By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
After the Harrisonburg City Council re-elected them to their positions for another two years on Monday, Mayor Deanna Reed and Vice-mayor Sal Romero outlined in interviews with The Citizen their shared priorities for the coming months, including recovering economically from the pandemic, encouraging affordable housing and building the second high school.
And with the addition of newly-elected council member Laura Dent, Reed now leads the second council in the city’s history that includes two women.
“Now that is incredible,” Reed said. “It’s like, what took us so long?”
Reed won a third two-year term as mayor by a 4-1 vote, with Council member George Hirschmann, an independent, dissenting. Romero unanimously won a second two-year term as vice-mayor.
Based on city documents, Dent is only the fifth woman in the last seven decades to serve on the council. Reed, the fourth, became the first woman of color when she was first elected in 2016.
Emily Dingledine served on the council after the death of her husband, Raymond Dingledine, in 1990. She was joined by Agnes Weaver in 1992, and the two served together until 1996. The only other woman to serve on the council has been Carolyn Frank, who served from 2000-2004 and again from 2006-2010. Frank ran again, unsuccessfully, in 2018.
“For us to have two women to serve, I’m excited,” Reed said. “Laura is very passionate about … the environment and sustainability and criminal justice. We kind of complement each other, and we did that when we ran. It also brings a level of compassion and just a different toughness, I think.”
Reed also will be among the longest consecutively-serving Harrisonburg mayors in recent history. The last mayor to serve for more than five years in a row was Walter Green, who held the position from 1983-1992.
One of Reed’s first priorities, she said, will be to weigh recommendations from the finalized comprehensive housing study, which will be presented at the Jan. 12 meeting.
“We know Harrisonburg is a great place to live, and people just need to be able to live here,” Reed said.
One question she hopes the study answers is “Do we need to pursue a housing trust fund? Which I believe we do. But how we’re going to do that is what I’m eager to see.”
Housing trust funds allow for donors and government grants and other funds to put money into an account that can then be used to help pay for development and refurbishment of housing for low-income individuals and families. The Commonwealth of Virginia, for instance, has such a program.
Romero told The Citizen he’s excited to move forward on affordable housing as well.
“We should have a lot more answers and really more tangible solutions” after the final study is presented, he said.
Both Reed and Romero also stressed the need to help residents, businesses and organizations weather the pandemic. Reed said the council will have a better sense of the city’s finances in the coming months, as the budget season approaches.
“Making sure our businesses are back, thriving, and our children can get back to school, that’s our top priority,” she said.
Romero said helping families directly through food and rental assistance, as an advisory task force prioritized with the second round of CARES Act funds the city received, is a key component of that recovery.
In addition to immediate financial needs, both Reed and Romero stressed the importance of continuing construction on the second high school — if the city can afford it.
Just four months after breaking ground on the site, falling revenues due to the pandemic caused the school board to suspend the project for up to a year. The change order the school board and contractor, Nielsen Builders Inc., agreed to stipulates that, should the suspension last beyond a year – until April 30, 2021 – then either party can terminate the contract.
Romero is hopeful that “the economy will pick back up and we’ll have the revenues to ensure that we continue the work that we started at the site for the second high school.”
Reed said the council hasn’t yet discussed how to proceed on the project, but those talks should happen soon.
“We broke ground … and the decision was made to go forward. Then of course the pandemic hit. So we’re going to have to make those tough decisions once we see how we’re standing financially,” Reed said.
Both mayor and vice-mayor also told The Citizen they want to create a more inclusive, welcoming city for its residents. Reed said that could include a diversity training for city employees.
And Romero said he wants to expand access to city services and information to those who speak languages other than English, such as his initiative to get interpreter services at city council meetings.
Editor’s note, 10:54 a.m.: The article was corrected to reflect that the school board voted to suspend construction on the high school for “up to” rather than “at least” a year.
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