Public service funding becoming key issue in Manassas Council race

The following is an InsideNOVA article from September 29:

As Democrats try to seize control of the Manassas City Council, ending decades of Republican leadership of the city, the question of how the council should fund public services is becoming a key issue ahead of November’s election.

With three council seats on the ballot this fall (marking the first time in recent history that city elections will be held concurrently with a presidential race), six council contenders squared off in a forum hosted by Historic Manassas, Inc. in City Hall on Wednesday night.

Republicans currently control the council by a 5-2 margin, though council member Mark Wolfe’s switch to the Democrats after two terms as part of the GOP has thrown the doors open for a legitimate challenge to that majority. Wolfe is running for re-election with his new party, while school board member Pam Sebesky and businessman Rex Parr are challenging incumbents Ian Lovejoy and Vice Mayor Jonathan Way — Theresa Coates-Ellis is also running as a Republican, while Michael Youlen is running as an independent (though he didn’t attend Thursday’s forum).

 The trio of Democrats used the event as a chance to make their case for change, with Parr in particular sharply charging that the council has failed to fully reinvest in public services (like police, first responders and the city’s defunct parks and recreation department) as Manassas has recovered economically from the Great Recession.

“To survive the Great Recession, the budget got cut drastically, but efforts to restore spending have been consistently blocked by the tea party caucus on the council,” Parr said. “What’s been the result of our austerity campaign? The reputation of our schools have been tarnished, our real estate market is stagnant and our public safety has been threatened.”

Wolfe argued that the city has effectively gotten its house in order financially after some hard years of belt-tightening (recently earning back a AAA bond rating from credit agencies), yet he feels that “we have to now be willing to invest in our community and infrastructure.”

Yet Lovejoy fired back that the Democrats are painting a gloomy picture of the city’s funding of public services simply to unseat the incumbent candidates.

“Where is the evidence of that?” Lovejoy said. “If we’re so underfunded, it’s incumbent on you to tell us how much. How much more does the city need to spend to make it the utopia you say it can be? They’re not willing to say how much it costs.”

Yet Sebesky believes that the city’s lack of a parks department years after closing the agency for budget purposes demonstrates exactly that funding deficiency.

“There are quality-of-life issues here, our senior citizens want walkability, and they don’t currently have it,” Sebesky said. “We need programs for all ages to encourage people to get out more, but we also need more green space…Our surrounding areas have done a much better job of restoring that to the community.”

Way and Coates-Ellis both agreed on that point, though the two sides were more sharply divided on the issue of how to fund the city’s police department to help it retain young officers. Parr noted that he’s heard from Chief Douglas Keen that the department is plagued by a 15 percent attrition rate, while 60 percent of officers on the street have three years of experience or less.

“It’s beginning to be a problem, and let’s hope we don’t find out how big a problem it is,” Parr said.

Both Lovejoy and Way pushed back on Parr’s depiction of the department condition, touting the council’s efforts to add bonuses for junior officers and build a “technical ladder” of regular salary increases in their contracts. Way believes the attrition rate is now down to about 5 percent, and Lovejoy said he’s heard of at least six younger officers who ultimately decided to stay with the city after considering moving on.

“We have our heads around it, the council is implementing plans to resolve it, and we have evidence that it’s working,” Lovejoy said.

 Those assurances didn’t do much to placate Parr.

“Hearing, ‘We’re working on it,’ doesn’t make me feel any safer,” Parr said. “We’ve moved too slowly to address it.”

He also asserted that the current council has been “kicking the can down the road” when it comes to building a new fire station in the southern section of the city, charging that lawmakers have known “since at least 2009” that first responders haven’t been able to respond to emergencies quickly enough in the area.

But Way believes that “money will be put toward its design imminently.”

“That’s something that we’ve worked on for a long time,” Way said.

Yet Sebesky charged that the council actively “stood in the way” of the station’s construction for a decade, and Wolfe framed the election as a chance for voters to empower the council to start spending more aggressively on major projects.

“We’re all fiscally conservative, you have no wild-eyed tax-and-spend liberals up here,” Wolfe said. “The difference here becomes: Are we willing to move forward and invest in our community?”