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Turner: Business restrictions too tight
Council member says city’s funding ratio for EDC ‘is not right’
Thursday, November 1, 2012
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
The city should be less strict on businesses if it wants to attract new ones, according to Martinsville City Council candidate Danny Turner.
Rules can be too costly and time-consuming for small businesses to handle easily, he said. As an example, he noted an uptown store owner’s efforts to install a sign on the front of her building.
The sign had a small amount of neon color that did not match rules for the city’s historic district, and it was larger than city officials thought it should be, Turner recalled. Officials asked the store owner to create a smaller sign, but that sign did not fit into brackets on the building, he said.
The owner received permission to install the larger sign. First, though, she had to go through the process of being granted a variance from the rules.
Turner said the owner had to pay about $200 for the city to advertise a Martinsville Architectural Review Board meeting at which her variance was considered. He said the meeting lasted about 45 seconds.
He said one of the main complaints he hears from small businesses is that the regulations are “almost overbearing.”
The city enforces state building codes, but inspectors must interpret them and rules for historical districts, Turner said, adding “I question whether they (the inspectors) always use common sense.”
Turner thinks the Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre being developed with Henry County eventually will come to fruition, but he thinks money that has been committed for the center could have been used more wisely.
The city and county, as well as sources such as the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission and The Harvest Foundation, have committed about $27 million toward the project.
The money should be committed to develop industrial sites “up and down the rail line,” including making vacant factories usable again, Turner said.
“You’d see Bassett and Stanleytown come back” as industrial centers, he said.
Commonwealth Crossing’s development is being held up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has not issued a necessary permit.
“I don’t think the Corps of Engineers has any reason to meddle here,” said Turner. “At some point, I think the corps will back off” and issue the permit.
Turner, who is near the end of his first four-year term, is one of two incumbents among four council candidates in the Nov. 6 election.
He said he favors the city continuing to help fund the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC), which takes the lead role in recruiting new businesses and industries to the community.
But “the funding ratio is not right,” he said. The city’s share of EDC funding should be “per capita” — determined by its population — based on a formula “we determine is fair and equitable.”
Based on 2010 census figures, the city is paying $20.22 per capita ($279,500 total) to the EDC, while the county is paying $8.49 per capita ($460,000 total).
Turner expressed frustration that the EDC in his view does not provide council members with full information on companies being recruited.
Typically, the EDC uses code names when discussing ongoing projects with officials. Turner said he thinks they should be told companies’ actual names and, when a company decides not to come to the area, why.
The councilman said he expects the Rives Road Industrial Park will attract a company eventually because of its railroad access. Yet he thinks developing the Clearview Business Park for industry no longer is feasible due to Henry-Martinsville Social Services moving into a building there, he said.
Turner often has voiced criticism of the city’s decision several years ago to participate in power plant projects put forth by American Municipal Power (AMP), through which the city buys wholesale electricity.
Under contracts, the city is to buy power generated at the plants for about 40 years. But one of the plants — the AMP Generating Station — never came to fruition, and Martinsville owes almost $859,000 in development costs already incurred on the project.
The city got involved in AMP projects to try and keep its wholesale power costs lower than market prices, which were expected to rise over time.
But market prices have dropped. Turner said it seems the city would save money for at least 10 years by solely buying power on the market.
“We need to get some answers ... as to what’s going on” with AMP, its ceased power plant project and the wholesale market, he said.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has called for a federal investigation into deals involving investments in the Prairie State Energy Campus, another AMP project in which Martinsville agreed to take part.
Turner said he does not know if the city could get out of any contracts it has with AMP. But “we’ll have to pursue that” if the an investigation alleges wrongdoing has occurred.
To reduce city expenses, Turner said he would like the city to look at getting out of the electricity business. He said he thinks city officials are wrong in their claims that a private utility — for example, American Electric Power, which provides power in Henry County — would not be interested in taking over electricity sales and distribution in Martinsville.
To save money, the city should stop doing “whatever we don’t have to do” as required under the city charter or state law, Turner said.
He said, for instance, that if the private sector can collect garbage for less than the city, that idea should be pursued.
Turner said the city should encourage the federal government to remove some of its restrictions on public schools.
In the Martinsville schools, he said, there are “far too many people at the school board office and not enough teaching” in the schools.
The city reduced funding for the schools this fiscal year. Turner commended city and school officials for working together “like adults” in the budget preparation process to fix school budgeting issues. He indicated that has not always happened.
The schools are “going to ask for every dime they can get,” Turner said. As council members, “our job is to give them what they need to do the job,” not just money.
He acknowledged that his positions on issues have not always coincided with those of other council members and city administrators. For example, he never has voted in support of a city budget that the council adopted due to concerns over spending and using reserve funds to balance budgets.
“We should cut spending to match the amount of money coming in” to the city’s coffers, he said.
He said that being from Martinsville’s north side, which is less affluent than some other parts of the city, gives him a “different perspective” on issues.
Turner pledged to be accessible to all city residents. He encourages them to contact him when they have concerns or ideas.
“Council people should be accessible” and come from various socieconomic backgrounds, he emphasized.