Ellen Robertson - 6th District City Council Candidate (incumbent)

https://www.robertsonrva6.com/

 

1. The City of Richmond has a 25% poverty rate, citizens and neighborhoods with  enormousunmet needs, as well as public infrastructure such as roads and school  buildings that are aging or sub-standard. The City also has the highest local property tax rate in the region. What strategies should Richmond employ to generate the resources needed to better meet the City’s needs? If these strategies don’t suffice to generate the revenue needed to meet community needs, would you be willing to consider revenue  increases, and if so, in what areas? Be as comprehensive as possible in your answer. 

 

The City of Richmond is a land-locked, independent city without power to grow through annexation of additional land. To increase revenues to meet our needs to operate and provide the quality of life desired by residents and stakeholders, the City must push forward in its development. This entails growing the economic base to increase housing, businesses and amenities. African American communities that have been vacant for years with the intent to make ways for highway transportation are neglected in redevelopment efforts. The neighborhoods of Randolph, Fulton, Highland Park, Eastview and Blackwell are examples of communities where families have been displaced, homes demolished, and no development has taken place. Redevelopment is beneficial to both residents and the City of Richmond as it will grow and add revenue to the City’s budget. Another ready development opportunity is the Port. Taking advantage of the Opportunity Zones in the City and especially in the area of the Port is prime for large business development.  Located in the mouth of the Port and the James Rivers, southside Commerce-Bell Road is ready for large scale international business trades. Southside is where the City has the greatest growth potential, to include Route1, Southside Plaza, Midlothian and Hull Streets. Richmond has opportunities to continue to attract and accept businesses to contribute to the increase in revenue. The Richmond 300 Master Plan identified these locations as key nodes for growth.  The other location which is prime for development to increase revenue is Downtown. With this being the center of our city, to include key locations off the interstates of 64 and 95, it offers development opportunities of prime real estate. Richmond needs to maximize our efforts in receiving state and federal funding which will include obtaining a 100 percent census count, making sure we are receiving our federal allocations for special services, full State’s payments in lieu of taxes, and full funding for schools. Lastly, the city must always be exercising cost saving methods and looking for ways to reform taxes.  

 

2. Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building, which helped 600 residents obtain  employment in 2018-19, has established a goal of cutting child poverty (now at nearly  40% citywide) in half over the next ten years. It has set a further goal of moving 1,000  additional households a year above the poverty line through living-wage, full-time  employment. Do you support these goals? What steps should the City take to encourage  employers to train and hire under-employed residents into pathways leading to living  wage employment and successful careers? What other specific actions will you support to achieve the goals of fighting poverty and building community wealth?

 

I support Richmond’s goals in community wealth building. I lead the efforts to create a commission to establish a plan of action to reduce poverty. Embraced by the Jones Administration and supported by Council and the greater Richmond community, the Office was established and funded. As a checks and balances system the Office reports annually to the citizens, the Mayor, and Council to assure we are meeting our poverty reduction goals. I also serve as co-chair of the Citizen Advisory Board to assure these goals are met. Richmond is working in conjunction with the State and business communities to raise their minimum wages to $16 an hour. Currently, thirty-eight businesses are “living wages certified'' encouraging the drive to support the shared cost for educational and career development training. The City also collaborates with companies that hire individuals of poverty by paying a living wage and providing benefit packages to employees and their families.  A major goal of the Office of Community Wealth Building is to fulfill our commitment to social enterprising and giving those in poverty the opportunity to establish their own businesses.  

 

3. Should aging public housing communities be re-developed in the next ten years? If so,  howcan this be done with genuine community input and support? How can such a  processassure the availability of affordable housing does not shrink and that all current  public housing residents obtain replacement housing? What funding sources should  Richmondseek? 

 

The Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority has plans to redevelop the six large public housing communities. In addition, the Partnership for Housing Affordability led the development and creation of a regional housing plan. Community engagement was included, but upon closer evaluation it was determined that persons of poverty were not involved. Corrections were made that reversed the levels to the low income group from 4.67% to 48%. Moving forward the City will follow this model to achieve genuine input from groups in poverty as we redevelop our public housing communities. 

 

As we go through the redevelopment of the RRHA communities, a requirement of one-to-one replacement of housing units must be met. Along with this redevelopment, other affordable housing in the city should receive the highest priority to be maintained as affordable housing. Funding to build the affordable housing demands come from a variety of sources to include Richmond’s affordable housing trust fund, special federal HUD funds, low-income tax credits, and other tax abatement and non-profits funding options.  

 

To increase funding, the City must reinvest tax abatement roll-off taxes as a dedicated source to the Trust. These funds will levy bonds to create low interest loans to affordable housing developers. The federal CRA should invest in City Trust to provide the lead investment grant to move the City affordable housing capacity to levy bonds up to $100 million which will be replaced with the increased compound tax roll off revenue. In addition, the State needs to increase funding to the State Affordable Housing Trust, the low-income tax credits and support increases in housing vouchers. The city should also increase zoning to promote accessory building for affordable housing. 

 

4. In the past decade, two major efforts brought forth by mayors to promote downtown area development have been rejected by the City Council and most of the public. Yet the cityremains in need of economic development, a stronger tax base, and more quality employment opportunities for residents. What processes do you believe the city should adopt to promote community-supported economic development? How would you define successful economic development, in Richmond’s context? 

 

The process necessary for the city to implement successful economic development has to be driven by the adoption of legislation that clearly defines the revenue needed to experience the quality of life visioned for the City. The current disparity in economic justice in the City is so extreme, but not fully realized by most. The impoverished are isolated to out-of-sight sectors of the City. The political will to invest in improving the living conditions of the groups in poverty is not met. 

 

A cost-benefit analysis which defines the revenue growth demands of the City to establish equity and equality living conditions throughout would be defined. This can be accomplished through the adoption of the long, overdue Economic Development Plan, the past due updated Master Plan and the recent adopted Housing Plan.  These plans shall include annual implementation goals and projected returns on investments. The budgets attached to these plans determine revenue growth demands. These budgets provide the road maps for our residents, the council, and the mayor to be more responsive to growing our economy to meet our revenue demands by increasing business and economic growth. A favorable result will be defined by meeting the objectives of the master plan, economic development plan, and the housing plan. The successes based on our annual growth will fulfill those obligations by having an expected revenue, budget, and expected costs in order to achieve positive outcomes.  

 

5. What is the role of the Mayor and City Council in supporting Richmond Public Schools  and RPS students and families? How can funding needs for the RPS Strategic Plan be  met while also ensuring accountability for use of funds and for outcomes? What does the  City need to do further to meet the needs of children outside of the RPS school day?

 

The role of the Mayor and City Council in supporting Richmond Public Schools (RPS) is to provide the funding needed to educate our children. The local government is charged with the responsibility of revenue collection through taxation, fines, and fees. In order to meet the needs of the RPS strategic plan, the Mayor and Council will collaborate to find ways to fund RPS and inform the residents. To meet the  outside needs of children, the City provides after school programs and services, to include a continual educational and learning environment, partnerships with our parks and recreation facilities, our business communities, and extending the use of our public facilities, to include school buildings. It is also imperative that we address latch key kids and provide more quality and affordable childcare services. 

 

6. How can Richmond better leverage its status as the capital of the Commonwealth of  Virginia to gain further support from the state government? What priorities for funding and policy would you set?

 

As the Capital of Virginia, Richmond bears a large portion of citizen activities to include the recent protests in Richmond, massive public engagement in state government, and the resources the City provides to support the State representatives. The state should implement a special funding to provide more revenue to its Capital City-Richmond. 

 

7. Do you believe the City of Richmond’s internal functioning has improved over the last 4 years? Why or why not? Do you believe the delivery of basic services in the City has  improved over the last 4 years? Why or why not? What steps would you promote or  support to improve the City’s internal operations and improve citizen confidence in City  Hall? Be as specific as possible in your answer. 

 

The internal functioning has improved over the last four years but requires a lot more. There has been a concerted effort to increase our communications with Richmond Public Schools (RPS) and state legislatures. Administratively there have been monthly schedules with individual council members and the mayor's office. We have increased the transparency of government by having more information available electronically including financial and budgetary information. Our budgeting is now outcome-based which means that goals and accomplishments are required to be measured. Along with these efforts we have created new departments and have done internal reorganization. We intend to continue and increase our efforts in receiving residents’ surveys as a way to evaluate our performance.  

 

Basic service has also improved, one way being in our significant improvement in infrastructure. We continue to build new schools and address maintenance in our public facilities and install new customer relation software that has significantly improved the 9/11 system. The City of Richmond has also made strides in tackling the challenges brought about by COVID-19 to maintain our school systems and meeting educational standards as well as keeping working individuals safe. We have been pleased in our transition to virtual learning, meeting and operational experiences, and rearranging our workforce to be responsive to the service needs while drastically increasing the number of persons working off-site.  

 

Our efforts for continued improvement should begin with the building and permits office, doing a better job at overall maintenance, and striving to be a better employer as most of our citizens feel they are being underpaid. Our new form of government has caused one of our greatest challenges being the turnover and/or the acting positions in our executive staff as it relates to our CAO, our chief of police, and other key department heads.  

 

8. What tangible steps do you envision Richmond as having taken by 2024 to promote racial  and economic equity and to tackle systemic racism? How will you use your office to  advance these steps, and how will you act to build the public support needed for sustained action?  

 

I have requested and plan to continue to push the implementation of an equity policy within the City of Richmond. The equity and equality plan that I have proposed is a roadmap to address racial disparities and social injustices. There are some actions that have been enacted such as establishing the Citizen Advisory Board for overseeing police engagements. It is my hope that this plan will lead to establishing an Office Economic Equality and Social Justice. We will evaluate representation on boards and commissions to have a fair standard of representation. In order to continue to sustain these actions it is necessary that we implement training for our staff, boards, commission members, and even our residents. Tracking and encouraging this effort can be achieved by establishing a matrix and publishing an annual report on the success on how the city is being ranked on equity and inclusion. With that being said, this means we will have to change a plethora of public policies in hiring practices, distribution of incentives, and zoning practices. 

 

9. What more should the City of Richmond be doing to reduce gun violence in our  communities? What does Richmond need to do to better address the root causes of  violentcrime?

 

Gun violence needs to be addressed at the City, State, and Federal levels. African Americans are the highest at risk in almost all cases of gun violence. The City homicides are almost totally due to gun violence. More laws are needed to monitor the sales of guns and require registration and permits of all guns. 

 

Our research proves that minorities are majority victims of gun violence.  My plan to address root causes begins investing in our children as early as the third grade to ensure they are achieving the necessary milestones within their educational experience. A special learning academy will be put in place for children not reading and achieving to level by third grade to curtail Virginia’s pipeline to prison. Richmond has to seriously invest in our youth, those in school and dropouts, to develop alternative education and career development paths that lead to success.  

 

10. What changes in policing, criminal justice, and public safety are needed in Richmond,  andwhat is the role of the Mayor and City Council in bringing them about? What more needs to be done to support successful re-entry of returning citizens?  

 

The Richmond Police Department needs to properly recruit and train its staff members. The recruitment will have to begin by addressing income and benefits disparities. Richmond police department has an on-going training component which must be funded.  Richmond has a proven track record of “Community Policing” which engaged the community in all aspects of policing.  This will be strengthened. I serve on the Mayor’s Reimaging Police task force which rethink policing use of force, community engagement and demands for other supportive services. In regard to citizens, we must have a better assessment of needs for those being released from incarceration prior to their release date. This assessment must be met and a plan of action will have to be put in place proactively as to not elongate an individual's sentence. This needs assessment should be carried through case managers with the expectation that housing, social welfare, employment, and healthcare needs are met. It is also imperative that we work with the judicial system and determine means of rehabilitation that do not include prison sentences for non-violent offences.

 

11. What should the city government do to assure that economic recovery from the pandemic induced recession takes place on an equitable basis that includes residents hit hardest by  job loss during the spring 2020 downturn? What specific steps can be taken to support  Black and Latinx-owned local businesses?

 

Any initiatives set in place by the equity plan will be designed to ensure that resources or incentives are provided by the city to address the economic status through an equity lens. Those most impacted by inequity at greater rates are in minority communities, this means resources will have to be provided to rid these communities of disparities. Special provisions will be put in place based on needs assessment. It is evident that those in low-income communities or low-income schools will require more than their more fortunate counterparts. Resource allocation is essential. The tax revenue that is generated to fulfill excessive needs should be redistributed to those areas where basic needs are not simply a luxury, but a necessity.  

 

12. What have been the strong and weak points of the City of Richmond’s response to the  COVID-19 crisis, from a public health perspective? What has the crisis revealed about  long-term disparities in health outcomes that should inform future public health  strategies? What specifically will you do to support stronger public health (including  mental and behavioral health) during your term in office?

 

Richmond and the State of Virginia have been proactive in their responses to regulations set by the health department to shut down businesses and operations while also implementing policies for safety. We have been slow to reopen and have used medical test results to drive our decisions geared towards reducing the spread of the virus. Early on in our process we recognized the City has a large population at higher risk of spreading and contracting COVID-19, however, we have been intentional about putting resources in communities to protect them. The City of Richmond has provided masks, sanitizers, other equipment, and multiple free testing locations to protect our citizens. The community education process was extremely strong as the Governor held press conferences almost daily to inform citizens about COVID-19. Other incentives for safety include: the expansion of our hospital capacity to provide housing for our first responders in downtown hotels so they could continue to work without putting their family at risk, extra meal incentives for families, critical medication opportunities, and special housing for the homeless. In all of these efforts there are still families suffering from isolation and there have been reports of increased domestic violence. It is essential that we expand our efforts in making sure the needs and safety of these individuals is being met. We are also experiencing a surge in unemployment where we need social revenue, more unemployment benefits, and re-training families for new job opportunities as many jobs will not come back on line.  

 

The Mayor has proposed putting in an extra half of a million dollars to do a better analysis of health disparities which will in turn lead to policy changes and resources. We have always known of the major disparities in health care services availability in minority communities. Minorities living in food deserts also lack health care services, and are exposed to high risk health injuries and diseases.   Minorities remain fearful of receiving public health care due distrust and anxiety of being used as a research project. The best way to address these disparities is to make quality health care affordable, and provide more diverse care providers within the communities.   

 

In order to provide quality public health care, we have to reassess disparity policies as it relates to mental health and services. We need to be diligent in not arresting people for having mental health issues but instead provide proper medical services for individuals.  Mental health is one of the leading causes for an individual becoming homeless.  Oftentimes when people cannot afford a means to cure their illness they seek self-medicating means that are even more detrimental in the long run. Mental health is not a crime and we need to make strides in being sure it is not treated as one.