Tackling Gun Violence, School Funding Among Roanoke City's Wish List To State Lawmakers

Council's legislative priorities last year prompted some resident pushback after the city urged lawmakers to revisit criminal justice reforms.

Roanoke City Council's annual wish list is Roanoke’s way of influencing laws at the state level, which restricts how much power cities and counties can wield. ROANOKE RAMBLER FILE PHOTO

Keeping guns out of the wrong hands and boosting funding for public schools are among Roanoke City Council’s proposed legislative priorities for the upcoming Virginia General Assembly.

The city’s annual wish list is Roanoke’s way of influencing laws at the state level, which restricts how much power cities and counties can wield.

Last year’s legislative priorities prompted some resident pushback after Roanoke encouraged lawmakers to revisit criminal justice reforms put in place after the murder of George Floyd.

Virginia Municipal League, a consortium of local governments, is advocating this year that state lawmakers review those reforms. Roanoke’s draft policy statement for this year notes that while it supports VML’s agenda, each item“may not be officially supported by every member of Council for the City of Roanoke.”

“We got in a little bit of trouble with some of our constituents with that wording,” Councilwoman Trish White-Boyd said at a recent meeting about last year’s priorities, “and I just want to make sure that does not happen.”

This year is also the first time in nearly three decades that predominantly-Democratic Roanoke City will be represented in the state Senate by a Republican. Sen. David Suettelein was elected earlier this month to a newly redistricted seat that includes the city after longtime representative Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, opted not to face reelection.

Lawmakers including Suetterlein and delegates Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, have been invited to hear the city’s proposal at City Council’s morning meeting Monday, according to Councilman Luke Priddy, who chairs the Council’s legislative committee.

That’s also the last chance for residents to weigh in before Council adopts the final version this month.

“These legislative priorities I'd say are more focused on funding than they have in the past,” Priddy said. “It’s just to recognize the number of services that our city is responsible for and the things that we're trying to address, regarding learning loss with education and what's happening regarding gun violence.”

Here’s a recap of some of the city’s draft legislative priorities for 2024:

Gun violence

The city wants state laws that would require people to obtain a permit in order to purchase firearms and ammunition.

Safely storing guns is also a priority. Roanoke is advocating for laws that would require guns be locked up in homes where a minor is present, as well as prohibit firearms from being left in an unlocked and unoccupied vehicle.

City and school district leaders would also like to see BB and pellet guns classified as weapons when they’re on school property.

Councilman Joe Cobb, who chairs the city’s Gun Violence Prevention Commission, said the commission and community members urged those ideas among others to help the city get a grip on what’s become a historic year of gun violence.

“Access to firearms is a huge concern for us in the city,” Cobb said. “This tends to bump up against the Second Amendment. But it’s not about the right, it’s about the responsibility.”

Roanoke would also urge Virginia lawmakers to steer more state funding to the city’s police department and violence interruption programs.

The city wants Roanoke added to the Safer Communities Program, which has earmarked $10 million for Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond because they had high rates of gun-related homicides in 2021, according to the state budget. Money is supposed to address root causes of gun violence and go toward strategies such as after-school programming, case management and efforts to improve trust between law enforcement and communities.

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Mental and public health

The city wants Virginia to fund the operation and expansion of Catawba Hospital into a site for mental health and drug addiction treatment.

Rasoul has championed turning the 650-acre Roanoke County campus into a “state-of-the-art facility at which a continuum of substance abuse treatment and recovery services is provided.”

But when state lawmakers finalized a budget deal in September, they included only $500,000 out of a requested $15 million sought to renovate the facility, according to media reports.

Roanoke would also like greater power in regulating smoking in certain public areas.

The city was successful in the past at limiting smoking at the Elmwood Park amphitheater. More recently, transit advocates have called on the city to create designated smoking areas at Roanoke’s new outdoor bus station.

School funding

Roanoke City Public Schools, which has its own legislative priorities, wants Virginia to foot more of the bill for education.

A long-standing funding cap on certain positions — including teacher assistants and assistant principals — has cost Roanoke’s school district $30 million over the last 14 years, said Alan Seibert, the district’s constituent services and government relations officer.

The state’s lack of support has had “an enduring impact” on the local school district’s finances, he told Council’s legislative committee last week.

Roanoke City Public Schools says when controlled for inflation the state budget provides $161 less per student than it did in 2009.

Funding shortfalls affect teacher pay, too. The General Assembly made some progress last year in closing the gap.

“However, the harsh reality is that Roanoke City teachers starting out in the profession today have $1,381 less buying power than new teachers did 15 years ago,” the city’s proposed policy brief states. “There are many factors related to the teacher shortage, but compensation remains chief among them.”

School leaders also want to stiffen penalties for those making verbal threats against school employees and make it easier to prosecute adults for leaving firearms around children.

Economic development

The city is proposing the state fund infrastructure and programs that Roanoke says will boost the regional economy. These include:

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