BRISTOL, Va. — City Council members sparred for half an hour Tuesday before deferring action on a proposal to require a citizen referendum for major future borrowing.
After approving a series of minor charter changes with little discussion, the council extensively debated the language and potential consequences of requiring a public vote.
They ultimately voted 3-2, with Councilmen Kevin Mumpower and Kevin Wingard opposing, to table the matter, which means that change won’t make the Nov. 30 deadline to go before the Virginia General Assembly’s 2021 session. The General Assembly must approve all charter changes.
The change, if approved, would trigger a public vote before future councils could commit the city to extensive borrowing, such as that which funded the landfill and The Falls commercial center. Those two projects combined represent about 75% of the city’s more than $100 million bond debt.
As written, the ordinance reads: “upon a four-fifths affirmative vote of council the City Council shall petition the Circuit Court for the city of Bristol Virginia to order a referendum when the city seeks to borrow funds by issuing new general obligation debt, obtaining a new loan or entering into a legal financial contract obligation where the city is in excess of 70% of the legal debt limit.”
Mumpower urged the council to approve the ordinance as written and then clean up any issues in the future.
“To sit here and say, ‘We can’t get this done,’ I think, is irresponsible,” Mumpower said. “If we can’t take the time to get this language right and get on this [legislative] cycle, we’re irresponsible as a council. The citizens that have paid the brunt of this, they’re watching this episode. … They were pissed their taxpayer dollars got spent the way they got spent over the past four to six years. Come hell or high water, that better never happen again.”
That prompted a sharp response from Vice Mayor Anthony Farnum.
“It is important, and I agree with you,” Farnum said. “But this language doesn’t protect against the one thing we need to protect against.”
Farnum said the ordinance wouldn’t prevent future councils from significant borrowing once the city falls below the 70% figure.
City Manager Randy Eads said during the discussion that the city is currently well in excess of 70% of its debt limit and expected to be above that threshold for another decade. Eads also expressed concern about other parts of the wording.
“This council sees the devastation of misguided leadership,” Wingard said. “And we need to be responsible leaders and try to put something in place that is a roadblock to where councils coming behind us [say], ‘Wait a minute, this is our limit, and if we go above this, the citizens are going to come storming in here saying, “No, you’re not.” Or it goes on a referendum, and the citizens say, “Yes, you can.”‘“
Eads pointed out that, because the city is essentially at its limit, no borrowing could occur before November 2021 and the next General Assembly deadline.
“It’s definitely something that needs to be talked through,” Mayor Bill Hartley said.
Following further debate, Eads said he would send copies of the city’s existing financial policies to the council for review, and he plans to present information about referendum language in other cities at a December meeting so the council can resume the discussion then.
“This is not something we should look at in one or two meetings and come up with an answer. I think most of the people sitting out here were the most vocal when it came to the dumb decisions of the past,” Eads said. “They want this done right. It’s important to get it done right the first time and not keep going back to the General Assembly time and again simply because we want to fix it.”
In other matters, they voted 4-1 to approve extensive changes to the city code regarding zoning, developed by the staff and Planning Commission over the past three years.
The council tabled action on a proposal to replace a traffic signal at the intersection at Piedmont Avenue and Cumberland Street with a four-way stop.