Danielle Stewart for Mayor of Beckley
“It's very difficult to innovate without requiring people to do something different. And whenever you require people to do something different, you're talking about change.” – John P. Kotter
Most people would not call me artistically creative. I love to sing and I make up silly songs but that is the extent of my creativity. Creating new art is something that I am simply unable to do very well.
I am very creative when it comes to problem solving, systems, and identifying opportunities. It is something that comes natural to me. I can generate ideas to solve most problems if given enough time. Combine that with my natural curiosity and willingness to accept risk and I am someone that is innovative and an agent of change. “This is how we have always done it” is never an acceptable answer to me. There are logical reasons for doing some things certain ways but if you cannot justify the “why”, I will challenge it.
This paper is different than others. The things I talk about here are ideas running through my head. I have not thought every idea through funding and implementation. I want to get these ideas out into the open to do two things. The first is to generate conversations that will help add substance to each idea. The second is to give you a glimpse of who I am and what I think so you can make an informed judgement about who you want as your next mayor.
There is no order to these topics, so I am just going to jump right in!
On After School and Summer Activities
We need to invest in our children. The state runs education through the county boards of education so the city really cannot have much of an impact there. The city can have an impact in two areas – after school and summer breaks. We have some after school sports programs for students, but a lot of our children are locked out of these programs because of the costs involved. The same can be said about our after-school music and arts programs. $50 can be unaffordable to a large portion of the city population. I want to find a way for the city to fund these after school programs that will further develop our children.
A friend of mine, Donna, mentioned a program that she attended in Bluefield when she was a child. The city paid for individuals to plan and do activities at city parks every summer. It was not daycare; you couldn’t just drop your young kids there and pick them up later. The program was specifically for middle and high school students to give them some structure over the summer. Why can’t we do that here, now? I envision using VISTA summer associates recruited from our colleges, two per park, to run this program. The associates would spend the morning (10:00-12:00) doing structured activities that help students maintain their education skills from the previous school year and to teach things like balancing a checkbook, what insurance is, and how credit works that they may not learn in school. They would have guest speakers from the police department, fire department, and others so kids can see the opportunities for their future. In the afternoon (1:00-3:00), the kids would be involved in semi-organized physical activities like basketball, soccer, or other activities planned by the summer associate. Maybe we have one park dedicated to arts and another specifically dedicated to basketball or football (imagine how good our high school sports teams would be with structured activities throughout the summer designed to help them hone their skills). There are a lot of opportunities to explore here. This is also a component of the Icelandic Prevention Model for preventing drug use; keep kids busy and they are less likely to use drugs.
On Retaining and Recruiting Police Officers
The Beckley Police Department (as well as a lot of other police departments in WV) have an issue recruiting and retaining officers. BPD states that it costs over $70,000 and one year per officer to get them trained and ready to go out on patrol. Beckley pays to train these officers and then the officers leave for better paying jobs elsewhere. BPD must recruit and train two to four officers every year equaling an investment of $140,000 to $280,000 per year. In addition, the BPD has trouble finding recruits that meet the physical requirements and pass background checks. Only one out of every 40 candidates that apply are typically qualified to start training.
The city is very active in trying to retain officers. Over the last year the city provided raises of $1,500 per officer plus $5,000 bonuses for officers at certain years of service in order to retain officers. While the cash is nice, there will always be another city or state who can pay more than we can. We cannot win the money game, so we must think outside the box.
I want the city to buy new officers a house in city limits. A house that the city renovates so that we improve the overall housing stock and neighborhoods. The officers can live in these houses for free while they work for the Beckley Police Department. If these officers serve Beckley for 20 years, they are then given the house for free. If the officer leaves the police, the officer must either leave the house or arrange for a loan to buy the house. This becomes a strong incentive to stay in the force while putting more police officers in our neighborhoods. It is also something other departments are not doing making this a unique opportunity.
We also need to look at how we recruit officers since that is also an issue. I want to recruit officers while they are younger, 18-20. We will basically give these candidates “student loans” to pay for college and then once they graduate, they start their training. The city will forgive 10% of the loan for each year the officer works for the city so that in 10 years the loan is paid off and the officer has paid nothing for their education. WVU Tech has a strong criminal justice program with students just waiting to be recruited. If we recruit them as freshman, these candidates could have three years of summer internships with the BPD before they ever start training. That is a huge jump on their peers. I mention college aged students but there is no reason we could not look at high school seniors. Beckley will grow its own police officers instead of recruiting them.
On Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, DUIs, and Prostitution
Beckley, Raleigh County, and West Virginia have enormous issues with domestic abuse, sexual assault, DUI, and prostitution. Most of these crimes go unpunished until victims give up on reporting. We have had instances in Beckley where someone with multiple DUIs receives no punishment until they kill someone on the roads. Domestic abuse and sexual assault are hard crimes to prove (primarily because victims are afraid to testify) so they are also rarely prosecuted, and nothing happens until someone dies. Prostitution is so rampant it has simply become part of the scenery.
I do not foresee major changes in prosecuting these offenses. The decision to prosecute is made by the county prosecuting attorney’s office and is outside city control. Our prisons are overcrowded so sending someone to jail for a DUI or prostitution takes up space needed for offenders with more serious crimes. What do we do?
We shame them. We post names and pictures all over town and online. A digital bulletin board rotating the picture of the alleged offenders. An offender beats up their girlfriend or sexually assaults someone and we post a picture of the offender everywhere so they cannot go anywhere without being recognized. Same with DUI’s in addition to providing information on the vehicle driven. Instead of targeting prostitutes, we will target “johns” and post their pictures. We will make the public humiliation (or threat of public humiliation) so severe that the offender either never again perpetrates a crime or is run out of town. This also serves as a deterrent to others.
On Recruiting New Families
We must increase our population. We continue to lose businesses and opportunities because our population keeps decreasing. I want to fight this by recruiting families to Beckley.
I want to work with the Board of Realtors to actively recruit families to move to Beckley and buy houses. The city would provide a grant to the Board of Realtors that covers printed materials and travel expenses for realtors to go to locations, both in West Virginia and other states, and provide information about our community.
I think we should even consider incentives to get people to move here. We could offer a 50% match of moving costs. We could work with our local banks on guaranteed home loans, reduced rate loans, or covering closing costs. Maybe cover property taxes for one to five years. All of these would come with a payback clause that if a family moves out of Beckley within five years, they will have to pay the city back for expenses. We may even offer a $500 bonus to realtors who bring people to Beckley.
Growing our population is one of our greatest needs and we must take an active role in promoting our city.
On Welcoming New Families
Do you consider Beckley a welcoming place? I am not sure I do. We are certainly polite and typically respectful of new people but that is not the same thing as welcoming new people and making them feel included.
When you changed duty locations in the Army, at every base all new arrivals attend a Newcomers Brief. It was an opportunity to learn more about the base and surrounding community so you would feel welcome at your new home.
I want to do something similar in Beckley. I envision an evening gathering every quarter where people that move to Beckley can meet with the mayor, city council, church representatives, school representatives, and other nonprofit support organizations to learn about the community. Between events, when newcomers arrive to Beckley, the city will have a pamphlet with this information to give newcomers to our community. I would work this initiative through the Board of Realtors as they will most likely know when new people move to Beckley.
Other ideas to consider are neighborhood block parties and neighborhood yard sales – any event that gets people out and talking with their neighbors and makes Beckley feel like home.
On Farmers Market
Did you know we have a weekly Farmers Market during the summer in Beckley? It is held downtown, usually at the Beckley Intermodal Gateway. For the past few years, we have only had one or two vendors at the market, and it is not well utilized (even though individuals using their EBT cards get ½ price on fresh produce). I want to change the dynamics.
Currently farmers either pay the city to attend or pay nothing. To entice more farmers, I want to instead pay farmers to attend, something like $20 a day. This will hopefully attract more vendors.
I want to change the locations of the market. The Intermodal Gateway is not convenient for everyone. I do think the market still sets up there once a week, but maybe one day it sets up at the police substation near Stratton Elementary and another day it sets up at the police substation in East Park. The city will likely have to support the remote locations with tents just in case it rains but the benefit of bringing fresh produce to the areas most in need is worth the effort. The bonus effect is our families have more choices in our city.
On Community Gardens
Talking about fresh produce, several people have talked to me asking why we do not have more community gardens in Beckley. The short answer is Beckley has tried in limited areas but there was no supervision of the program and the lots quickly deteriorated. Also, most people did not know the gardens existed.
I still think community gardens are a great idea. We have a lot of underutilized city property and plenty of spaces in our city parks (an average community garden lot is 10 foot by 10 foot equaling 100 square feet) that could be put to good use and keeps the gardens in neighborhoods. I will find someone to manage the program and lots and I will work with the community, Parks and Recreation, and Public Works to create as many 100 square foot raised bed gardens in neighborhoods as I can. It is just a great opportunity for our families that is very cheap to create and maintain. This also becomes an educational opportunity for our children.
Beckley Events works hard to bring good events to Beckley and Chili Night is an incredible success. Unfortunately, no other event is as successful as Chili Night. Tailgate Halloween, Rhododendron Festival, Friday’s in the Park, and monthly car shows are the staples of the event circuit but are not always well attended.
Multiple groups host events throughout Beckley, but they do so with limited city support. Women’s Resource Center hosts Causecon. The Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce hosts the Appalachian Crafts Festival. We have Beckley Pride and the WV Collective hosting major events as well. These events draw hundreds (and some thousands) of people to Beckley. While these organizations receive some support from Beckley Events, it is typically limited in scale.
I want to change the dynamics of Beckley Events. My guidance will be to host four major events. I think the Coffee & Tea Festival in April, Kids Classic in September, Chili Night in October, and Shop Small Saturday in November-December (or maybe replace Shop Small Saturday with the Rhododendron Festival in May) should be the focus.
Other than the four major events, Beckley Events will focus on supporting other organizations.
On Metro Government
A metro government is a government where the county and city services are combined to save money and provide more efficient services. From an idealistic perspective, it is a good deal where everyone wins. However, when you try to put it into action is where you start running into issues. The City of Beckley made efforts with the Raleigh County Commission to form a metro government. The first office to merge was code enforcement. It was a complete failure. There were multiple reasons it failed, from personality clashes to roles and responsibilities to funding.
I believe a metro government or department must be greater than its parts, meaning that everyone is getting what they need and treated fairly. That means the city taxpayers get the services for which they paid at a minimum. Most of the proposals I have seen end with the city paying to support county operations. The county wins and residents of the county win while the residents of Beckley lose. A recent example: The City of Beckley was asked to provide funds to support an extra Animal Control Officer and the city provided those funds. However, that officer spends most of their effort outside Beckley city limits. There are other reasons for this beyond funding, one of the two current Animal Control Officers was off work for a long time fighting a disease and there was a service gap that needed filled but my bottom line is that if the city pays for it, the city receives the service. If residents around the county want the same level of service that Beckley receives, they are more than welcome to increase their taxes to pay for it or if they are adjacent to Beckley they can request incorporation into the city limits. The taxpayers of Beckley are not responsible for supporting the county.
Efficiency, Value, and Return on Investment are words that make me sit up and pay attention. If there is a better way of doing something that is more efficient and/or cheaper I believe it must be examined. I willingly invest money and effort as well as accept risk in the near term if it means things are better in the long term. When you look at a lot of my proposals you will see that I am investing in our future versus instant gratification. Unfortunately, instant gratification is how you win elections. Investment is how you change the world. I do not plan to change the world, but I absolutely plan to change things in Beckley.
“Just try new things. Don't be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?” - Michelle Obama