Area delegates say strong economy key to helping vulnerable residents

Del. Tony Wilt (R-Broadway), left, and Del. Chris Runion (R-Bridgewater) pictured at a pre-pandemic event. File photo.

By Eric Gorton, Contributor

At a virtual town hall held just prior to the start of the 2021 General Assembly session, two area delegates told local nonprofit service providers that a strong economy holds the key to resolving economic challenges facing many in the community –  including improved employment opportunities, a dearth of affordable housing, childcare availability, food insecurity and more.

Tony Wilt (R-Broadway) and Chris Runion (R-Bridgewater) responded to questions from representatives of Our Community Place, Roberta Webb Child Care Center, the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and On the Road Collaborative during an hour-long event sponsored by the United Way of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County and The ALICE Coalition. The Center for Civic Engagement at James Madison University provided technical support to stream the event on Facebook.

While neither delegate plans to introduce legislation addressing these issues, both said they are keenly aware of them and how the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated hardships for families in the region, especially those living paycheck to paycheck.

Extended eviction moratorium?

Del. Chris Runion. File photo.

When asked whether they support an extension of an eviction moratorium for renters, both lawmakers offered their views but avoided a clear “yes” or “no” answer. A Virginia moratorium on evictions expired Jan.1, but has been extended to the end of the month by a federal moratorium.

Runion called the moratorium a temporary solution.

“I don’t think anyone has quite figured out how we’re going to work out of this,” he said.

Runion and Wilt noted that renters and landlords are both affected by the pandemic.

“If you have lost your job and you can’t afford to pay your rent, I understand. But if you’re a property owner, you have a mortgage generally that’s in front of you, you have taxes you have to pay, so we’ve got to take all that into account,” Runion said.

Wilt said he knows landlords who are trying to work out payment plans for their renters and said the best way to deal with the issue is a strong economy.

“We saw that up until the pandemic,” he said.

Wilt added that he has been surprised how well the economy had performed in spite of the pandemic.

“The last numbers I got from the employment commission, the job opportunities are out there for folks. To me, that needs to be part of the equation – to help the ALICE population get a better job,” he said.

Del. Tony Wilt. File photo.

Runion and Wilt said they were disappointed that Gov. Ralph Northam used $4 million in grants and COVID relief funds at the end of August to hire 20 Legal Aid attorneys to represent tenants facing eviction for the next two years. Both said the money should have gone directly to renters or landlords.

“It did not make sense to me,” Runion said. “We really have to focus what available resources we have on things that we can really make a difference on.”

Added Wilt: “To me, the most expedient use of that money would have been to give it to the renters or to whatever entity that the individual owed money to, give it to them, everything’s satisfied.”

John Whitfield, executive director of Blue Ridge Legal Services, disagreed, saying that the money was well spent.

“My organization got money from that and we were able to hire an attorney, represent tenants who were facing eviction and as a result, we were able to get money into the landlords’ pockets and prevent evictions at the same time,” he said. “I think we have been very efficient, effective at preventing eviction and making sure that the laws that are on the books were working for both sides of the case.”

The delegates said the lack of affordable local housing in the area is a challenge that needs to be addressed. Runion said he’s aware of the housing study just completed for Harrisonburg and that he is looking forward to how the city acts on the recommendations.

Childcare accessibility

In response to a question about what the General Assembly will do to address challenges in the childcare sector, Runion said getting children back in school will be a big help.

He added that he is most concerned about how much learning has been disrupted by the pandemic and the resulting online and hybrid teaching formats.

“What scares me more than anything about what’s going on now, if a child is not reading on grade level by third grade, they have a tough life in front of them. It’s almost impossible to fix that problem as you move forward,” Runion said. “That just worries me to death.”

Noting that childcare capacity was an issue before the pandemic, Wilt said that the General Assembly can help by lessening the regulatory burden on providers. Wilt said he worked on a bill last year to clarify staffing levels required at childcare centers, which is determined by the number of children in a facility as well as their ages. For example, he said, if a facility had three children – an infant, another aged 1-3 and another in the 4-5 age group – some workers thought that meant there had to be three different staff members in the facility.

“I worked with social services and talked to them and they said, ‘No, that’s not how it’s supposed to work,’” Wilt said. “We carried legislation to clarify it in the code, how the program is really supposed to work. That’s just an example of how we can sometimes hurt ourselves with more regulation.”

Food insecurity

When the discussion moved to food insecurity, both candidates asked questions of the service providers to get a clearer picture of the needs, and did not discuss any potential legislation intended to alleviate it.

Runion said he recently toured the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank warehouse in Verona and applauded the organization for how it adapted its operations during the pandemic, including pre-packaging food to make it easier to provide to consumers.

“You look at the traditional model and all of a sudden you couldn’t do that anymore and you figured it out. …  If there are legislative fixes to help, how do we make food banks and food pantries more effective, more efficient, more available to meet the needs, then let’s do that.”

Runion said he agreed with an earlier comment by Wilt that a vibrant and robust economy will solve a lot of problems.

“It has always been puzzling to me why we have food insecurity in our community,” Runion said. “We have a lot of food in this country. We have to figure out why we’re not able to get it where it needs to go. The pandemic gives us an opportunity to do things differently.”

Beth Bland, a director with Valley Program for Aging Services, highlighted difficulties the area’s elderly residents have faced during the pandemic and said Meals on Wheels, a core program of VPAS, has seen a 33% increase in people requesting meals from the service in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

“Senior hunger is a very serious and real problem right here at home,” she said.

Asked by Runion if the increase could be attributed to people not wanting to go out during the pandemic, Bland said fear of contracting COVID was a significant factor. People who normally would receive assistance from their families had to turn to the Meals on Wheels program when their loved ones stopped providing for them out of fear of making them sick during visits.

“There was a lot of fear around contracting the virus,” she said.

Higher minimum wage?

Wilt and Runion said they oppose mandating wage increases when asked how they could support employers who want to provide living wages to their employees.

“I’ve mentioned a couple times a healthy economy. I know there are fluctuations in the economy, but if we can maintain a level of competition, I think being able to see more things produced in the United States and specifically here in Virginia, more specifically here in Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg, that rising tide raises all ships,” Wilt said.

The delegates each said mandates, such as raising the minimum wage, often have unintended negative consequences.

“Sure, it’s going to raise wages,” Wilt said, “but those of us who have been around awhile know that all the costs will rise with it.”

Runion said he talked with a business owner who told him she could operate cheaper by replacing employees with machines if she was forced to pay higher wages.

“I concur with Tony that we need to be fiscally responsible, we need to create and maintain safety nets but we need to be careful where that net’s placed,” he said.

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