Town Council focuses on finances, COVID-19 issues

By Debbie Adams

Vinton Town Council met via Zoom once again on June 16 and focused on finances and issues related to COVID-19.

Council adopted the budget for FY2020-2021 which has been under discussion at every meeting since February. Back then the economy was booming, and the budget picture looked rosy. With the onset of COVID-19, town staff was forced to revise that initial budget downward to accommodate for large revenue decreases and the uncertainties of the impact of COVID-19 on the community.

The balanced FY2020-2021 budget adopted totals $11,673,527 for all funds, 4.43 percent less than the FY2020 budget.

Council held a public hearing to accept comments and adopt a resolution on the town’s intention to apply for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for the Town of Vinton COVID-19 Response Project. The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development is making available CDBG funding to small cities, towns, and rural counties to respond to local needs related to COVID-19.

The town has a long history of receiving CDBG grants for housing rehabilitation and economic development projects. With the COVID-19 Response Project grant, the town will be seeking up to $750,000 to assist a local business with the purchase of additional equipment necessary to increase production related to the pandemic. The company plans to make a multi-million-dollar investment to increase manufacturing capacity resulting in the creation of an additional 30 jobs, about half benefitting low- to moderate-income individuals or households.

Finance Director Anne Cantrell asked council to adopt an ordinance accepting and appropriating funds from the Commonwealth of Virginia for the locally based allocation from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020 recently passed by Congress. The primary component of the CARES Act is $150 billion in assistance to local, state, territorial, and tribal governments for the direct impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Allocations were sent to states based on population who then divvied it up among cities and counties. Roanoke County’s portion is $8,217,365. The county agreed to share a percentage of the CARES Act funds with the Town of Vinton based on the ratio of the town population to the county population– 8.6 percent– amounting to $760,693. (This is the same formula used for sharing state sales tax revenues.)

The town must choose wisely in identifying what the funding will be used for as there are restrictions. Expenditures must be incurred due to the COVID-19 emergency; not accounted for in the most recently approved budget as of March 2020 and must be incurred by December 30, 2020.

Town staff is working to understand the eligible uses and rules for CARES Act funding and conferring with their counterparts around the state to determine what expenses might qualify. They have discussed using the funds for improvements to facilities to improve health and safety for employees and the public, small business assistance, laptops and related equipment for teleworking and distance learning, and other expenses such as personnel costs and Personal Protective Equipment.

Council adopted a resolution in support of reopening Rosie’s Gaming Emporium. The operators of Rosie’s Gaming Emporiums in five locations across the state were forced to shut down in mid-March due to COVID-19 per Governor Northam’s Executive Order.

Assistant Town Manager Pete Peters said that the town—which benefits from taxes ($30,000 per month) generated by Rosie’s as well as the employment of 100 individuals at the Vinton location—was surprised that the enterprise was not allowed to reopen under Phase II.  Rosie’s is one of the few businesses in Vinton that has not been allowed to reopen and one of its best corporate citizens.

Rosie’s management had developed a detailed operations plan based on CDC best practices and shared reopening guidelines with the governor’s office well in advance of the anticipated Phase II reopening on June 5. The guidelines are in line with other states’ operating guidelines for operation of similar gaming businesses and much larger casino operations. Fifty-five percent of casinos and Historic Horse Racing facilities across the country and in surrounding states were allowed to reopen on June 5.

Other local governments which currently permit Rosie’s to operate are considering similar resolutions to support allowing Rosie’s to reopen under the Virginia Forward Phase II guidelines.

In its “Extra Care Program,” Rosie’s sets standards on occupancy load, entry temperature screening, social distancing, face coverings for patrons and employees, limits on numbers of patrons and parties, thorough cleaning every two hours, and reduced hours of operation. Guests are limited to two-hour time periods with 50 percent occupancy and seated with social distancing in mind. Extra precautions were announced for restaurant and bar areas.

“We appreciate Town Council’s support of our business and their eagerness for us to re-open in order to start generating important tax revenue again and put local residents back to work,” said General Manager Ernie Dellaverson. “We are collaborating with the state and are also eager to re-open soon in a safe manner with our new Extra Care Program.”

Council adopted a resolution ratifying and approving the Town of Vinton Strategic Plan for 2020-2025 which has been under development since council’s annual retreat in February. The new Strategic Plan adopts a new mission, vision, and three focused goals:

  1. To enhance the town’s infrastructure and livability (to continue to make Vinton a safe and secure community through community policing and engaging residents, enhance the condition and appearance of the town’s public infrastructure and amenities, encourage home ownership, housing rehabilitation, and the creation of new, high-quality, and affordable housing stock)
  2. To maintain an efficient and high-performing government (to utilize available technology within municipal offices to improve efficient service delivery, conduct thorough organizational efficiency reviews in municipal offices and implement changes based on results, and maintain a structurally balanced budget to sustain service levels and maintain public facilities)
  3. To ensure the town’s continued financial viability by actively pursuing quality economic development

In other business, Peters notified council that Roanoke City has approved the use of e-bikes on its greenways. He advised that Vinton wait for the decision of Roanoke County on the issue. Councilwoman Janet Scheid said that while e-bikes do serve a mobility purpose, public safety and maintenance issues need to be taken into account when making a decision on the use of e-bikes on Vinton greenways.

Vinton Police Chief Tom Foster announced that due to COVID-19, the annual National Night Out event sponsored by the Vinton Police Department has been postponed from August to October 6. Council members thanked the chief and his department for their dedication to community policing, stating that “the police department is on the right track due to the leadership of Chief Foster and Captain Fabricio Drummond.”

Chief Foster, Mayor Brad Grose, and Town Manager Barry Thompson have come up with a plan for a series of “Reconnect Parties” throughout the community when state guidelines permit larger social gatherings. These events would be similar to the family-friendly National Night Out events—held on weeknights, with food, music, friends, fun, and “no business.”

“Please do not interpret this proposal as a proclamation that we think the pandemic is over,” said Mayor Grose. “The virus is still out there, but we can reconnect in a safe, responsible manner and enjoy ourselves.”

In presenting the financial report for April 2020, Cantrell announced that due to fortuity and the town’s traditional conservative financial planning, the town is “in the hole” $34,990 year-to-date, rather than an expected $984,889, with $5.7 million in cash and investments.

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