Ryan LaFountain on modernizing the Commissioner of Revenue, his 'pathological' need to serve, and his love of poutine

This week, we sit down with Ryan LaFountain, who is running as a Democrat to become the city's next Commissioner of the Revenue.

In advance of the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 2, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with local candidates, including for uncontested races, to give voters insights into who their elected officials will be. These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement to the widest possible audience.

This week, we sit down with Ryan LaFountain, who is running as a Democrat to become the city's next Commissioner of the Revenue. The race became uncontested after longtime incumbent Sherman Holland did not submit proper paperwork to the Democratic committee and declined to run as an independent.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

For those unfamiliar, can you describe what it is that the Commissioner of the Revenue does?

At its most basic, the Office of the Commissioner of the Revenue handles tax assessments. And then the treasurer collects on those. We do the billing, too, in conjunction with the treasurer's office. The other things that we do include handling business licenses, issuing business licenses upon payment of what the license fee or tax will be based on their revenues. And we handle state income tax filing for those wanting to file through directly to the state through us, and some real estate property tax abatement for low-income and disabled, elderly individuals. So in a nutshell, those are some of the arms of the office.

Why do you seek to be the next commissioner?

Last summer I wanted to start a business. And when I began my business license, I noticed that the process seems to be very outdated, and that kind of piqued my interest. I thought, I think there are ways that we could be doing this better. I wasn't sure if I was the right person to do it. I kind of jumped back into school, working on my MBA, and I had this class on change management that kind of lit the fire underneath me. And I considered it. And then I was asked, you know, if I was interested. My response was, Well funny you should ask me. I have thoughts. But I've always believed in a life of service and dedication to serving people. That's why I've been working with credit unions for 15 years now. And I feel like I've gotten so much from the city of Roanoke since I've lived here, that I feel like, Okay, it's time to pay some of that goodwill back in its most fundamental sense.

What was the business you were interested in starting last year?

So I had this idea for a poutine stand. With a lot of family in Quebec and coming from Northeast New York, I ate a lot of poutine, which is like junk food. French fries, gravy, cheese curds, just absolutely speaks to my heart. And a couple of years ago, Wasena City Tap Room had it. I said, Okay, cool, this is making in-roads here and then it feels like in the intervening time that had kind of gone away. So I had this idea for like a small hot dog stand. I was working on the business plan itself, and was trying to get the ball rolling on that, so the idea was just kind of like a small restaurant on a piece of land that I had just purchased. There were other reasons why that didn't happen, it wasn't like this interaction with the Commissioner of the Revenue's office just completely messed everything up. With kind of how everything shook out last year in terms of needing to develop capital to make the whole restaurant happen, I couldn't do it. But, again, interacting with the commissioner's office kind of gave me insight.

Can you describe a little more in-depth some of the issues that you've perceived with the office, or problems that you encountered personally?

Well, from a personal level, it was just that it was technology kind of being out of date, and feeling like at the very least, there should be someone in that office who knows how to create a fillable PDF form that someone can just print up instead of complete on the website and print off or submit online. So let's say, instead of taking this document that was very clearly printed, and then scanned back into create a PDF, then having to print that up to then complete by hand and then either hand it in or or email that process, just kind of thinking of it from a business process standpoint, seemed incredibly slow and wasteful. And then, you know, I know that the treasurer's office and the commissioner's office are working to upgrade their technologies as we speak, and that might be changing. Just from what I saw on the commissioner's side there were things that could stand for improvement, including, you know, you have to create a whole list of your assets and submit it. To me, it seems like there should be an easier way for businesses to be able to just submit all that stuff. For a lot of people, filing taxes is a hateful thing, right? So the idea is, why make it more complicated. If you can increase your tax revenues by just, you know, removing the stumbling blocks from before the blind, you should do that.

This is your first run for elected office?

It is, which has been surprising. It was very strange ending up being uncontested against an incumbent, an entrenched incumbent, with however all that came about earlier this year, and there has been a level of surrealness to it, because I have always felt compelled to service. So this opportunity to come up was almost like a dream just starting to unfold. And, as everything came into place, and I didn't have opposition, and, you know, I'm very busy being in school and working full-time. To actually campaign full-time on top of that, too, would have posed a hurdle. That would have been a bit of a challenge. But it didn't shake out that way, and I'm incredibly lucky.

I think in 2016 you sought to be appointed to the Roanoke City school board. Why did you seek that?

So my experience with education had been one of largely being the student, and kind of learning how the education system worked and at that time, I was relatively new to Roanoke. I felt like being involved and wanted to get involved. I wasn't entirely sure how. I honestly didn't have a stake in this school board position because at the time didn't have family, didn’t have kids in city schools, but I felt like I had perspective to offer in having worked with students and teaching them financial literacy, and sometimes just fundamental basic math skills through stuff I did with a former employer and volunteer work that I'd done. Again, it was just a way I felt like I could serve. Knowing how the politics of that work now, I don't think I would have done that, because I've learned a lot in the intervening five years. But, it was me five years ago. Talk to me five years ago I would probably still do it, because, again, I just feel this really strong compulsion to serve. I have, it's almost pathological, that I feel like I have to give and give and give to feel validated in some way.

You've been in Roanoke 7 years. What brought you to the area?

I lived in Blacksburg for three years before. One of my former partners was working on her PhD at Tech, we'd moved to Blacksburg from Athens, Georgia in 2011. The relationship did not survive the PhD program, unfortunately. I was working for another credit union in town, as their community financial educator. It was an incredible position that really opened my eyes to a lot of stuff that was happening in Roanoke so when we separated, and I decided, Okay, I have to get out of Blacksburg. I had a bunch of opportunities to go back to Ohio, where I went to college. My dad wanted me to move to Florida with him. I was not terribly interested in going to Tampa. I got to know Roanoke a little bit at that point. And I thought it was a really interesting place with a lot of good people who are trying to row in the same direction. Not always successfully. And that's fine, because that's, you know, everyone's got their own interests and try to do their own thing. But I came to Roanoke. It didn't take me long to just fall in love with it. I lived in oOld Southwest. I had this attic apartment that was kind of the perfect landing spot for where I was in life, and it's been incredible since.

That’s great. Remind me, where did you grow up?

I grew up in upstate New York originally. Although I should put an asterisk next to that. My dad moved us around a bit when I was younger, so I spent some time in Dayton, Ohio, and suburban Cleveland, Ohio, in between the ages of three and 10, and then back in upstate New York, from 10 to I graduated high school. Rouses Point, the village where I grew up, is like the size of Shawsville. So not that big, 2,500 people, maybe less at this point. Very, very small town, and the culture up there is eerily similar to the culture down here. There are some differences. I mean, you got a more French Catholic vibe up there, then the Southern Baptists, but there's a sense of community up in upstate New York, that I always felt growing up that I didn't feel when I lived in Georgia. But when we moved to the Appalachians, the Blue Ridge area here 10 years ago, just kind of got wrapped in that sense of, All right, well, we've got these communities here that are trying to try to hold together in the face of pretty intense adversity. My hometown, Rouses Point, had one large employer Wyeth [Pharmaceutical] ERS, which ended up getting merged into Pfizer. I think around the time I graduated from high school, Pfizer shut the plant down. I think it's been seven or eight years at this point. That was the major employer for my village. So I feel a sort of affinity with places kind of further afield from Roanoke, who had, you know, individual major employers that have gone and needing to start from scratch and rebuild. Anyways, I'm from upstate New York. [laughs]

What did your parents do for work, while you were growing up?

My dad was an electrical engineer. He eventually got out of that and into sales. So he did a lot of traveling, which is part of the reason why he ended up in Florida 10 years ago. And my mom. Mom was a waitress, mom did secretarial work. She's been doing accounting work for a Peterbilt truck dealership back home in the village Champlain, which is a couple miles away from Rouses Point, or she's been there since '95, so 26 years now. Did some odd jobs. My parents split up when I was 13, my sister was nine. So we had to learn how to navigate only living with my mom very quickly. My sister and I became a very tight team, and we learned the importance of having each other's backs all the time. One of the unexpected benefits of my parents getting divorced was developing a much stronger relationship with my sister.

You'd mentioned sort of the impact of a major employer leaving town and one could obviously draw parallels with Roanoke and Norfolk Southern and other companies. Do you foresee a particular role that the Commissioner of the Revenue plays in either dealing with the fallout or preventing that sort of change?

See, that's a question I've been pondering, like, you can look at the Commissioner of the Revenues’s role as something that's strictly administrative, but really, the job is an interface between businesses and people within Roanoke, and the city administration. You know, I think it's always necessary to have a good cheerleader and no matter what your position is, you know, if that is the Commissioner of the Revenue, if that’s the treasurer, if those are members of city council. I think everyone within city government has a role to play in ensuring the overall success of the city, making sure that we have the jobs and resources available for the people who both live in and want to live in Roanoke. How that looks like, I'm not entirely sure. I think there are ways that the Commissioner of the Revenue can, and their office can get involved with things like the Advancement Foundation for small businesses that want to start up and they don't maybe necessarily understand what the process looks like, and kind of helping grease the skids for that to make the process easier. Or for attracting bigger businesses, I mean that's almost more stuff that is gonna be more policy side, and then you have to implement policy and then administer those policies, policy being set by city council, or the state.

So you work for Blue Eagle Credit Union. What got you interested in credit unions?

The necessity. I graduated with a BA in Political Science from Baldwin Wallace College, now Baldwin Wallace University, in 2007. I had just moved to Athens, Georgia to be with my partner. I was working at Applebee's as a server. It did not suit me. I was not a fan of waiting tables there. And she was a member of Navy Federal Credit [Union]. And one day I went in with her, and they had a Help Wanted sign, they wanted a teller. And I applied, I learned about credit unions that way, and worked for Navy Federal for four years until we moved up to Blacksburg; no local Navy Federals, otherwise I probably would have never left. Excellent place to work, excellent support systems excellent managers that I had there. People who really helped shape and guide me. And it turned out, because this wasn't stuff that we talked about when I was a kid, it turned out back in the '80s my dad was on the board of directors for a ,credit union, back home, and my grandfather, my mom's dad was on the board of directors for a credit union in Hemmingford Quebec, where my mom grew up. I had no idea about this growing up. So, my sister, about six years after I started working for credit unions, also started working in marketing for a credit union back in New York. And I was talking with my mom or my dad — I don't remember which one it was. And whoever it was, mom or dad, says, It's really interesting that both you and Lisa were working for credit unions because your dad was on the board of directors and [your grandfather] was on the board of directors. I was like, What? I've been doing this for six years and you're telling me now? It almost seemed like it was part of my blood, at that point. It was like, this is super weird and random. I always liked working for credit unions, knowing that the philosophy there is people helping people. And it's not for profit, but for service and giving a hand, and giving a hand up, you know, to pull someone up. Those bedrock philosophies, they've always appealed to me. I did a lot of volunteer work in high school and college. Again, it’s that feeling of purpose serving that that I have. And that seem to dovetail well with what I believed, and what I felt, the whole credit union movement. I loved it.

Will you miss it once you're in the commissioner's office?

Yeah. This is a significant shift in terms of, you know, what's done and how it's done. But ultimately I think it's still fundamentally the same. I'm working to serve the people of Roanoke, not necessarily the members of X credit union or Y credit union, whatever. The scope is larger, but I think the intent is still the same. I'll miss it, but I'm also I'm excited for the next thing.

You had mentioned the new technology system that the treasurer's office is putting in, I guess in conjunction with the commissioner's office. How do you foresee sort of carrying on that work, and are there any other sort of specific changes or policies that you would hope to enact once in office?

So I think everything is going to be contingent on what the system looks like because I only know that it exists, like I'm not privy to any of the details of how it works, or anything like that. It would make my planning a lot easier if I knew but of course I can't legally know that stuff. If the system allows the ability and if the law allows for the ability to do a lot of the stuff that we're doing, effectively, duplicate, triplicate of just by form submission online, that would make my life, I think, and the employees' lives, a lot easier and make it easier for business owners. That is like a key forward-facing goal for me, is to make just interaction with the office easier. Of course, if you need to speak with someone, you’ll be able to speak with someone. But if it's just something simple like a form submission, I don't see why the processes that are in place can't be replaced with something that's intuitive and efficient.

Do you oversee anyone currently in your role at the credit union?

No. I do have managerial experience. I oversaw an office of four of us for almost five years at Blue Eagle. The beginning of last year kind of shook me up a bit, and I needed to reevaluate where I was going with Blue Eagle, so I took a step back. I loved being able to manage my staff, kind of help guide them and train them as to the credit union way.

And how many people will you be overseeing?

Last check, 21.

Is the bigger staff a daunting prospect at all?

No, in a weird way. I'm looking forward to getting to know everyone in the office, you know, and understanding where they are, and then kind of evaluating what needs to happen after that. I think I'm always willing to give people a fair shake. And then, if you know, if it's not working out then making changes as necessary. But the prospect of having a larger staff, not really. I thought it would, but I've considered it a lot and I've spoken with other people my program who have people underneath them, my MBA program [through Virginia Tech]. And it doesn't feel as daunting as I thought it would. I don't know if that's arrogance or just, like, clear- headedness.

Outside of work, what do you do for fun?

Right now I've got a team doing a Go Quest, which is this kind of like a side thing for GO Fest. It's a massive scavenger hunt. We each assigned ourselves one of the seven peaks to hike up to a certain point, we have to record ourselves, kind of random stuff like that I get myself into just because it's nice to have an outlet. I like being outside quite a bit, hikes, and usually go with my dog.

Is there anything else you think is important for voters to know, either about you or about the office or about the election?

I feel like I'm gonna bring a lot to the city, in terms of kind of a fresh set of eyes to look at city administration and a different energy. The incumbent is completing his 24th year in office. I don't know how that's gonna shake out for me personally. I don't see myself staying in there for that long. It seems like a nice ride, but I see my role as taking care of things that need to get done, modernizing the office and getting things forward-facing, being active and present in making the office productive for the good of the city and its citizens. And once I feel like that task is done, I see no reason to stay longer, you know. I can put it into the care of someone else who has that same, ideally, vision.