Christiansburg Town Council took a step closer Tuesday evening toward realizing a long-discussed park project set to be built on 60 acres of farmland off Peppers Ferry Road.
Town Council voted 5-1 to adopt an amendment to its 2020-21 budget that includes nearly $18 million to revamp land known as the Truman Wilson property that is tucked behind the Walmart.
Approval of funds for the park — as well as for staff pay bumps — prompted testy exchanges among council members.
“Here we are trying to push for a park in the middle of this pandemic, where people are losing jobs,” Councilwoman Johana Hicks, a longtime critic of the project who voted against the amendment, said. “When we put that park in the agenda, it looks like we were hiding it. How sad is that.”
Council members countered that they resolved concerns about the park and its inclusion in the budget amendment at previous meetings.
“If you were a little more squared away, you would have asked these questions weeks, months ago,” Councilman Steve Huppert said.
Council will hold a public hearing Dec. 8 on the project, a town spokeswoman said. State law requires such a hearing before the town issues an estimated $9.3 million in debt to help pay for the park.
Christiansburg bought the land for $2.5 million in 2013 with plans for a park in mind. But only last year did town officials embark on a concerted push toward breaking ground.
In 2019, the town entered into a nearly $1 million agreement with a Charlottesville construction company to draw up designs based on the town’s 2016 master plan concept. The types of amenities and scope of the project have scaled back over the years as council members have balked at an earlier $30 million price tag.
The latest plans call for several athletic fields, a dog park, a walking trail, a splash pad and picnic pavilions, among other features. The project is estimated to cost just under $18 million, and is expected to be paid for through a mix of debt, grants, donations and reserve funds.
Construction was set to begin this summer. But council in the spring opted to hold off development because of the uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic.
At Tuesday’s meetings, Hicks said council should pause the project because of the economic crisis.
“I’m not against parks. ... Who wouldn’t want a park? But I also think about the other people who haven’t been able to pay their water bills,” said Hicks, who lamented that the budget amendment also included pay increases. “I want raises for people in the town. I’m not voting against the raises. I’m voting against the park.”
Councilman Samuel Bishop also expressed regret that both the park and pay increases were rolled into the budget amendment.
“I did ask to separate the two because I have concerns about the park. But I didn’t want to hurt people getting raises,” said Bishop, who sided with others to approve the funds.
After several back-and-forths, Mayor Mike Barber said council members needed to vote on the motion.
“I’m not finished talking,” Hicks said.
“Yes you are,” Barber replied.
The budget amendment included several forms of compensation increases for employees, which had likewise been held off in the spring because of the pandemic. Altogether, the increases totaled about $481,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year, and would amount to about $825,000 over the next 12 months.
Council approved merit pay bumps for staff; an increase in base pay primarily in the town’s public works department because of high turnover; and a 1% cost-of-living increase.
Members also voted to increase what’s known as a multiplier under the Virginia Retirement System for public safety staff.
Council boosted the retirement benefit multiplier from 1.75% to 1.85% for police officers, firefighters and first responders.
Currently, for example, a first responder with 30 years of service and an average final compensation of $60,000 would receive an annual retirement of $31,500. Under the proposed 1.85% multiplier, annual retirement for that same employee would be $33,300.