Overrun O'Connell? Does the City Manager spend too much?
How about the City of Charlottesville? In the last several months, City Manager Gary O'Connell (pictured left) has come under fire for his role in promoting three major projects
Â¢Ã¢â??Â¬Â¢ a $143 million water supply project,
Â¢Ã¢â??Â¬Â¢ a $7.5 million rebricking of the Downtown Mall, and
Â¢Ã¢â??Â¬Â¢ a $1.25 million gift and free 40-year lease to the YMCA as part of an extensive– and, critics say, unnecessary– McIntire Park overhaul.
The three projects are launching during an economic crunch, a time when some people say saving City taxpayers– who already pay a third more than their county counterparts– might enjoy a rebate or at least the comfort of some City savings.
"Are we being stewards of people's money?" asks Kendra Hamilton, a former Democratic city councilor who was one of two councilors to vote against the YMCA project, and who a month ago penned a blistering open letter blasting the pipeline-dependent water supply scheme– and O'Connell for his role in it.
"The thing that might behoove us to do," Hamilton says, "is to really look at 'What are needs?' versus 'What are wants?""
Does the Mall really need rebricking, for instance? Developer Oliver Kuttner says the cracking surface of the 32-year-old Mall should be treated as a maintenance issue rather than something needing replacement. He believes a team of masons could simply move along the Mall repairing damage at a cost of $200,000 a year. At that rate, they could keep working for nearly 40 years before equalling the cost of rebricking.
Does McIntire Park really need an overhaul? Many of the 2,000 members of the City's largest recreational league, which has used park's two softball diamonds for decades, don't think so. And despite the guarantee that Charlottesville High School students will get swim lane priority at the planned YMCA, Hamilton believes the deal was not in the City's best interest.
"I was against it, against the idea of giving the land to a private entity that we didn't ourselves control," she says. Also troubling Hamilton is that the park's "master plan"– and final cost estimate– were not complete, even when City Council offered various approvals.
"What sense does it make," asks Hamilton, "to vote on it before you've been told the cost?"
O'Connell defends the expenditures and says the economic downturn is no reason to put off key projects.
Investing in capital projects, he says, allows savings in the operating budget. Wading into yet another controversy, O'Connell notes that closing the City's Crow pool and repairing Smith pool will cut the cost of water leaks. Replacing the bricks on the Mall will obviate repairing them. And cutting operations costs is not the only reason to spend now, O'Connell claims.
"This is the time to build," he says. "This is the time to get the best prices, to invest in longterm infrastructure. Rates are excellent."
Still, he admits, "I can understand people asking the question."
His critics are doing more than asking. In her open letter late last month, Hamilton blasted the community water supply scheme, which involves building a new reservoir and pipeline system that's seen as fiscally and environmentally worrisome.
Dubbing the project a "pig in a poke," Hamilton claimed she was duped when she voted in favor of the plan on Council, insisting she had no idea that private dredging estimates would come in at approximately one tenth the over $223 million figure the city's paid consultant, Gannett Fleming, put forth.
"There is no way that I would have supported the current water supply strategy without significant changes had I been aware of those numbers," Hamilton wrote, further criticizing a resolution O'Connell presented at the June 2 Council meeting asking councilors to once again endorse the official water plan without considering dredging options. That hastily drawn resolution also irked City Councilor Holly Edwards, who questioned whether reconsidering the council-manager form of government might be in order– seemingly a dig at O'Connell.
"I do think it would be healthy for the City, and probably for Gary, to have a change in management," says former City Councilor Rob Schilling, a Republican who has blasted O'Connell's role in promoting the water supply project.
"The information given to Council by the City Manager," Schilling– now a talk radio host– told his WINA-AM audience last month, "was filtered or shaped to promote a certain point of view or direction that was desired by staff or the City Manager."
Despite his ability to unite former political foes in questioning his judgment, O'Connell finds favor with at least two current leaders.
"I think one thing Gary is good at is giving us lots of information, laying a choice out, and allowing Council a chance to make very informed decisions," says former mayor and current Councilor David Brown.
City Councilor Satyendra Huja also comes to O'Connell's defense. "It is easy to criticize, especially the staff," says Huja. "I don't think the criticism is warranted."
O'Connell says next year's budget will, for the first time in recent memory, reflect the declining economy because of expected flat real estate assessments. Yet, with votes on both dredging and the Downtown Mall imminent, and with softball players crying foul [see this week's cover story–editor], one thing is sure: the spending debate won't soon abate.