Thursday, May 25, 2006

Jimi, Janis and Jim in Rio


God bless Don Parr. The Hopewell realtor finally gave me some answers I'd been seeking for most of a month.

My quest started the day after the May 2 city elections. That's when one of three recipients of Southside Virginia Association of Realtors campaign contributions spoke with me about how Hopewell's pilot Rental Inspection Program might be improved.

Christina Bailey of Ward 1 told me Mr. Parr had been instrumental in helping her procure the SVAR Political Action Committee money, which was fine. But she also shared with me some odd notions of what city council could do relative to residential building code enforcement. For one thing, she seemed to believe that replacement of windows which would not open - or stay open without being propped up - was an infrastructure improvement not every landlord could "afford" to make. She also suggested the city might want to offer tax abatements to landlords with sub-code rental units as a "carrot" to supplement the "stick" of fines.

Don Parr supports neither of those proposals, saying, "I for one would not be comfortable with getting a tax break from the city just for keeping my buildings up to code."

He also, citing safety issues, doubted the wisdom of allowing inoperable window sashes to remain inoperable. "I keep my buildings in excellent shape," he said. "I'm a businessman, and properties are what I buy, sell and lease. Why would I want to let them to deteriorate? That wouldn't make much sense."

Parr said he had personally encouraged the victorious candidates in Wards 1, 3 and 7 to run for office. He was perfectly happy to tell me why he alerted them to the possibility that the SVAR might be willing to support them.

"I thought they were the best candidates for the offices," he explained. He went on to say he thinks Christina Bailey, Kenneth Emerson and Greg Cuffey will do the right thing for all the residents of Hopewell; homeowners, home buyers, home sellers, renters, landlords and, yes, real estate professionals too.

The "real truth?"

Four days after The Hopewell News published a May 4 story about Bailey's suggestions for tweaking the Rental Inspection Program, a pal of mine, acting as an intermediary, delivered a spreadsheet listing all the "Professional Service Expenditures" paid out over the past two years by Hopewell. He told me the spreadsheet had been provided to him by unnamed persons wanted me to grasp the "real truth" about the Wonder City.

I faxed the spreadsheets over to the Virginia Institute of Government and the Virginia Municipal League, asking if they could check them for any obvious waste, fraud or abuse. The response from Associate Director Tedd E. Povar of UVa.'s Virginia Institute of Government, was that it is impossible to tell at a glance whether Hopewell's consultant fees are appropriate for a city our size engaged in projects of the sort Hopewell is.

Povar did also write that the city is audited annually by an outside agency, so the potential for misapplication of tax monies is quite small.

What I find intriguing is that the unnamed persons' response to the May 4 story about Ms. Bailey was not one of concern over her extreme lack of familiarity with the duties and prerogatives of her new job. Instead I was gifted with alleged evidence that the city spends too much money on consultants.

That said, I'm continuing to investigate the possibility that Hopewell is consultant-happy.

Tax abatements?

A bit of research on the subject of tax abatements yielded some interesting conjecture. While I have thus far detected no state law or local ordinance which forbids tax breaks as rewards for fire and/or building code compliance, the experts I've communicated with seem highly skeptical that such would be a legitimate use of tax authority.

Tedd Povar wrote me, "Real estate tax abatements are pretty rare and specific, usually reserved for historic districts or downtown revitalization, enterprise zones, etc. To my knowledge, individual structures not in one of those types of districts or designations are not eligible for that type of tax abatement."

A shadow government?

For over a decade now, I have been treated to persistent rumors about the existence of a "Hopewell shadow government," a small group of moneyed individuals who pull strings and work their will from behind the scenes.

I tend to scoff at such obvious paranoia, just as I scoff at fairy tales about Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin cohabitating peacefully and in seclusion somewhere on the continent of South America.

Still, when an intermediary is sent by unnamed parties to deliver alleged dirt on city government, one is inclined to wonder if perhaps a diversionary tactic has been deployed.

One also wonders if perhaps Jimi, Janis and Jim are, even as we speak, sipping Pina Coladas on the beaches of Rio.

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