Tag Archives: Jon Baliles

Complete and Total Incompetence & Negligence

Fox Elementary School after the fire. Photo credit: WTVR

by Jon Baliles

There can be no more fitting title for this post than this jaw-dropping, migraine-inducing story from Tyler Lane at CBS6 about the repeated warning signs about fire safety that were not only missed — but flat out ignored — by Richmond Public Schools (RPS) officials in 2020 and 2021, which culminated in the destruction by fire of Fox Elementary School and the school bus maintenance facility a few months later.

If it’s not criminal to so blatantly put thousands of kids’ lives at risk, it certainly should be a fireable offense. But what happened to the Director of Facilities who ignored all the warnings and repeated pleas by Fire officials to do something —anything — about the clear and present dangers to our schools and the kids inside them? RPS gave him a $30,000 raise?

Before the fire that destroyed Fox Elementary School in February 2022, a Richmond Fire Department captain pleaded with leaders of RPS that Fox was in violation of eight fire codes (including a faulty alarm panel) since August of 2021 and warned them “of ‘extreme neglect’ to fire safety and accused the district of a “complete lack of effort” ensuring schools were safe for occupancy.” Those violations were supposedly fixed but no re-inspection ever took place. Continue reading

Richmond Tax Assessments: Through the Roof

by Jon Baliles

One story you will be hearing about and living through in the next week or so (if you live in the City) is that the new assessment notifications are arriving in people’s mailboxes. And they are literally though the roof.

Some areas are up from 18% in the Westover Hills area and Scott’s Addition to 20% increases in the East End, to 41% in the Fan. Sales of homes in the last year are running super high which is driving valuations.

Richie McKeithen, Richmond City Assessor, says:

Richmond is seeing an influx of people moving here from New York, DC and Philadelphia. The normal vacancy rate for homes in the city is usually between 15% and 20%. Right now, it’s around 1%.

And they’re coming here, and they’re buying property, and they have resources to buy properties at a higher value than what we have them assessed for.

Continue reading

Was Richmond’s Gun BuyBack Program a Success?

by Jon Baliles

By most accounts, the city’s gun buyback event on August 20th was a success. The city spent $67,500 in gift cards to 160 people who turned in 475 firearms, and then had to shut down even though there were more people in line.

Organizers with the Robby Poblete Foundation said they are not against the Second Amendment. “We are against senseless gun violence,” said Pati Navalta, executive director of the foundation. “We are for gun safety.”

Glenwood Burley, a retired Richmond police officer, said the line of cars was “unexpected” and considered the event a big win.

“Any gun that you can get out of someone’s bedroom, that someone may break-in and take somebody’s life with it next week, this is a win for everyone in the city,” Burley said.

Opinions vary widely on the effectiveness of such events from being a media stunt to every little bit helps, and research remains unclear whether such events have real effects on reducing gun violence. Continue reading

The Next Memorial or the Next Boondoggle?

by Jon Baliles

The Defenders for Freedom, Justice, and Equality organization is run by Ana Edwards and Phil Wilayto and has been publishing quarterly in Richmond since 2005. This summer’s edition from last week is an eye-opener and sure to cause some needed and welcome discussion.

The Defenders published two articles about what is and is not happening in regard to the proposed Shockoe Bottom memorial that will honor and tell the story about the slave trade in Richmond, the Burial Ground, Lumpkin’s Jail, and a big part of the history of this city that has been buried and repressed for far too long.

Well, things are definitely happening, but the City, as well as the leaders of the uniquely opaque National Slavery Museum Foundation, are doing precious little to share their plans with the public.

They detail how Mayor Stoney supported the creation of a nine-acre memorial park and created and kicked off the Shockoe Alliance group that was ideally supposed to develop a plan and detail what the memorial park could become. The Smith Group, a national planning firm, was engaged to outline the possibilities and has a web site that is definitely worth a look. Continue reading

“Stop with the Drama”

Richmond School Board in happier days. They weren’t smiling last week.

by Jon Baliles

It’s hard to try and figure out where to begin to explain the special School Board meeting held earlier this week in the wake of the news that Richmond Public Schools’ SOL scores dropped dramatically. The state Department of Education released every district’s scores and in the wake of the pandemic, Richmond did not fare well, to put it mildly.

In fact, it is downright troubling and makes you wonder many things: will we recover? How long will it take? Is Jason Kamras the Superintendent to lead us out of this? Can the School Board turn the ship around? I even heard from two people who mentioned the idea of going back to appointing our school board – remember the Gang of 26 letter and subsequent kerfuffle? Talk about a can of worms for another day.

So, on the heels of the bad news and scores, a special School Board meeting was called for Tuesday, on just a few days’ notice, with no agenda; but rumors quickly swirled about the Board firing the Superintendent. Things moved quickly from bad to worse.

Monday you had the Mayor tweeting his way into the debate, saying that firing Kamras would be catastrophic for the schools. Parents got upset that such talk was even being considered just a week before the school year kicks off. Teachers made it known they were upset with the curriculum they are told to teach and that it doesn’t help kids, and all the speculation was about if and when the hammer would fall. Continue reading

Ranked Choice Voting Coming to Virginia?

by Jon Baliles

Now that state and congressional redistricting are done, the non-partisan group OneVirginia2021 that fought for years to bring sensible, fair redistricting to Virginia has rebranded its name and focus. Nonpartisan experts have generally given the resulting legislative congressional maps high marks for partisan fairness even though some unsuccessfully challenged the new maps drawn by the Supreme Court of Virginia. Regardless, redistricting is done — at least until the next redistricting. But I digress….

The newly-minted organization UpVote Virginia will now put forth as a signature issue, Ranked-Choice Voting (RCV) for localities across the Commonwealth. UpVote Virginia sees it as a winning, bi-partisan issue that will produce or encourage the seeking and building of consensus among office-holders and office-seekers. Continue reading

Sorry Tarheels, Virginia Invented Barbecue

by Jon Baliles

Yes, Virginia, it us true, we invented barbecue.

Last week my podcast library downloaded the latest episode of Eat It, Virginia, a podcast hosted by Wise and Martin as they welcomed Deb Freeman, a local Richmond rockstar who hosts her own podcast called Setting the Table. Her new-ish series focuses on the impact African Americans have made on American food, and even though it is only 12 episodes deep, it is a barn-burner: Setting the Table is the most listened-to food podcast on Apple podcasts and has been ranked the #1 food podcast in Canada, and charted high in France, China, Germany, Russia, and on and on.

Freeman has hosted episodes discussing black farmers, black brewers and distillers, “The Great Migration and Black Food,” “The Complicated Stories of Soul Food,” and “Yellowcake and Black Baking.”

“Virginia is so vital to so many American foods. Barbecue started here, macaroni and cheese, ice cream started here, fried chicken started here,” she said. “These are things that folks aren’t really talking about. But Virginians really need to be proud of. All of these great Southern and American dishes that everyone still eats today, 400 years later, they all came from Virginia.” Continue reading

Revive the Riverfront Plan from Its Coma

The James River in downtown Richmond

by Jon Baliles

The James River is often (rightfully) cited as the region’s crown jewel. It is the one thing just about everyone can agree on, rally behind, enjoy in their free time, and show off to out-of-town friends. If you recall the Richmond Riverfront Plan that was developed by the City at considerable expense in 2012, the first page notes:

The Plan identifies opportunities for new and expanded connections and open spaces, incorporating a broad range of landscape experiences and programmatic opportunities; it also highlights preferred private development sites that will both gain from and contribute to the long-term stewardship of the Riverfront. The Riverfront Plan establishes the James River as a shared amenity for Richmond’s broader community, a dynamic year-round attraction for the surrounding counties and region, as well as an international destination. Strengthening and re-forging physical connections and continuities with the river will significantly enhance adjacent neighborhoods, reverberating benefits well beyond the project boundary.

Some of the goals/projects of the plan were small and attainable, others large and complex, which would take planning and patience to achieve. But goals they were, and they are still worth pursuing. Ahhh, those big and grand plans that would do so much to make our river and riverfront more awesome by the year.

So, what happened to the Riverfront Plan? Continue reading

Talking Crime

by Jon Baliles

Candace Burns of CBS6 sat down with Mayor Stoney this week to talk crime, gun violence, and alleged plots. It was an interesting discussion, and while a lot of it is political fluff and rhetoric, Stoney does deserve some credit for some straight talk.

What we recognize is that 26% of the violent crimes that are happening in the City of Richmond are occurring in 2% of the 60 square miles of the City of Richmond [Richmond is actually 62.5 square miles, FYI]. We’re directing our resources and we are putting community policing and data overlaying on top of it and then overlaying that with our prevention and intervention framework as well.

Because the police are so far below budgeted (and needed) staffing, resources have to be deployed more strategically. But shifting resources around haphazardly will not make the City safer until we can recruit more officers and increase training and restore trust with the community. He said police are focused on high-crime areas and youth prevention, but when asked about the framework how the City is addressing gun violence, he offered the usual talking points like “we had a task force,” “worked with non-profits,” and “focused on a human services.” Continue reading

Water Leaks

by Jon Baliles

This week, Jeremy Lazarus of the  Richmond Free Press attended the City Council’s Governmental Operations Committee and found that “more than 6,300 homes and businesses in Richmond — 10% of the customer base — are facing disconnection of their utilities for nonpayment of water, sewer and gas bills.”

Yikes. That is essentially double the rate from five years go, and there is more than $35 million that is 90 days or more in arrears.

When the pandemic hit, the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) did what most cities across America did, suspending disconnections and ending late fees, etc. and announced they would eat the losses until November 2021, when those normal practices continued. By summer 2021, uncollected bills more than 90 days behind had climbed from about $9 million to $28 million. Continue reading

Where Does the Buck Stop?

by Jon Baliles

The rise in crime across the region and especially the City is naturally a cause of concern. A rise in crimes against deputies and other inmates in the Richmond Jail is flat-out disturbing. The Free Press went to the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting — that was attended only by Councilwoman Reva Trammell — who discussed the issue with Sheriff Antoinette Irving.

“Just since last Friday, July 22, according to information provided to The Free Press, a female deputy was punched in the face, three inmates suffered serious stab wounds and two inmates had to be revived after overdosing on illegal drugs.”

That followed another “savage attack on a female deputy July 7 that had left the woman with a broken jaw and other injuries.” Continue reading

The Rent Is Too Damn High

by Jon Baliles

I think RVA needs to recruit retired New York City politician Jimmy McMillan to come to Richmond and run for office. He was the straight-talker who ran for Governor of New York under the Rent Is Too Damn High Party banner in 2010 and said more genuine truths in 35 seconds at a debate introduction than many politicians say in their career.

In the wake of COVID and all of its turbulence, it was reported this week that rent in the Richmond region is going through the roof and increasing even faster than 40-year-high inflation. WRIC reports:

Data from rental listing site Apartment List showed that from March 2020 to May 2022, city-level rent estimates increased significantly throughout Virginia. In Glen Allen, rent grew approximately 19.5%; 25.3% in Richmond; and 26.8% in Chester.

Rent.com reports that the increase in Richmond over last year was more than 35% (to an average of $1,512 for a one-bedroom), the 8th-highest rent for a single-bedroom in the country (the U.S. average is $1,701 per month, up 25.3%). A 2021 study by Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit & Review Commission (JLARC), revealed approximately 44% of renting households were cost-burdened in 2019, meaning more than 30% of their income was being used for rent. Continue reading

Strange Things Are Afoot

by Jon Baliles

The story of the July 4th Dogwood Dell Mayoral and Police Chief press conference grows stranger with each day and subsequent stories. Noted philosophers Bill & Ted may have put it best when they said: “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K.” (That’s a 7-11 for all you locals).

The July 6th press conference about preventing a July 4th mass shooting at Dogwood Dell has taken a turn for the surreal, as stories are incongruent and details are haphazard and just not adding up. Local media at all levels are trying to piece together the puzzle.

Reporters are trying to gather details and get more information while juggling “clarifications” to questions everyone has about the threat.

WRIC reported, “The Richmond Police Department has refused to share crucial evidence to verify its claim that a mass shooting,” saying it is all part of an ongoing investigation. No one knows how or why Dogwood Dell was the target because it was not mentioned anywhere in any document or filing and no one will explain. One explanation was the location was deduced because it was a major public gathering.

This week, Crime Insider Jon Burkett had an interview on WRVA and points out several salient points: Continue reading

Crime and Blame

by Jon Baliles

One thing we already know, is that crime is out of control in the City. Jon Burkett at CBS is known as the Crime Insider and rightfully so given that is basically all he has covered in the region for two decades. He gave an interview on July 6 on WRVA’s Morning News with John Reid that does not paint an optimistic picture.

He said bewildered, “I don’t know what’s going on,” which for a guy of his experience, knowledge, and contacts is not a good indicator. He also pointed out that Mayor Stoney appeared at an event (before the July 5th event mentioned above in in the previous post) but no one asked him any questions about crime over the weekend. Then yesterday a bizarre story down by VCU on Broad Street where a restaurant patron was attacked with a chair and then chased and shot at the suspect in her car.

In total in the region (including Petersburg) over last weekend, Burkett said there were 21 people shot and four killed, including a domestic violence double murder in Henrico. He said some is/might also be gang related and some just unexplained randomness. Continue reading

Crime and (No) Punishment

Bacon’s Rebellion is pleased to begin cross-posting from RVA 5X5, the new Substack publication of Jon Baliles, who worked for the City of Richmond under Mayors Doug Wilder and Levar Stoney and been active in the civic and artistic communities for many years.

by Jon Baliles

Today’s edition (of RVA 5X) starts off similarly to a few weeks ago, unfortunately with several related stories about crime. A few weeks back it was the cause and effect of fewer police and fire personnel on the streets, which coincides with spiking crime and fire stations facing potential brown outs and using three-member teams instead of four.

This week it begins with the by now well-known story about the uncovering of an alleged plot a mass shooting in Richmond over July 4th.

And a phone call tip by from someone “who overheard a conversation regarding a mass shooting” and thus prevented the mass shooting after Richmond Police and federal officials have arrested two men “two assault rifles, a handgun and several hundred rounds of ammunition.”

Richmond Police Chief William Smith said: “There is no telling how many lives this hero citizen saved from one phone call. It is the responsibility of law enforcement that if we hear something, that we do something, and that is the message I would like to get out there — that ‘see something, say something’ works.”

And we should be thankful that the tip prevented a tragedy and the men were taken into custody.

But that is where the story gets a little cloudy. The two men, both from Guatemala, so far are charged with possession of a firearm by a non-citizen but the investigation remains ongoing. Continue reading