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What I Think About Charlottesville City Issues
- Kristin Szakos

I am running for City Council because I have seen what can happen when ordinary people come together to do extraordinary things.  Last year I spent most of my waking hours working to elect Barack Obama president.  As the Volunteer Coordinator for the Obama campaign in Charlottesville, I saw countless people who had checked out of politics check back in.  People who had given up hope that their voices would ever be heard in Washington dared to hope.  People who had become cynical dared to believe that change was possible.  People participated who had never participated before - people voted who had never voted before. And we achieved the unthinkable.  Now we need to apply that same kind of participatory democracy to the issues facing the City of Charlottesville. It’s time to bring that spirit home to City Hall, and I’m ready to help put it there.

Over the past 15 years, I have found Charlottesville a wonderful place to live and raise children. But I recognize that there are many families who haven’t had the same benefits as mine.  We have neighborhoods where parents can’t be sure of their children’s safety.  We have kids who never make it through high school.  We have men and women – many who have jobs that don’t pay enough to cover rent – who spend their nights under bridges or in local churches.  We have workers without cars who can’t get to their jobs on time because the buses only run once an hour, and many parts of our community aren’t served by bus at all. 

We need to talk about why there are still such great gaps in opportunity and education in Charlottesville - and work hard to close them.  We need to speak out about inequality in a town as seemingly progressive and prosperous as ours – and we need to work to change it.

City Responsiveness

We need to improve the responsiveness of City Government and staff to the people they serve.  In my campaign, I’m working hard to get people involved who have not participated in city elections before, and as a City Councilor I will work to get people involved in making their voices heard by the Council.  I have proposed holding City Council meetings in schools and community centers in different neighborhoods, offering pizza and childcare, sending the message that we want to hear what people have to say. We need to do a better job of appointing people to boards and commissions who represent the incredible knowledge and diversity of our community.  City staff needs to reflect this philosophy as well, consulting with stakeholders in major policy decisions and insisting on a culture of respect and inclusiveness in all City departments. We need to demand that staff be creative and proactive, working with Council to develop innovative strategies for addressing the longstanding issues that face our community, and Council needs to hold staff accountable for carrying them out. 

Education

Charlottesville has one of the state’s highest achievement gaps between low-income and middle-income students.  We have the resources to fix this.  We need to recognize that school achievement is affected by far more than school policy, and underachievement begins long before preschool. Jobs, quality affordable housing, workforce development and adult education, neighborhood safety – all affect the lives of children in our community.  If we want all our children to achieve, we must aim our resources at that goal.  Failure to do so will ensure that we will continue to spend more and more money on jails, juvenile detention, drug treatment and public housing.  We need to ensure that city funding supports programs that are achieving the kinds of results we need and encourage development of programs to tackle needs that are not being addressed. 

Affordable housing

I support the efforts that the City has made so far to increase the availability of affordable housing, but believe we need to do more, including establishing a dedicated affordable housing fund to ensure that people who work in Charlottesville can live here, rather than in sprawling developments that eat away at our regional rural areas.  I am deeply committed to the cause of affordable housing in Charlottesville, through requirements and incentives to developers to set aside a portion of their projects to affordable housing, and working with the private sector to give priority in housing to city employees, including teachers, firefighters, police officers and city crew workers. A diverse city is good for everyone.

Infrastructure

The state of Virginia and the federal government over the past two decades have gutted the amount of funding available to localities for building and maintaining infrastructure.  Cynical political moves – cutting the car tax, ignoring critical domestic needs in order to fund disastrous wars abroad, and virtually eliminating taxation of the very rich – have left our roads, bridges, electric grids and water and sewer systems in a terrible state.  As a result, we see situations like that in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, where the two localities find themselves competing for a piece of the pie rather than working together to demand a bigger pie.  Building a sustainable water system for our region shouldn’t mean that Charlottesville city families pay exorbitant water rates.  Charlottesville shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of the region’s traffic woes because the county doesn’t have the political will to fund roads to divert traffic around it.  We can work together to change the equation so that we all benefit from good roads, a reliable water supply, and a beautiful natural environment in which to work and play. 

Transportation

Buses: The current system of public transportation in the City is one where all buses meet at a central location and most drive hourly routes. I support planning to develop a system of “trunk lines” with feeder routes, in which buses on main routes run frequently, while smaller buses bring people from outlying areas as often as ridership demands.  This more urban model is needed if we hope to encourage people who have cars to leave them at home and ride the bus, critical if we hope to reduce traffic congestion in the city.  I would also love to see regular buses running between Charlottesville and nearby communities like Crozet, Earlysville, Lake Monticello – even Staunton and Waynesboro, where many of our city’s workers live.  In the short term, though, we need to add routes to areas not currently served by the city buses, including McIntire Park and Greenbrier.

Sidewalks: Parts of Charlottesville are very walkable while others are not.  We need to make sure that all our City’s children can walk in their neighborhoods without having to walk in the street.  Becoming a truly walkable city will allow Charlottesville to further reduce traffic congestion and protect the lives of our children.

Bike trails: Bicycles provide exercise and quick transportation without polluting the air or crowding the parking lots.  We need to encourage people to ride bikes by ensuring that all major streets are bicycle-friendly and safe. 

Meadowcreek Parkway: I have opposed the Meadowcreek Parkway plan for many years, not because I don’t see the need for better transportation into and around Charlottesville, but because I believe better uses could be made of McIntire Park, like making it accessible to all our residents by providing bus service and programming for kids. But I was not on the City Council when the Meadowcreek Parkway was approved in a series of votes over the past few years.  Although I do not like the parkway’s route, I will not vote to overturn that approval.  The decision has been made by a duly elected body and should stand unless a court determines that it is illegal.  I plan to work to encourage completion of a bypass that would carry through traffic around the city, rather than onto the Meadowcreek Parkway.

Economic Development

Charlottesville has a strong tradition of locally owned entrepreneurial businesses.   Especially in these difficult economic times, we need to make every effort to support our local businesses and make sure future economic development retains a strong local emphasis.  We need to make sure that businesses, workers and city residents are brought to the table to formulate economic development plans.  Federal “green job” initiatives are well suited to a local economy like ours and should be pursued.   We can expect a host of new initiatives to come out of Washington in the next eight years; Charlottesville must position itself to take full advantage of them.  We can establish Charlottesville as a leader in the new economy, rather than chase after low-paying jobs at chain stores and fast food restaurants, as some communities have chosen to do.

Taxes

I am glad that Charlottesville has created a fund to give relief to strapped homeowners whose taxes rise as their assessments go up.  We need to recognize that collection of our residents’ hard-earned money in the form of taxes is a public trust, and that we must never abuse it by spending it unwisely.  We need to make sure that every dollar is leveraged to achieve the greatest possible impact. Encouraging volunteerism, aggressively pursuing grant funding, cooperating more fully with the University and with Albemarle County, including stakeholders in decision making, and actively seeking ways to save energy and water can help us spend smarter – not necessarily more.

Environment

If we are deliberate about it, all the things we do as a city can have a positive environmental impact.  Affordable housing, adequate public transportation, bike lanes and sidewalks all contribute to reducing the number of cars choking our roads and our air.  We can center workforce development efforts around green jobs and alternative energy in order to position our community as a leader in a changing world.  We can offer incentives and leadership to property owners and residents to reduce energy and water consumption and waste.  Rooftop wind turbines and solar panels can reduce our reliance on coal, oil and other non-sustainable energy sources to power our city. 

Water Supply

I believe that there are serious flaws in the study on which the current water supply plan is based, but understand the need to move forward with plans to ensure water for the next half century.  We need to take into consideration accurate predictions of water conservation and environmental impact, but also our need for clean, safe water and our relations with Albemarle County in our decisions on this issue.  I plan to continue listening to all sides and hope to work with the next Council to find common ground where we can all work together toward a solution that all can live with.

Social Services

The City needs to effectively fund non-profits that work to address social and economic concerns that affect us all.  Programs for early childhood development, parenting, healthcare, and mental health all deserve strong and directed support by City Government.  The services they provide save the city money in the long term, reducing the need for jail space, hospital beds, police, and foster care services.

Public safety

We need to continue working vigilantly to make sure that residents in all our neighborhoods are safe.  Neighborhood policing offers a chance to develop lasting relationships between residents and the officers charged with protecting their neighborhoods; I fully support the program of neighborhood policing and would work to enhance and strengthen that program.  I will work to ensure that all our police have adequate support and training to treat all our residents with respect and restraint.  I support the idea of allowing police officers to take home squad cars and would urge an expansion of that program in Charlottesville to allow more county residents to participate. (As affordable housing becomes more available in the city, we can expect to see a higher proportion of our officers living in the city.) 

Problem Solving

We need to develop structural ways of dealing with ongoing issues that divide the city.  Rather than shouting our different opinions year after year on important matters like the Meadowcreek Parkway, the regional water supply, race relations, and taxes, we need to proactively seek ways to find common ground and work toward viable solutions.  There are many good methods communities can use to incorporate this approach, such as being deliberate about who is brought into decisionmaking processes, insisting on civil discourse in all meetings, and framing issues in ways that can help lead to agreement where agreement is possible.

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If you would like more information or have questions about topics not addressed here, please contact me at k.szakos@embarqmail.com.

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