Bobby L. Ralph
Incumbent, Suffolk Borough
What are the top issues facing Suffolk today and your thoughts for addressing those issues?
A. There are many important initiatives that we are currently working on as a city. It is difficult for me to cite just three as being primary. As mayor and a member of city council, I have been committed to focusing on the city’s strategic priorities including education, economic development, downtown and neighborhood development, quality of life and managed growth. Each of these issues has been a priority for me in my years on council and will continue to be of importance. However, I would note that three currently pressing issues are focused on providing affordable housing opportunities, addressing transportation issues, both locally and regionally, and our continued ability to manage the city’s growth.
Last year as mayor, I established the Affordable Housing Task Force. To date, that group has come back with a full report, including recommendations for programs to begin addressing housing needs. I don’t think the city can address affordable housing alone. We must work with the private sector to develop effective programs. In the Capital Improvements Budget, we provided $350,000 in funding to acquire blighted properties in our neighborhoods and ultimately work with the Suffolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority to develop infill housing that would be affordable for the community. In the upcoming operating budget, I will support funding for additional programs to support affordable housing initiatives.
Transportation remains a key issue for the city, both locally and as part of the Hampton Roads region. Regionally, as the city’s representative on the Hampton Roads Planning District, I have supported the region’s transportation plan that includes the widening on the Route 460 corridor. I believe the improvement of the Route 460 corridor is critical to the city’s future economic prosperity as well as the region. I will continue working regionally and with our state representatives to advocate on behalf of improving our transportation network and ensuring that Route 460 is programmed for future funding.
Managing the city’s growth is a key issue. The city is one of the fastest growing localities in the state. A critical component for managing our growth will be our ability to provide basic services to our citizens to keep pace with our growth. The city recently updated its Comprehensive Plan through 2026. I have always maintained that managed growth doesn’t mean “no growth,” but rather that we must strike a balance between growth and our ability to sustain that growth. That means actively encouraging commercial, office and manufacturing development to offset and balance the very heavy residential development that we are now experiencing in Suffolk.
What are the top issues for the people in the borough you seek
A.The top issue that I believe to be directly impacting the Suffolk borough is the continued revitalization of the downtown business district and surrounding neighborhoods. The city has developed and has been working to implement the recommendations as presented in the Downtown Initiatives Plan. The ongoing revitalization of our historic downtown is critical to the continued growth and health of our entire city. The infusion of public investment has served as the catalyst for the remarkable transformation that you see on Main, East and West Washington, and Pinner streets, Brewer Avenue and many other areas. Attractive public incentives to restore historic storefronts and rehab and reoccupy empty buildings have renewed interested and leveraged investment by the private sector, resulting in a new life and energy visible in downtown. The Suffolk Hilton Garden Inn and Conference Center is just completing a full year of operations and they have met or exceeded all their business projections. Our downtown thrives with the opening of new restaurants, business offices, improved infrastructure, street landscaping and redevelopment activities that will shape the new Fairgrounds neighborhood. With the opening of the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts and the revitalization of the surrounding neighborhood, our downtown will become an even more attractive destination. The commitment to invest resources that enhance business and residential development for the future will continue to resonate in our downtown planning and implementation efforts. These efforts have resulted in a dramatically increased tax base that is now contributing to the overall financial health of the entire city.
Q.Transportation is playing out as a big issue in both state and local
political arenas this year.
What, in your opinion, are the most
critical transportation needs facing the city today?
As I noted in the first question, I do believe the transportation issue has the potential to be a major factor in the city’s future growth and prosperity. Locally, we have a number of roadway projects that are critical to our economic development efforts as well as our neighborhood redevelopment efforts. To list just a few, I would include the widening of Route 460, the Finney Avenue flyover, improvements to East and West Washington Street, widening Nansemond Parkway to four lanes from Northgate Industrial Park to the Chesapeake line, construction a new Kings Highway Bridge and widening Shoulders Hill Road. Just as important as identifying the projects is the identification of funding to construct these projects. Currently, the Virginia Department of Transportation does not have funding to undertake any of these projects now or even in the foreseeable future nor does the city have the financial capability to undertake new road construction.
From a regional viewpoint, we must work to ensure that our economic development efforts are not sidetracked by the region’s
transportation gridlock. We must not allow the regional transportation issue to get to the point that it detracts from Suffolk’s ability to attract new business or becomes a detriment to those that want to expand in their businesses in our city. I think we are at a key point that we must work with other elected officials in the region as well as our state representatives to develop a funding formula for meeting our future short- and long-term transportation needs.
Q.The Kings Highway Bridge continues to be a sore spot between
the city, the Virginia Department of Transportation and citizens
in the Chuckatuck and Driver communities. What does the city
need to do address the issue?
I support the construction of a new Kings Highway Bridge as quickly as possible. In the interim, the closing of the Kings Highway Bridge by VDOT presents a unique challenge for city council. The city does not currently have responsibility for the bridge. VDOT owns the bridge and any action that the city might consider has to be done with the consent/cooperation of VDOT. In the short term, there has been some discussion about a public/private partnership to get the bridge reopened for traffic until a new bridge can be built. Currently, there is a Request for Proposals that is being circulated to determine private interest in the project. There are still a number of unanswered questions on such a proposal; however, I think it is incumbent on council to answer those questions and then make a determination on the best course of action based on an objective evaluation of the costs and benefits. I also think the city should be working at the state and federal level to identify a strategy and potential funding sources to get the new bridge built as soon as possible.
Q.Suffolk is one of the fastest growing cities in Virginia.
What needs to be done to make sure the city is able toaccommodate the growing demands being placed on our schools, roads, and city services?
A.The city of Suffolk is one of the fastest growing cities in the state and the fastest growing city in Hampton Roads; therefore, we must continue to recognize that comprehensive planning is critical to our future success. A critical component for managing our growth will be our ability to provide basic services to keep pace with that growth. We must be able to educate, house, provide employment and offer recreational opportunities for existing as well as future residents. For the last four years, I have supported funding for new school construction as well as substantial increases for educational operating expenses. I have been a strong proponent of enhancing public safety by providing the necessary resources. Providing an adequate transportation system has local and regional ramifications. I strongly support the Hampton Roads Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Plan for keeping our region viable. The economic future of the region has a tremendous impact on our local economy. We must continue to work to increase our jobs-to-housing ratio; that is, striving to create one new job for every house built in Suffolk.
We have a seen and felt the consequences that unbridled growth can have on other communities, both in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. I will continue to support the Comprehensive Plan and the Unified Development Ordinance. With thoughtful planning for the future, we should be able to avoid or overcome some of the growth issues that other communities have faced.
Q.The city has experienced a surge in youth and gang-related violence in recent months.
What needs to happen in order
to turn the tide on juvenile violence in Suffolk?
I think the terrible tragedy in the loss of young lives from our communities has focused the spotlight and our attention on this issue and rightly so. To date, the council has established a task force to bring together representatives from city staff, including the city manager’s office, the police department, Suffolk Public Schools, social services, the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office, our faith-based communities, other service providers and most importantly, representatives from our communities. This group has been charged with providing a full report to council and the community on the risk factors, issues, available services as well as where there are gaps in services for the city to work in partnership with the community to address the problem on a comprehensive level.
Q.Real estate assessments in Suffolk continue to soar each year,
which, in effect, is a property tax increase unless City Council
offsets it be reducing the mill rate.
Do you think property
owners are paying too much in taxes to the city?
If so, how much of a reduction in the mill rate would you support and what do you think should be cut from the budget to accommodate the reduction?
Let me begin by saying, I do support a substantial reduction in the real estate tax rate. As council begins its discussions on lowering the tax rate, it is important that the council balance its desire to lower the tax rate with its responsibility to ensure that the city has the necessary financial resources to provide services to a growing community. To meet the expectations of our citizens, we must make sure that we are in a position to devote sufficient resources to these services now and into the future. There are a number of proposals being bandied about concerning tax deferrals or capping the percentage increase in the real estate tax rate. The city of Suffolk is limited by the General Assembly in its actions; however, I do think it important that Suffolk be in a position to evaluate each of the proposals that are brought forward so that we can make informed decisions that take into consideration the financial impact on our citizens as well as the city’s ability to continue to provide acceptable levels of service.
Why should voters elect you on May 2?
Through the foreseeable future, there will be a number of issues and challenges facing the city, including promoting economic development, enhancing our schools system, revitalizing our downtown and neighborhood communities.
I have a proven track record of working in partnership with the council, citizens and business leaders to prepare Suffolk for the future. My experience and demonstrated record of leadership as mayor of this great city, combined with my in-depth knowledge of the issues, makes me the best qualified to serve the citizens of Suffolk.