Speed cameras to go up in road construction and school zones; Council approves new budget

Mary Boitnott stops traffic at the intersection of Chicago and Gay Streets for children walking and biking to Waterman Elementary in 2021. The city council approved allowing speed cameras in school zones and construction zones. (File photo)

By Rachel Petterson and Michael Russo, contributors

New speed monitoring cameras aimed at protecting the safety of road construction workers and children will pop up in construction zones and school zones across the city next month now that the city council unanimously approved a new ordinance Tuesday night. 

That new measure allows the Harrisonburg Police and Public Works Department to implement speed monitoring cameras in construction zones and school zones. 

The first speed camera is set to be placed on East Market Street at I-81’s Exit 247, which is undergoing improvements. Chief of Police Kelley Warner and Tom Hartman, director of public works, said the ordinance’s goal is to increase safety for the public works and Virginia Department of Transportation employees working in the zone.

The work zone has a 25 mph speed limit at all times during the construction period — one that Hartman said many drivers violate. Citing a study that Public Works conducted in April with the help of a consulting firm, Hartman said nearly 23,000 drivers exceeded the speed limit during work hours in a one-week period. Nearly 600 were traveling over 50 mph.

The speed safety cameras are stationary devices targeted in a specific area that can scan the rear license plates of vehicles passing through, Warner said. 

When a driver speeds and commits a violation, the third-party vendor that operates the cameras will review the captured plate images and send information to the Harrisonburg Police Department. The police then confirm whether there was a violation and will issue a citation — along with the bill for the fines — to the owner of the vehicle. If the owner isn’t the driver, Warner said, that person can plead their case in court to transfer liability to someone else. 

The cameras can’t detect who’s driving the vehicle, as only the license plate information is captured.

The new cameras will be installed June 15 and followed by a 60-day warning period to drivers that citations will be issued come Aug. 15. In addition to signage in the work zone, Warner said these 60 days will include “aggressive” public service announcements and education initiatives to the city residents to inform them of the new cameras and potential fines. 

In addition, the city police have coordinated with Anthony Matos, the JMU Police Department’s chief, about informing JMU students about the ordinance.

Money from fines will cover the cameras’ costs as well as other traffic and pedestrian safety improvements, according to a memorandum.

Warner said other means of enforcing the speed limit — such as constant police presence — aren’t feasible because HPD doesn’t have the staff to monitor the work zone or the resources to place an unmanned HPD vehicle in the area to encourage drivers to obey the speed limit. Warner said other signs that provide real-time feedback on drivers’ speeds are better suited for two-lane roadways, like the device on University Boulevard near JMU’s Convocation Center, and not a more complex area like the work zone on Market Street.

City’s budget gets approved

The 2023-2024 city budget will go into effect on July 1 after the city council unanimously approved it in Tuesday’s meeting in a 4-0 vote. 

Mayor Deanna Reed was absent because she was attending the Virginia Transit Association (VTA) Conference and Expo in Virginia Beach. Reed is now the president of VTA, after having served as the vice president during the 2021-2022 session, according to information posted on the VTA website.

The council made no changes to the budget since the first vote at the last meeting on May 9, at which the council approved the budget in a 4-0 vote, which didn’t include council member Dany Fleming. 

Fleming said Tuesday he was pleased with the budget and glad for the opportunity to confirm the final version. He said he especially approves of the increase in compensation of city employees. All council members have said over the last two meetings that those changes will bring pay levels of city workers closer to an appropriate level.  

Fleming said the city is “an organization that needs to be taken care of” and that “this compensation study is the first part of that.”

The second vote this Tuesday came after a public hearing regarding the increase in property tax to 96 cents per $100 of assessed value, up from the previous 93 cents for every $100 of assessed property value. As previously reported by The Citizen, with the average home in Harrisonburg valued at about $230,000, a 3-cent increase would raise the property taxes on the average house by $69 per year, with the total average property tax bill now being $2,208. 

Only one resident commented directly on the increase in property tax: Panayotis “Poti” Giannakouros, a frequent caller, called to weigh in on the tax and several other issues. The public comment during the meeting comes after a 30 day public comment period during which the public was invited to weigh in on the tax increase via other means. Larry Propst, director of finance, reported to the council that no comments were received during that period. 

Members of the Harrisonburg Education Association were present at Tuesday’s meeting, marked by their red shirts, to comment on the budget, but the vast majority left before the public comment period upon learning that there would not be further opportunity for public comment on the budget before approval. 

City gives thumbs up to schools’ spending plan

Also Tuesday, Superintendent Michael Richards of the city school district outlined key portions of the schools’ budget, which is part of the city’s overall spending document. 

The district plans to hire the equivalent of 22.5 new full-time employees, which is a combination of full- and part-time workers. That figure includes the introduction of “permanent substitutes” who will be present in the schools daily in order to step in wherever they are needed, alleviating other staff who have previously needed to act as substitutes. 

The school board intends to increase salaries by an average of 5%. State funding will cover half of the salary increases, while the city will provide the rest. 

The budget for the Commonwealth of Virginia is yet to be approved and could affect the local budget, at which point the city council might have to make amendments. 

Richards told The Citizen that the state budget might not be done until late June. 

“The state could reduce the money that we get, but I don’t think they will. There are a couple proposals to increase the money that we get, but the Senate and the House of Delegates and the governor have to agree, and that’s a long ways off — end of June, I think, is what we’re looking at,” Richards explained.

Deb Fitzgerald, chair of the school board, said while state legislators typically finalize updates to the budget by the end of March, she believes upcoming primary elections are causing the delay.

“They don’t want to make that big decision that potentially alienates some of their constituents before the primary’s over,” added Andrew Kohen, vice chair of the school board.

The council also discussed gaps in outcomes for students of color with Richards and how the community can address these gaps. This conversation overlapped with public comment from Nora McGuire White, who has lived and coached sports in Harrisonburg for 19 years and urged the city to support middle school football programs at Tuesday’s meeting, particularly for the sake of students of color. 

Council member Monica Robinson called for a holistic approach to equity and emphasized the importance of parent engagement. While she sees the importance of sports, she doesn’t want the conversation of supporting Black and Brown children to solely revolve around athletics. 

“I want to see us everywhere doing good, up there at the top with everyone else, excelling,” Robinson said. “I’m tired of talking about discipline gaps and academic outcomes. And after all these years, we still can’t figure out what the problem is. And, as council member [Chris] Jones just mentioned, if we look out in the audience, we know what the problem is. We adults, Black and Brown adults, aren’t here, so this party needs to change.” 

“The party” refers to Jones’s remark that “if you keep having the same party and nobody shows up, you don’t keep having that party,” calling for active outreach to diverse areas of the community to address outcome gaps. 

The city approved a supplemental appropriation of about $2.5 million to HCPS to support the school operating fund, school nutrition fund and Rocktown High School construction fund for the construction of the cafeteria at the new high school. This came after the school board approved requesting the supplemental appropriation at its May 16 meeting. The supplemental appropriation involves moving money around the current budget as the fiscal year closes out and doesn’t impact the upcoming budget. 

What’s ahead:

  • Expect road work in the area of South Main Street and West Water Street to build a private water line that connects to 49 West Water Street Investments, LLC. The property owner plans to run an escape room business and requires a new sprinkler system to meet building and fire code regulations. A condition of the construction requires work to be completed between 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and before  Aug. 11 and JMU students’ return to the city. The city parking lot in the area next to Jimmy Madison’s will be accessible at all other times.
  • An update on a planned art installation at the north entrance of downtown Harrisonburg was postponed indefinitely to be considered at a later date. City Attorney Chris Brown said delaying the presentation and approval of a contract with an artist for the installation would allow other interested parties who were absent Tuesday night to be part of the presentation.
  • The Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance will begin its live concert series on July 12. HDR received a $90,000 grant from the Levitt Foundation in November 2022 to host outdoor concerts at Turner Pavilion. The July 12 concert will be the first of a ten-concert series in 2023, which will return the following two years.

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