By Colin Whitmore
Cheryl Hickman unseated incumbent Buena Vista City Council member Steve Baldridge Tuesday. Incumbent members Stanley Coffey and Lisa Clark won re-election.
Mayor Bill Fitzgerald ran unopposed and was also re-elected.
The council race featured four candidates vying for three spots. Coffey received the most votes, with 850, Clark came in second with 824, and Hickman was third with 731. Baldridge received 614 votes.
“Everyone needs to come together to be more positive in this community,” Hickman said tonight after learning that she had won a seat on council. “I’m hoping to spark positive change that would make any person or business want to be a part of the community.”
Hickman, a nurse and administrator at Havenwood Assisted Living in Rockbridge County, was the only non-incumbent candidate running for office.
All of the candidates said they think generating revenue for cash-strapped Buena Vista is one of their top priorities.
Buena Vista has been struggling for years under the financial burden created by the Vista Links golf course, which was built in 2004.
The city has also experienced a decline in manufacturing jobs, which hasn’t helped its finances. Northwest Hardwoods will close one of its two facilities in the city later this month, leaving 30 people out of work.
The candidates said they are reluctant to raise taxes but realize it might be necessary. City officials say Buena Vista’s personal property tax is already the highest in the state at $5.85 per $100 of assessed value—higher than Richmond and Charlottesville. Lexington’s personal property tax is only $4.25 per $100 of assessed value.
“If we’re not able to generate more revenue, it’s going to come down to either raising taxes or cutting services,” said Clark, who has been on City Council since 2012.
Clark said she hopes the city will not be forced to raise taxes. But she says knows that there are certain services the city must provide. “We are already operating city government on the bare minimum right now, so it’s going to be difficult,” she said.
She said she wants to change the way people in Buena Vista view their government.
“We’re trying to increase awareness, especially of the positive things that are happening,” she said. “Even with our bare-bones budget, a lot of good things are happening here.”
Clark cited the previously vacant industrial park, where Columbia Gas purchased six acres for $122,000 in June. The gas company plans to open a mobile operating development facility in December and employ about 12 people.
Mayor Fitzgerald said he expects some of the Northwest Hardwoods employees who are losing their jobs to go to work for Columbia Gas once the lumber company closes.
As an elementary school principal, Clark says she would consider education her primary area of expertise on council. “Our school system is a very positive thing in this community that we’re all very proud of,” she said.
Coffey was appointed to council to replace Fitzgerald when he was elected mayor in 2017. “I’m a hometown boy, I don’t pull punches,” he said. “I say what I have to say, and I’ll stand up for what I believe.”
Coffey says one his main concerns is preventing tax increases. “The people can’t continue to be taxed and survive in this town,” he said. “We need to make cuts, and there are places where we can make cuts, but someone’s going to have bite the bullet and make that call.”
He says his priorities also include attracting businesses to the industrial park and promoting GoBV, which is a downtown revitalization project. “Hopefully with those two developments, we can start to increase our revenue and get it where it needs to be in order to do better work on things like infrastructure,” he said.
Like Coffey, Hickman said she opposes tax increases. “We cannot continue to break the back of the taxpayers,” she said in an interview last month. “We need to be more business friendly and consider removing unnecessary business restrictions.”
Fitzgerald said his first term was busy. He said he must focus on several issues not just one.
“If I promise someone something and only focus on that, then if you’re not careful, you wind up neglecting a lot of other important things that also need attention,” he said.