $6 million Elmwood Park bond ($2.8 million) must be issued in 2014 to pay for the completed renovation.

Roanoke City is still carrying the debt for the two new high schools and stadiums that originally totaled around $120 million. The average annual debt carried by the city for the two high schools and other school capital amounts to about half the debt the city carries on its books each year.

To finance Round Hill Mr. Carson argued for refinancing of the school’s portion of debt to “out years” making the city’s debt less and creating an opportunity to issue bonds for Round Hill. The expansion is needed to replace modular classrooms from the Huff Lane overflow and influx of students. Following the expansion a second phase of funding would initiate a renovation of the old part of the school.

Director of Finance Ann Shawver said that refinancing debt is only done in crisis situations and would reflect negatively on the city’s bond rating. The city would also incur substantial fees and interest that could amount to as much as $1 million.

City Manager Chris Morrill explained two CIP options that city council could consider. The decision was needed Monday if the city’s 2014 final budget was to be kept on schedule for completion and presentation to city council on April 15.

Morrill said that 2014 and 2015 were fairly well set in both of the CIP options. He explained that the plan could always be altered in subsequent years in hopes for a revenue windfall. This year’s $259 million budget is at 2008 levels “not counting for years of catch-up to inflation,” explained Ann Shawver.

City council reluctantly chose Option II that contained half of RCPS request for the funding for Round Hill school’s expansion in 2016. The $3.5 million is enough for expansion but not enough for the existing Round Hill building renovation.

While the city is operating at 2008 funding levels, Chairman Carson said RCPS is operating at 2007 levels due to the state’s habit of shortchanging public education. Carson said Roanoke City would follow Salem and Roanoke County in not accepting the states funds for a two percent pay raise for SOQ-funded teachers. “We will not discriminate between our employees … it would create animosity between teacher assistants and aides.” Carson explained that it was nonrecurring funding and would cost the school system money.

With the closing of four schools over the years – “We feel we have gotten our infrastructure and our expenses as far down as it can go.”

Carson said that the request for additional school funds for Round Hill above the annual $5 million RCPS receives every year from the city was assumed to have been communicated to city council in 2010. After seeing city council struggle to fund the culvert to support passenger rail and broadband Carson said, “We stand by our request at Round Hill. If you cannot do that we’ll respectfully disagree and move on and you won’t hear another thing from us.”

Vice Mayor Court Rosen asked Carson why the $7 million wasn’t requested sooner and planned for using part of the annual $5 million that RCPS receives for capital costs. Carson took issue saying “it should be a surprise to nobody … I take a little umbrage with any suggestion that in March any of this was a surprise to anybody.”

After a back and forth with Rosen, Carson in the end said he understood that city council had more to deal with than just the school system; “We’ll just deal like we’ve been trying to deal with issues from the state since 2007.”

 – Valerie Garner