By Mike Hixenbaugh
© May 17, 2012
After a year without raises, the city’s firefighters union has come out against light rail, delivering a potential blow to the city’s efforts to win public support for the system.
The city’s police officers will meet tonight to consider taking a similar stance. Public teachers might do the same if the city can’t guarantee the project won’t cut into future education funding.
Supporters of light rail, meanwhile, have sought to downplay this opposition six months ahead of a referendum question that, while non-binding, could help decide the fate of the city’s top economic development priority.
Voters will be asked this fall whether they support extending The Tide light-rail system from Norfolk into the city.
Opposition among public employees has the potential to derail that effort, political observers said.
Mayor Will Sessoms said he was surprised and disappointed when he learned members of Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters had voted last week to oppose The Tide in the Nov. 6 referendum. Firefighters voted a day after the City Council approved a $2 billion budget package that raised the real estate tax rate but did not include raises for city employees.
Sessoms and other light-rail advocates said they wouldn’t support expanding the system if it came at the expense of public safety or education.
“I honestly don’t understand where they’re coming from,” Sessoms said.
A consultant estimated last year it would cost $807 million to extend light rail to the Oceanfront, or $254 million to take it a shorter distance to Town Center, though the project would be contingent on federal and state funding.
Norfolk contributed about $56 million out of the $318 million needed to build its 7.4-mile starter line, which opened in August and has exceeded ridership expectations. It’s estimated the city will spend between $6 million and $7 million a year to operate the line.
“Even in the depths of the recession, what have we not cut? Public safety.” Sessoms said. “We’ve worked to ensure we have a safe city and well-educated city. We even raised taxes to make sure that was the case.”
There’s no guarantee light rail wouldn’t chip away at public safety funding, said William Bailey, president of the firefighters group. The city’s Fire Department is already understaffed, he said.
“The budget has been bleak,” Bailey said. “It’s our position that the city shouldn’t be spending money on light rail if it can’t afford to hire additional firefighters or take care of the obligations it already has.”
Chip Condon, president of the Virginia Beach Police Supervisors Association, said his group and another representing the city’s 806 officers will meet tonight and consider a similar position.“I think we’ll probably go down the same path as the firefighters,” Condon said.
The Virginia Beach Education Association might do the same later this year if the city fails to reinstate a funding agreement to divide tax revenues between the city and schools, said Dominic Melito, association president.
All of that could spell trouble for light rail, said Brian Kirwin, a political consultant in Virginia Beach who has polled residents on their support for the line. The referendum question will be more difficult to pass if it is framed as a choice between trains and firefighters or teachers.
Beach voters rejected light rail in a 1999 referendum. Opponents spent tens of thousands of dollars ahead of that vote to convince residents the system would cost too much and do little to reduce traffic congestion.
“Every endorsement matters, but it’s what you do with it that’s most important.” Kirwin said. “What are they going to do to make their position known? Will there be an ad campaign? Will there be rallies?”
The firefighters group plans to hire a film crew to create short advertisements explaining its opposition, said Bailey, who unsuccessfully lobbied the City Council to accelerate state-mandated changes to local retirement contributions in the recent budget.
Councilman Jim Wood said he doesn’t understand the firefighter group’s opposition. He pointed out that fewer than 10 percent of the city’s 435 firefighters were at the union meeting when they voted to oppose light rail. Police officers he has spoken with are divided on the issue, Wood said.
“I would hope everyone would take the opportunity to learn about the merits of approving mass transit before making a decision,” Wood said, noting that federal and state funds would cover most of the construction cost. “That is not any money that would be going to public safety; it’s money that would otherwise be going to other transportation projects in other parts of the country.”
Retired Fire Department division chief Jimmy Kellam is a board member with Light Rail Now, an advocacy group created a couple of years ago by Virginia Beach business leaders. He’s been lobbying Bailey and other firefighters to rethink their opposition.
“The referendum is not obligating the city to spend any money at all,” Kellam said. “All it’s saying is that citizens would like to see it pursued, and then getting the funding would be another issue.”
Kellam said he believes light rail would spur economic development, broaden the tax base, and ultimately boost public safety and school budgets.