indexPost by Shelby Taraba, James Madison Center for Civic Engagement Fellow

On April 9th, concerned community members gathered at the Gazebo, making signs and preparing to mobilize for the City Council meeting.  On March 26th, City Council addressed a proposed ordinance “16-6-61 restricting pedestrians within public rights of way at Designated Locations to the Harrisonburg City Code.” The proposed ordinance addresses 7 intersection that have a high volume of traffic accidents with median strips and more than 4 lanes of traffic:

  • South Main Street and Martin Luther King Way
  • East Market Street and Carlton Street
  • East Market Street and Linda Lane/Burgess Road
  • South High Street and Martin Luther King Way
  • South Main Street and Stone Spring Road
  • South Main Street and Pleasant Valley Road
  • West Market Street and High Street

This ordinance was designed to promote traffic safety and limit accidents at these specific intersections, identifying lingering in the medians as the source of traffic concerns.  The concern, however, is that this ordinance is disguised as promoting traffic safety while it could cause further criminalization against people experiencing homelessness. These intersections are highly frequented by community members experiencing homelessness who ask people in the community for help and support, not to badger or annoy but to seek the support they cannot find in the community.

So in response, community members organized, made signs, and marched down to City Hall to express concerns prior to the April 23rd meeting at 6:30pm.  Standing outside City Hall with signs facing oncoming traffic, Harrisonburg residents were greeted with passerbys honking in support and intrigued community members inquiring.  Following the public protest, we entered City Council chambers and waited eagerly for the public comment period at the end of the scheduled meeting.

The first resolution considered was to congratulate the Central Shenandoah District Commission on its 50th anniversary. Mayor Reed gave many accolades to the commission including: their holistic approach to solving local problems since its inception in 1966, how well it has served Augusta, Rockingham, Harrisonburg and more cities and counties in the Central Shenandoah area, commending their intergovernmental cooperation, bringing community members and local government together and for serving as liaison between local and state governments, making 66 million new investments. Given these reasons, city council moved to commend the commission on behalf of the City of Harrisonburg for its 50th anniversary.

There were no public hearings for this City Council meeting, so the body moved onto their regularly scheduled items.  First on the agenda was a proclamation that April would be Census Awareness Month in the City of Harrisonburg. The mayor provided a summary of the importance of the census followed by a presentation from Kathy O’Connel from the US Census Bureau. O’Connell pointed out that there was left than a year left until census day in 2020 and communicated that: 1) success depends on participation, 2) federal law protects census responses in Title 13 Section 9 and 3) that the main goal of the census is to count everyone, only once, and in the right place so we can ensure adequate funding to communities in need.

The next scheduled agenda item was a presentation from Erin Yancey, the Public Works Planning Manager regarding the Neighborhood Traffic Calming Plan in Sunset Heights Neighborhood. Erin described the continued partnership on this plan between residents and local law enforcement and the need for education and outreach enforcement. The Sunset Heights Neighborhood is in the Southwest quadrant of the city and the presence of memorial hall and the community activities center are factors that are important to consider rerouting traffic.  Given the efforts of Team up to Slow Down and the Traffic Study of 2015, Yancey pointed out that South Dogwood and Maryland are used to circumvent West Market street and have caused traffic related concerns in the Sunset Heights Neighborhood. The proposed plan was to address ideas of impediments to traffic flow without being too restrictive and that can be helpful in rerouting traffic. Yancey addressed that there is lots of public support for mini roundabouts, not as much for bike lanes, and that they have rejected the implementation of adding more stop signs because research on traffic safety concludes that it’s not warranted for this specific area.

The next regularly scheduled agenda item was an update on the Solid Waste and Recycling Program. The presentation from Thomas Hartman, the Director of Public Works, began with the overview of Harrisonburg’s recycling and waste management history.  Prior to 2004, there was a steam plant at JMU in place to incinerate waste to provide electrical resources. After 2014, it wasn’t economical to continue operations so instead of incinerating, waste was taken to the landfill through commingling curbside recycling.  From 2015-2018 the All-in-One Program was implemented through the Van Der Lynde Recycling program which allowed for a mainstream recycling process. This resulted in a 50% increase city-wide in recycling. Since Van Der Lynde was sold, they had to modify their waste management plan quickly.  Public Works diverted the city back to the county landfill and opened the Recycling Convenience Center.

At its opening, the Recycling Convenience Center welcome an average of 90 customers each weekday and 135 on weekends.  In addition to the convenience center, Public Works also provided a Mobile Recycling Unit last summer stationed at the Farmer’s Market where they experienced high utilization.

The challenges to recycling include China and Impact to Vendors.

  • China’s effect on the global recycling market in refusing recyclables through increased contamination requirements
  • As of last month, the recycling center is no longer accepting #3-#7 plastics.  This is because we are not producing high enough volumes of plastics for vendors to be interested, and they’ve had many vendors back out after agreeing to work with the Department of Public Works.

Finally, Hartman addressed opportunities for improvement, citing the mobile recycling unit. The plan is to “host” the mobile recycling unit at various areas in the city on different days throughout the week.

The last major item on the city council agenda was the reviewing the proposed budget for the fiscal year 2019-2020.  Overall the major highlights include:

  • a 3% increase in Real Estate Tax
  • 3% increase in Real Estate Tax Revenue from Growth in Assessments.
  • 3% salary increase for City Employees
  • No Increase in health insurance rates
  • $1.4 Million increase in transfer to school board
  • $1 million transfer related to the Madison Hotel Conference Center

The City Manager pointed to the increase in the city’s population comparable to other  surrounding cities in the commonwealth in justifying resource allocation. Furthermore, City Manager Campbell noted the primary items of impact for the 2019-2020 fiscal year budget including:

  • An increase in debt service for the new high school property
  • An increase in contributions to the Middle River Regional Jail
  • VDOT Grant funded projects
  • Fund Balance (Fire station renovation, Kids Castle renovation, MLK bridge repairs, City-wide phone replacement program, and Public Works equipment.
  • 6 New Positions (Police department Tech Support Specialist and Police Resource specialist, Fire Department Training/Health and Safety Position, Safety Position and City Risk Manager, and two positions that will be shared with the county–ECC Operations Manage and Criminal Justice Position.

Finally, the meeting concluded with a public comment period where community members addressed the proposed ordinance to be discussed on April 23rd.

The first public comment was from Eric Olson Getty, a staff member at Our Community Place who said the seven intersections proposed in the ordinance “doesn’t specifically refer to panhandling, but those of us that are familiar with the community of people experiencing homelessness.  Those sections are significant spots of panhandling. No evidence or truth that traffic safety is compromised, which leads us to believe this is about panhandling.” Getty continued, “To make the intersections safer, the most impactful thing you can do is prohibit cell phone use while driving.  The deeper issue is that we as a community have a decision as to how we will respond to people who need help. We can seek compassion and understanding, treat symptoms while we learn the problem, or we could lead with contempt. I hope that the City of Harrisonburg can see people and respond compassionately to the everyday urgent needs people have and find constructive ways forward that don’t sweep people under the rug. This ordinance won’t make homelessness go away and it won’t solve the traffic problem.  No person experiencing homelessness is lingering in intersections because they love it or trying to take advantage of people, they do it for hotel rooms and to keep cell phones on.

Michael Feikema, a community organizer and member of the local Occupy movement, said he has done considerable research related to the increase in homelessness and poverty. Feikema challenged the body on this ordinance expressing that it may be natural to look to other cities on how they handle homelessness but we have to be careful making the assumptions that our city is identical. “Anti-panhandling laws doesn’t solve the problem, a difficulty other cities have is that these laws don’t hold up in court. I interpret this ordinance as an attempt to create anti-panhandling that will stand up in the courts.There are records of these kinds of ordinances that are often always reversed.” Feikema continued, “There are moral risks involved in violating the spirit of the first amendment.  These community members are asking neighbors to help them, since they aren’t getting the help they need and this is how we find out what’s happening in our society. America is the wealthiest country in the world but there are increasing numbers of people who cannot afford a place to live, or those who are impoverished. The ALICE population, and people experiencing poverty are largely invisible, but panhandlers are visible.” Feikema encouraged the body to take the high road and to find the energy as a city to address the core issue of homelessness not the symptoms.

Following the public comments, Mayor Reed addressed the audience and encouraged them to be patient and trusting in City Council, that no one serving on city council had any malicious intent and that these complex problems take time to address.

We are the Friendly City, and our community members care about each other and the political happenings of our city.  Most who attended the protest, stayed until the very end of the council meeting which spanned 2.5 hours making this night a 3.5 hour commitment.  Community members care and city council is receptive. The next city council meeting is April 23rd at 7:00 pm where public hearing for ordinance 16-6-61 will be facilitated.  Hope to see you there!

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