In the best of all possible worlds, this year’s city council election would have been a functional replay of 2004. A decade ago, popular Council Member Bernard Griffin chose not to seek reelection, leaving fellow incumbents Thomas Benn and Cameron Pitts with no African-American teammate to help them win that important constituency. Portsmouth began the new fiscal year with three fresh faces on council. This year, the retirement of Council Member Marlene Randall, the league leader in 2006 and the second-place finisher for council in 2010, could have been the catalyst for a wholesale housecleaning. The current field of challengers, however, is nowhere nearly strong or wide as it was ten years ago. Our best hope for improvement on city council, then, is replacing one of the two remaining incumbents seeking reelection.
To me, Council Member William E. Moody, Jr., is the clear choice for involuntary retirement. His sixteen years in elective office have been marked by a succession of poor decisions, which have cost the taxpayers millions of dollars; a habitual use of his position to advance his own interests rather than those of the public; and constant undermining of those striving to move the city forward. He is quick to voice support for anything that excites public passion (e. g., “no new taxes”, “no tolls”, the “schools matter”, mosquito control, drainage problems, and, most recently, the auditor controversy), but in most instances, his actions and inactions directly contributed to the problems. Unfortunately, many voters only hear the words, never examining the deeds. What a shame it would be to let someone with such a pitiful record of accomplishment and accountability hold onto a seat on city council for yet another four years.
In this issue paper, I am going to focus on how CM Moody has contributed to the high burden of taxes in Portsmouth. Ironically, CM Moody has represented himself as a small government/low tax advocate in municipal government. Although he has successfully avoided voting for real estate tax increases most of his career, he has maneuvered his colleagues into “taking the fall” for doing so, even though he helped to make those increases inevitable. A case in point was the six-cent per hundred rate increase of 2001 necessitated by debt service on the $39 million Renaissance Hotel and Conference Center and $13 million nTelos Pavilion deals. Funded by revenue bonds issued through the Industrial Development Authority, the predecessor of the Economic Development Authority, those projects were supposed to pay the principle and interest from revenues that the projects produced. To attract investors, however, council, including CM Moody, had guaranteed payment of those debts with the full faith and credit of the City of Portsmouth. To date neither the hotel nor the pavilion has generated sufficient net income to cover their debt service, meaning that the taxpayers of Portsmouth have been picking up the tab for the last thirteen years. So, Mr. Moody ate the expensive dinner but ducked out when the bills came, leaving his colleagues to sign the credit card slips for everyone else. Also relevant to this particular discussion is that fact that at the same time he “dodged the bullet” on real estate taxes in 2001, he voted for the “below the radar” tax and fee increases for cigarette and guest lodging taxes and water, sewer, and refuse disposal fees.
What the public needs to understand is that this has been a consistent pattern over the years CM Moody has been in office. Just this year, despite the pending election, he voted for a seven-dollar increase in the city vehicle registration fee. The purpose for the fee hike, which applies not only to trucks and automobiles but anything that bears a Virginia license plate, including church buses and trailers, was to give city employees an additional one per cent pay increase over the two per cent the city manager had budgeted. Certainly, it helps someone seeking reelection potentially to capture additional votes. The beauty of this increase, though, is the citizenry won’t feel it until next June when the bills for personal property taxes and city registration fees come due. That puts the “blowback” date well past this election. (A more detailed treatment of this matter is available at Pick-Pocket Sighting at City Hall.)
Mr. Moody has helped to drain the public purse in other ways. During the planning stages, he voted in favor of expanding the nTelos Pavilion from a $5-million to an $8- and, ultimately, $13-million project, increasing the cost of a highly risky undertaking. In fact, unguarded statements made by Mayor Holley some years later demonstrate that most of the council doubted it would succeed. If paying its own way, which was the stated goal at the time of project proposal, is the metric, then it has indeed lived up to their fears. It didn’t end with debt repayment, though. Repair of the canopy after Hurricane Isabel shredded it in 2003 embroiled the city in a battle with the builder, which Portsmouth eventually won, and a legal battle with the management company, which ended up in a mediated settlement that cost additional millions. If that wasn’t bad enough, though, we terminated our contract prematurely with Harbor Center Joint Ventures, incurring a million or so more in penalties and legal expenses. Had we let the contract run for two more years, we would have saved that overhead. The change of pavilion management brought us no offsetting revenue for having made the switch early. Yet again, Mr. Moody was on the wrong side of the ledger.
Since its opening across from the Children’s Museum in 2005, the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame and Museum has received an annual operating subsidy of half a million dollars, through good times and bad, from the city treasury. Portsmouth has provided $2 million in construction assistance spread over a six-year period. CM Moody was one of the affirmative votes for the memorandum of understanding on which those subsidies are based. Concerns over public criticism of this arrangement led to council appointing one of their own as a liaison to the VSHFM a few years ago. One of the purposes of this oversight was to move the VSHFM toward greater self-sufficiency. Mr. Moody’s terse annual reports, however, have shown no measurable progress toward that goal. He could as well play a recording – he has demonstrated a fair degree of proficiency with recording devices – of his annual liaison report to council: The board continues to seek opportunities for increasing revenue from admissions and building use by outside groups. Meanwhile, the city continues to pump $500,000 each year into a private institution.
This list goes on, likely well beyond most people’s attention span. Highlights include his silence during the public comment period on the Downtown-Midtown-MLK project; his role in the Garden of Prayer (Chase v. Portsmouth) suit (over $2 million in legal fees and judgments); the $2 million roundabout in front of nTelos; the courthouse suit and subsequent “sweetheart” construction deal with Robert Williams; picking the taxpayers’ pockets to enrich a relative handful of city retirees; letting the city employment rolls increase at time of stagnant revenue; and the unguided/unsupervised city auditor. I am willing discuss any, all, and additional matters with interested fellow citizens of Portsmouth. Contact me through this web site or by text/telephone at 757 967-7298.
Mark Geduldig-Yatrofsky, Publisher