McMillan mixes fiscal conservative talk with calls for improving recycling, energy efficiency

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for each of the five candidates running in the Nov. 6 election for Harrisonburg City Council. The profiles will run between Nov. 1 and Nov. 2. 

By Bridget Manley, contributor

Frank McMillan says he wants to be an independent voice in city government.

While his top campaign donors include Republicans office holders as well as local Republican groups, he said he’s not loyal to any party. For instance, he says he believes in promoting environmental sustainability and disagrees with many positions that the Trump administration has taken on immigration.

He also said local government officials shouldn’t be focused on identifying as Democratic or Republican. McMillan is one of five candidates and three independents on the Nov. 6 ballot vying for two spots on Harrisonburg’s council.

“If you look at the voter ballot in Harrisonburg for city council candidates, you’ll notice they don’t put Republican, Democrat, independent beside their name,” he said. “This is city politics, this is local level, so I don’t need to be in any of those camps.”

However, the City of Harrisonburg Republican Committee released its sample ballot this week with McMillan selected as the committee’s choice.

Still, McMillan is trying to position himself as a man who agrees with issues on both sides of the aisle and who will defend his positions, no matter what kind of squabbles accompany them.

First time dive into politics

As district manager for Kelly Services, an employment office in Harrisonburg, McMillan has been a businessman in the city for more than two decades. He served on many civic boards, such as the Citizens Advisory Committee to the police, and had considered running for school board but never acted on it.

Last year, he began helping with the congressional campaign of Chaz Haywood, the Rockingham County Clerk who lost the 6th District GOP nomination in May to Ben Cline. After that, McMillan said people began encouraging him to run for city council.

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Frank McMillan, left, talks with fellow council candidate, Democrat Sal Romero, before last month’s immigrant forum.

McMillan said one of his main concerns is preventing taxes from increasing, which he has stressed during the campaign. He said in the last ten years, the tax rate has gone up while population growth has slowed.

According to the Harrisonburg City government website, the property tax rate has risen from $.59 for every $100 per hundred of assessed value in 2008 to $.85 in 2018.

In the previous 20 years the tax rate went up, but not as quickly, McMillan said.

“I’m sitting there thinking ‘we built new schools, we did all kinds of things, but we kept our taxes low.’ We even built the golf course and we kept our taxes low.”

McMillan has compared it to balancing personal finances, saying: “we need to run the budget like we do our household budget. If I can’t afford a new car, just because I want it doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and get it.”

McMillan has highlighted this issue at every candidate forum as well, saying the idea might be unpopular but that he wants to maintain and keep a stable tax rate in the city.

When asked for specifics, McMillan said he has to get elected to look at the figures to decide what needs to be done in order to live within the city’s budget.

“I’m not going to sit here and say: ‘I’m going to do a 10% expense cut across the board.’ That’s ludicrous,” he said.

Call for an ethics panel

McMillan’s campaign issued a press release last week calling for a formation of a citizens’ ethics panel to promote ethics in government.

The release called out councilman Chris Jones, a Democrat also running this fall, for a tax issue that came up in 2016 while Jones was Mayor.

“The members of the Harrisonburg City Council work for us, it is a job that requires ethics and integrity. The issues surrounding Councilman Chris Jones and the IRS should have been addressed through a transparent process and it was not,” McMillan said in the statement.

Jones responded with his own release, saying: “I am disappointed that Frank McMillan, whom I consider a brother in Christ, would pull such an obviously political stunt thinking that all of us would fall for it. This isn’t about ethics in local government, it’s about trying to gain an advantage in an election, and everyone knows it.”

McMillan says now that the call for an ethics panel would be a sounding board for Harrisonburg residents to the city council and wouldn’t just apply to city council members, but to every city employee.

He said the panel would consider ethical infractions—but only as it pertains to city business.

“Personal issues are personal issues,” he said, then referred to Jones’ situation. “Now, when you talk about somebody not paying their taxes for a long period of time, that does affect city government, if they are voting on raising taxes in the city.”

But McMillan said his proposal wasn’t aimed at Jones, specifically.

“I think Chris’s issues are past us. We don’t need to be digging up something that’s two years old, but it showed the importance of why it needed to be done,” he said.

McMillan said he wants the community to have a place to go to voice their concerns.

Some residents and even some local elected leaders posted comments on social media criticizing McMillan’s proposal for being more about Jones than about the case for an ethics panel.

“I can’t understand where people have had such disdain for this,” McMillan said. “We need to be able to hold our elected officials and the people that have positions in our government accountable.”

New School Construction

McMillan says he agrees that the city needs a new high school and wants to address overcrowding, but he also said he wants to look line-by-line through the school construction costs and compare them to other high schools built around the state.

The school, which is projected to cost $76 million, is set to open in 2023. WMRA reported last year that while Harrisonburg High School’s classroom capacity is 1,350 students, in 2017 more than 1,800 students filled building.

“The school is already passed. It’s going to happen,” McMillan said. “The way we spend our money—that has not been allocated.” He said he wants more money spent on teachers rather than “a picturesque photo opportunity school.”

Students Over Structures, a city group raising concerns on the new high school construction, has given $475 to his campaign.

Environmental Sustainability

McMillan also has run his campaign on a platform of environmental sustainability. It plays a starring role in his campaign imagery, such as yard signs with green lettering that say “Frank McMillan for City Council: A Sustainable Future for Harrisonburg. He said he supports placing solar panels on city schools and improving the city recycling program.

“I am very much into solar, recyclables, renewable energy,” he said. “The Republicans—not so much. So I am very much Democratic on that.”

He said he likes the idea of the city hiring a sustainability coordinator but wants to look within the city’s employment roster rather than hiring an additional position. He’s not against hiring someone eventually, but he said he believes the city has the personnel to accomplish that goal.

A committee of community members city staff interested in environmental issues proposed the sustainability coordinator position as part of the committee’s Environmental Action Plan, which the group presented to council last month. At the last city council meeting, the council members embraced the plan and creating the coordinator positions because placing the additional responsibilities on the current staff would be too much.  The council asked the city manager to look into finding out how much additional staff would be needed.

McMillan also suggested partnering with outside companies on recyclable materials. Noting that aluminum was the material that made the city money—and was most frequently the target of thieves raiding residents’ recycling boxes—he said the city could invest in lock boxes to keep recycling from being stolen if the city resumed the curbside program.

“It would have a lid on it that locks, that the recycle people have a key like a mailman does,” he said. “They can unlock it and open it up. Problem solved. Yeah, it’s going to cost a little more for a lid with a lock on it, but it’s better than giving up.”

McMillan said a company can start making products using recycled plastic in Virginia, and pointed to a New York company that converts plastic into construction blocks. He said believes it will create revenue and solve the problem of recycling locally and offers a nexus between the city and businesses.

 “We are moving in that direction,” he said. “We need to start thing smarter, thinking outside the box.”

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