Category Archives: Alliance for Progressive Values

White Knuckling

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When Apryl Prentiss first realized she was a lesbian, she decided to white knuckle it. She wanted to ignore the impulse, and if it couldn’t be ignored, she wanted to deny it, put it in a cage.

“I was freaked out when I realized…when I started to understand what was happening.”

This was in high school in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She was raised a fundamentalist Baptist and her church and the community it provided were deeply important to her. At the time, she described herself as kind of a “Christian All Star.”

“I was the chaplain of my class. I was going on missions trips. My whole class was even on the Christian Broadcast Network for a show. I was hitting all the expectations.”

That’s why coming to terms with her sexuality was so difficult. According to her Christian based belief system, she was ‘being rebellious,’ she had a ‘broken sexuality,’ she was trying to separate herself from God.

“Homosexuality was the sin to trump all sins” She explains. “It’s spoken of with great disdain—it seemed to be a visceral reaction. They think of gays as ‘those people’ …people who are horrible and perverted. People who are sick. People are always so scared of what they don’t understand.” Though she never heard these messages at school that was what was preached from the pulpit of her childhood church in Virginia Beach.

When she attended Campbell University in North Carolina, her church connected her with counseling and what is referred to as reparative or conversion therapy. Like many other far right Christian denominations across the country, the church encouraged her to go to therapy to ‘cure herself’ of being gay.

The counselor also offered to exorcise her should the therapy prove insufficient.

Apryl describes those years as some of the darkest of her life: “I absolutely detested myself.” Although she didn’t kill herself, she came close; close enough to want to save others from the same trauma. That’s why she’s working with the Alliance for Progressive Values to ban the practice of reparative therapy that tries to “cure” minors of being gay.

Delegate Hope who introduced HB 1135* which would ban the practice in Virginia said that evidence suggests such conversion therapy doesn’t work and in fact harms many people. Apryl’s story is a case in point.

According to Apryl, the therapy she underwent on and off for nearly three years was intense and mind bending; the kind of practice you would not wish on your worst enemy, much less a vulnerable teenager.

“I remember after months of talking and fasting I was still told that I was rebellious. It was their explanation for why I wasn’t cured. They thought they could see demons in my eyes. And I believed it! They suggested that I undergo an exorcism. The therapist brought in a prayer partner and they circled me and prayed over me. They asked to speak to the demon of brokenness in me. They asked to speak to the demons of same-sex attraction. …it was unbelievably painful. I cried the entire time and, after it was over, I felt completely stripped bare.”

After the failed exorcism, Apryl turned to alcohol and other self-destructive behavior to anesthetize. She recounts having alcohol poisoning at least seven times after the exorcism.  “Fighting my sexuality had become a daily battle and truthfully—I just wanted a break. My 21st birthday, which was at the height of the reparative therapy,  consisted of a fifth of Smirnoff and a straw. I drank it in about an hour and a half.”

Apryl admits she was trying to kill herself, in a less than methodic fashion. “I thought if I die and go to heaven, I won’t have to deal with this anymore.  That seemed like a good option. Death would have been a release from the constant inner turmoil.”

Shortly after, she met a woman and developed a relationship with her. “She was someone who had found peace with her sexuality.” This person told Apryl that she could be both “gay AND Christian and that God was okay with that. When I was with her, I felt more whole and authentic than I ever had before.”

The relationship lasted for a few months, but the guilt weighed on Apryl. She couldn’t handle it. “I freaked out and went back to the church. I confessed to my pastor what was happening and I went back to reparative therapy again.”

They came back with the same ideas, “gay people are all miserable, they’re all enveloped in darkness.”

But this time it was different, Apryl explains, “Their assertions no longer made sense. I had experienced the opposite.”

When they suggested a second exorcism, she just said no.

Apryl left North Carolina and went through a series of jobs in California, then back to North Carolina and even a short stint in Virginia at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. She tried different approaches to dealing with her sexuality, ‘white knuckling’, a short hand for celibacy, and when that didn’t work, another version of therapy, ‘Sought Out’ similar to reparative therapy, but incorporating some of the same principles developed for twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.

It was “twenty weeks of unbelievably hard introspection, confession, accountability and counseling. We started by examining possible causes of our homosexuality or sexual brokenness. A basic premise of the program was that no one is born gay so there must be a cause…a root of our same-sex attraction. Overbearing Mother? That’s why you’re gay. Sexual abuse? That’s absolutely why you’re gay. Only child and you grew up lonely? That’s why you’re gay. We did things like write down wrong ways we had been labeled on sheets of paper and burned them. Very cathartic and very meaningful. We wrote down things we believed about ourselves that contributed to our ‘sexual brokenness’ on mirrors then smashed them. We confessed our sins (mental and physical) both publicly to the entire group and privately to our small group leaders, wrote them down on special paper, immersed them in water (meant to be a picture of God’s forgiveness) and watched them dissolve.  These activities were all designed to make us confront the causes of our sexuality, bring them out into the open and then destroy them.”

“I literally nailed my areas of brokenness, their causes, and my own sexual behavior to a cross then bowed below them begging for forgiveness and for restoration. I lay on the floor of a church weeping, begging to be delivered. This was a nightly experience.”

According to Apryl, the program suggested that “all homosexual relationships are born out of brokenness and cause nothing but pain and unhappiness.”

“This was drilled into us and because my own experience in a same-sex relationship had been wonderful, but riddled with guilt and constant turmoil, I couldn’t totally counteract the concept. In fact, most of us who sat in that room every Monday night had never met a happy same-sex couple. We didn’t understand that in the Christian circles we lived in there would naturally not be ANY healthy same-sex couples.”

“I ended up working as a counselor for the Sought Out program, teaching the same repressive techniques. I stopped one day when I sat there with this vulnerable 17-year-old. You could see at 100 feet that she was a lesbian.  She had no attraction to men whatsoever, but she desperately did not want to be gay. I had to tell her that her only two choices were celibacy or learning to date men. This was the message I had been taught and what I believed about myself. It was the depressing reality that I was grappling with.  But, when I realized I was telling a 17-year-old who had only begun to live life that those were her only two options—it just didn’t add up. I couldn’t do it. I saw myself in her and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do this. I’m done with this. I can’t do it anymore. That was the beginning of the end.”

But there’s nothing easy about transitions, about coming out or staying in denial. Apryl still loved the church and didn’t want to leave it. She was on a mission in Serbia and Slovakia teaching English through bible lessons before she realized how much about her life still needed to change.

“It was summer camp and I had spent it with the Serbians who have a real love of life. When some missionaries arrived from Canada they acted prudish and started scolding the Serbians for wearing short skirts or dancing and hugging. They were trying to impose westernized Christianity’s rulebook on these vibrant and passionate people. I realized the missionaries were missing the point. The Serbians were praising the Lord in their own way, just as David had danced. Why would God make them this way, just to condemn them? Why would he make me this way, just to condemn me? All of these ideas about correct behavior, correct sexuality were inventions. They were Westernized ways of trying to control people and put them in a box.  My eyes were opened and I began to evaluate what I knew of God on my own and not through the fabricated conventions of the conservative church. All of a sudden, it was like I experienced the true God, a force of love for the first time.”

“There was no guilt, there was no shame. I finally got it. As cliché as it sounds, I went to one of those fields of sunflowers as tall as your head in Serbia, I sat there for hours and I made my peace with God.”

Since that summer in 2005, Apryl has undergone therapy to ‘repair’ the reparative therapy. She has been married to her wife for 7 years and she says that people who had previously rejected her in the church are coming back.

“I miss the community of the church.  But, there’s a real sense of us vs. them. It’s fine when you’re the ‘us’, it’s cool and beautiful. But when you’re all of a sudden part of the ‘them’, it’s a cruel, cruel thing.”

Her family has been surprisingly supportive. In fact, one of Apryl’s main regrets is that for years she avoided visiting her Christian grandmother because she was afraid that her grandmother would be disappointed that she was gay rather than pursuing ministry. After her grandmother died, her aunt was unpacking a box of old photographs. Near the bottom, at least two years old, was a photograph of Apryl with her wife, Adrian.

“I should have visited.  I should have known …” Apryl tilts her head, a nod toward what might have been. “She knew about us all along and, like the amazing woman she was, she loved me anyway… That’s a true example of a Christian.”

*Full Text of HB1135 can be found at this link:

http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?141+ful+HB1135

Note: Major medical groups like the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and others have moved to discourage reparative therapy.

According to the American Psychological Association, “The terms reparative therapy and sexual orientation conversion therapy refer to counseling and psychotherapy aimed at eliminating or suppressing homosexuality. The most important fact about these “therapies” is that they are based on a view of homosexuality that has been rejected by all the major mental health professions.”

~Jack Johnson

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A Red Line for the Dems

MARK WARNER

MARK WARNER

Virginia’s Senator Mark Warner is talking openly about cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid! APV has been aggressive in communicating our unequivocal opposition to radical conservative attempts to intentionally wreck the most successful and popular government programs in American history. We are alarmed and deeply disappointed that Sen. Warner would be a party to such talk. Social Security is solvent today and for decades to come, and its long-term outlook can be easily secured through a marginal raise to the Wage Cap, which would affect only the wealthiest recipients. I urge you to contact your Senators, and if you live in Virginia, to contact Sen. Warner. Tell them not to negotiate away our hard-earned retirement system.

The same conservative radicals who held the American people and our economy hostage in October when they closed the government and threatened our nation’s credit rating with a pointless and dangerous default, have wanted to privatize or eliminate Social Security for a long time. It is time for Progressives to communicate to our lawmakers that this will not stand and that those who aid in such a scheme will have crossed a red line and will not only lose our support but gain our enmity. “Compromising” on how much of this fundamental, bedrock part of the liberal democratic platform to cut, is like negotiating over how much of the Lincoln Memorial we should jack hammer into gravel.

Such a betrayal would not be forgotten or forgiven. Far from ‘improving’ the economy, such cuts would further poison our recovery and hurt the majority of Americans. If this is not sufficient cause for Senator Warner and the other Democrats to reconsider a grand “compromise”, they might speculate on the more immediate, massive and long-lasting damage it will certainly cause their own political careers, and their colleagues’.

Most Democrats will be deeply demoralized. Many will stop donating or volunteering or otherwise helping any politician or Party who engages in this shameful undertaking. Countless others, I suspect, will simply not vote. Capitulation on Social Security will effectively destroy the Democratic brand and their losses at the polls will be predictable and massive. Many moderate to progressive voters may very well actively support alternatives –as a point of principle–even if doing this results in the election of potentially worse candidates.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should not be “on the table”, and if they are, then the political careers of those who would enable the likes of Ted Cruz and the Heritage Foundation must be as well.

Scott Price
President, Alliance for Progressive Values

9 Democrats who are selling out on Social Security cuts

Contact Info for Senator Warner is here.

Baseball Stadium Referendum Gets Nixed in Richmond, or Reason 9,999 Mere Commoners Should Have No Say

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In a beautiful alignment of political symbolism, the Mayor of Richmond, Dwight W. Jones, celebrated the grand opening of the new Redskins training camp, which, Richmond citizens were assured, would bring them lots of moolah in the long run (no, really!) on the very same evening the Richmond City Council voted down a public referendum on the location of a baseball stadium. For a second time. This despite a cacophony of citizens and activist groups clamoring to be heard over the raucous roar of back room money.

Tip O’Neil once opined that all politics is local, and from the shenanigans at City Hall these last two Mondays, it appears he was onto something.

President of the Council, Charles Samuels, in an apparent effort at transparency floated the referendum idea. It was simple: let Richmonders decide where their new baseball stadium gets built, rather than say, developers carrying wads of cash. It’s not like Richmonders don’t have opinions, mind you. In fact, if you were there either Monday night, you would have gotten an earful of very strongly worded opinions, the vast majority of which sounded like this:

LET US HAVE A REFERENDUM ON THE STADIUM’S LOCATION!

Or they were saying, even more simply, something like this:

DO NOT BUILD A BASEBALL STADIUM IN SHOCKOE BOTTOM! IT’S HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT GROUND!

Which, of course, was the point of the referendum. Since Richmond had the illustrious honor of auctioning off slaves in the Bottom, the second-largest market for enslaved Africans in all of North America, to be exact, there are many from the local community a little keen on not having this particular historical tidbit covered up. Especially since its been ignored for the last 100+ years or so… Not hard to understand, really. It’s one reason –maybe the main reason –why all these Richmond citizens turned out in mass to make their voices heard.

The message couldn’t have been more clear or more lopsided. Everyone from African Ancestral Chamber to the Alliance for Progressive Values said essentially the same thing: let the people decide.

But Mayor Jones, fresh from the victory of the new Redskins Stadium project, has yet to put forward a real plan for replacing The Diamond, though certain city commentators (like Paul Goldman) have hinted that Jones is aiming to build in the Bottom. And Mayor Jones has a history of plopping done deals on the City Council’s desk for immediate approval if not sooner. Now, in fairness, he was coyly non-committal when asked the question directly for a television interview at Monday’s Redskins Training Camp grand opening, saying only… the plan is “still cooking.”

No doubt another reason Samuels thought it advisable to try this referendum thing.

In an exquisite display of political tone-deafness, or, let’s just call it deafness, the council voted down the idea. As the 4th District’s Kathy Graziano delicately phrased it, “referendums should be used sparingly…”

Because, you know, you might wear them out.

One council person said with a straight face that a referendum would mean council members were reneging on their decision-making duties, cruelly forcing Richmond citizens to pick up the slack.

I’m sure every Richmonder is relieved to have this hideous weight lifted from their shoulders.

Yet, another suggested that it was an overly complex matter and should not be left to commoners who just happened to be the, um, tax base for the city.

No matter that the referendum amounted to a sentence or two saying essentially, “The Stadium should stay on the Boulevard.” It apparently also eluded every council member that the referendum was not binding but an ADVISORY referendum, meaning the local commoners would merely be suggesting their preference as opposed to stipulating it in law.

I use the caps, of course, because otherwise the notion of ADVISORY might be overly complex.

Nevertheless, it was voted down, six to three Monday night. Alas, we poor blighted citizens were overworked, under learned, over stressed and — what was abundantly clear– over eager to have a say in exactly how our public funds get spent.

~~~

This petition is for those who would like to keep the stadium from being built in Shockoe Bottom.

Ironies Abound, or SCOTUS Knows Best

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Here’s an irony: a set of five, unelected, deeply conservative Supreme Court Justices known principally for railing against judicial activism voted to overturn an overwhelming renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act today based on the grounds that… “We know best.”

Or at least better… Apparently, five Republican appointed U.S. Supreme Court justices know better than the 390 U.S. House Members and 98 U.S. Senators who voted in favor of renewing the Act in 2006. And, yes, they also know better than the deeply Conservative President George W. Bush who signed it into law.

In their 5-4 decision the gang of five struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 —Section 4–which defines the map that determines which states must get federal permission before they change their voting laws. Thus, although Section 5 survives, it will have no actual effect unless Congress can enact a new statute to determine who should be covered by it. Frankly, given the deeply conservative nature of our Congress, it’s doubtful this will get enacted any time soon, if at all.

Why the decision? Ostensibly, because an unrepentant county in Alabama complained about the curse of federal oversight even as they continued to enact racially discriminatory voting laws. That particular county was Shelby, Alabama, which, in another irony, was the state where the Civil Rights movement was essentially born and withstood its trial by fire in Birmingham.

In 2006, the City of Calera, which lies within Shelby County, enacted a discriminatory redistricting plan without complying with Section 5 of the Voting Right Act, leading to the loss of the city’s sole African-American councilman, Ernest Montgomery. After a Federal review, and in compliance with Section 5, Calera was required to draw a non-discriminatory redistricting plan and conduct another election in which Mr. Montgomery regained his seat.

“Shelby County was and is the very kind of place for which the Voting Rights Act was written.” said an election official there, “So, it’s pretty unbelievable that this case has come from this community.”

Of course, Shelby County is not alone. If it were, maybe this wouldn’t be such a problem. But it’s not. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act has been invoked more than 700 times between 1982 and 2006.

So how did our gang of five manage to miss the pervasiveness of voter discrimination issues? Voter suppression is not exactly a rarefied concept, nor is it an accident. It is a tactic. And despite the contrary opinions held by the gang of five on our highest bench, voting suppression is as real as the six-hour long lines in minority voting districts in Florida last November. Those mile long lines and the incredible wait were the result of Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature reducing the number of early voting days from 14 to 8. While they were at it, they also eliminated voting on the Sunday preceding Election Day. Viola! Making it that much harder for working class voters. In Ohio, Republican officials cut early-voting hours leading up to the November election. The week before that, in neighboring Pennsylvania, the Republican House Majority leader was caught on tape confessing that the new restrictive voting law “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” In Virginia, new Voter ID restrictions were put into place as well. Overwhelmingly, these laws are an effort to reduce minority participation in their electoral franchise.

All over the country, in dozens of states, Republican lawmakers, fueled by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), enacted legislation aimed at suppressing the vote under the guise of eliminating that mind forged bugaboo of the right, ‘voter fraud’; without, of course, having any verifiable cases of voter fraud to point to, outside the ones of their own making. (For those who want to keep track, a great example of this was in Florida, again, where Republican’s hired Strategic Allied Consulting who are now facing third degree felony charges after admitting that they submitted dozens of forged voter registration applications last fall ahead of the 2012 election.)

Then of course, there are the redistricting efforts here in Virginia and all across the South. Some successful, others less so. Virginia’s own ignominious efforts– in which Virginia Republicans took advantage of long time civil rights leader Henry Marsh’s absence to push a redistricting plan through the state Senate–were ultimately scuttled.

Why?

Funny you should ask.

Out of fear of the Federal oversight provided for in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Ultimately, the House Speaker determined that risk was too great and simply ruled the redistricting effort, “Not Germane.

That’s why this Supreme Court decision is such an intellectual wreck. Because the Voting Rights Act is not just monumental and historic, it is effective. It is the reason we have increased minority voter participation across the South–the key rationale Robert’s used in the majority decision to abandon it.

Here’s an additional kick in the teeth. All of the voting suppression mentioned above is happening with the Voting Rights Act still intact. What will happen when our Conservative Congress fails to effectively remodel Section 4?

As U.S. District Judge John Bates remarked last year in a voter suppression case out of South Carolina, the deterrent effect of Section 4 alone is enormous. Its mere presence has stopped lawmakers from pitching hundreds more dubious laws (like the kind floated in Virginia this past session).

According to a Brennan Center for Justice Analysis:

In the past 15 years, The Department of Justice (DOJ) has blocked 86 state and local submissions of election changes.

Forty-three of those objections occurred in the last decade. Thirty-one occurred since the 2006 reauthorization of Section 5.

In 2012, for example, a court blocked Texas’s statewide redistricting maps, finding the state enacted certain maps with the intent to racially discriminate against African-American and Latino voters. In the same year, Section 5 prevented implementation of two changes to the method of electing trustees of the Beaumont Independent School District in Beaumont, Texas. The first change replaced two single-member districts of the school district with at-large districts, from which it was highly unlikely that African-Americans could successfully elect their candidates of choice.

Just a few months later, Section 5 prevented other election changes that would have shortened, without notice, the terms of the three incumbent minority candidates, and treated the candidate qualification period as closed such that the incumbents would not have been able to run for re-election in their own districts.

This list goes on and on. None of these instances, and hundreds more, would have been prevented without an effective Voting Rights Act.
“In its ideologically motivated and divisive 5-4 ruling today in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court has drawn the teeth of one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history, the Voting Rights Act.” said Scott Price, President of the Alliance for Progressive Values, “At a time when voter suppression is spreading once again across parts of the country with long histories of discrimination, this ruling sends a clear signal that the courts will look the other way while the franchise of minorities is infringed. By booting this issue back to a dysfunctional and moribund Congress that has nevertheless regularly reapproved the VRA, the Court has guaranteed that American citizens will find it harder to vote in upcoming elections. This is a shameful moment.”

Now, acts of minority voter suppression will have to be challenged after the fact, if they are challenged at all.

Yet,  Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his decision that “Things have changed in the South. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.”

In yet another irony, if they are rare, it is precisely because the Voting Rights Act prevented them.

“The Court,” Justice Ginsburg wrote in dissent, “makes no genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled. Instead, it relies on increases in voter registration and turnout as if that were the whole story.” And then she proceeded to outline the countless ways in which racial discrimination in voting practices is alive and well in Alabama and other jurisdictions covered by the law–citing actual evidence.

“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective.” Justice Ruth Bader Gingsburg read her minority opinion out loud from the bench in a stinging rebuke to the majority:

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and continues to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing out your umbrella in the rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Unfortunately, it is the minority voters across the nation who will suffer the deluge.

Richmond Water Wars: How to Raise Water Rates, Scuttle Protests and (almost) Get Away With It.

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Part I (in which we learn that even ‘free’ water has a cost)

Richmond has a water problem. Despite being the ‘river’ city, with some of the finest urban white water in the country rolling through our metropolis, cheap water for its residents is hard to come by.

It’s not a question of scarcity: we have plenty of water for drinking, bathing and most household needs. During the dry, drought-prone summer months, conservation is called for, but unlike many Western communities our essential water supply, the James River, is doing okay. The way our system works, water from the James River goes to the Water Treatment Plant where it is settled, filtered, aerated and disinfected to improve the taste and kill bacteria. Then it leaves the treatment plant through a distribution system of pipes that carries the water to Richmond homes. This entire process, with the Richmond Water Treatment plant serving at its center, was put in place 89 years ago. And over those 89 years, the price for water remained relatively consistent, rising with the general rise of inflation, but certainly no faster.

But following a national trend, rates were increased significantly in 1999, and continued rising up through 2011, when city council set Richmond’s minimum water charge to $49.40, one of the highest in the country. They needed to raise revenue to repair aging infrastructure, the city council claimed, and so adjusted their books by raising the price of water. Worse, they didn’t tie the price to the actual consumption of water. That $49.40 is where a water utility bill begins, before you take your first sip. This makes for a deeply regressive charge. An average Richmond utility bill can hover around $80 to $100 dollars (or much more). You could live in Richmond, not drink a drop of water, never take a shower and not flush your toilet for a month and still be charged $50 bucks. That rolls up to nearly $600 per household per year before you take your first sip.

Scott Burger, director of Falls of the James Sierra Club and a member of the Better Government for Richmond watchdog group, was outraged when he heard of the rate hike last year. “It was despicable,” he said. The rates were especially hard-hitting for the elderly and those on fixed incomes. Further, he didn’t believe the argument presented by the Mayor and city council that the hike was necessary to pay for the infrastructure. He argued instead that the city used water and gas utilities as a “cash cow” whose profit was skimmed into the general fund rather than being used to renovate aging infrastructure or passing the savings on to customers.

According to city records, gas and water utilities together contributed about $22 million to the city’s general fund in the form of a “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT, which represents what those utilities would pay in taxes if they were not city-owned. Among other things, the problem is that the ‘general fund’ money can easily be diverted into questionable projects, like the recent deal to bring the Redskins training camp to town.

**

Scott Burger is a big fellow with a great beard and a good strong voice, a cross between Edward Abbey and Grizzly Adams. Not the type of person to take such news sitting down. He developed an online petition with a ruling metaphor–water torture, as in Chinese water torture:

“drip…drip…drip…drip … That sound you hear is the water torture of Richmond’s water/sewer bill. Even if you use no water, residential customers will soon have to pay $49.40 in minimum monthly service charges. These minimum water/sewer service charges are the highest in the entire country.”

He posted the online petition, featuring a huge faucet, and started signing people up.

By September of 2012, he had over a thousand signatures and folks willing to carry signs and address city council on the matter.

“Other cities have old infrastructure, I’m just outraged at the city rates, and I know they could be brought down.”

“What most people are not aware is, if you don’t pay your water bill, it can put you out of your house,” said L. Shirley Harvey, who was protesting at Richmond City Hall.

“Everybody needs to have water so I think it needs to come from another source,” said Karen Andrew, who stood beside a sign that featured a cow—for ‘cash’ cow. “Those who are really struggling, you know, very low-income, it’s not fair to them.”

Finally, as the protests continued to boil, Mayor Jones issued a statement:

“I, too, want to see water and sewer rates lowered for our residents. We’ve taken steps to hopefully move us in the direction of adjusting rates, and I’m expecting recommendations from DPU (Department of Public Utilities) by the beginning of the year.… Our challenge is that we face a number of fixed costs that must be paid that are inseparable from the service of delivering quality water and wastewater services. We have an aging infrastructure and a combined sewer system and we have to maintain historic canals and water and wastewater treatment plants that were built-in the early to mid 1900’s. Even with these challenges, the City offers the lowest connection fees in the area. It has also been erroneously communicated that our minimum water rates and our minimum sewer rates are the highest in the country–that is not accurate.”

There was some truth to his statement. It’s certainly true that repairing aging infrastructure is costly. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimated in a recent report that aging water infrastructure across the United States could cost U.S. municipalities as much as one trillion dollars to upgrade, repair or replace. The question remains, does the money charged to Richmond citizens actually go toward a long-term upgrade solution for that infrastructure, or is ‘profit’ from the utility charges simply skimmed into a ‘general fund’ that can be used for many different needs—heedless of long-term repairs that will be necessary?

One other thing to keep in mind when comparing these numbers is population growth. Richmond has relatively static growth, so there’s limited income generated from new hookup fees—which Mayor Dwight Jones contends is some of the lowest in the country. Well, that might be true, but it’s beside the point. It’s low because there’s no money to be made in onetime hookup fees for a city population that’s in a steady state. But that’s where the outlying counties—growing at a remarkable clip– can make up their revenue and it’s one reason county utilities generally charge very large hookup fees — $13,000 or more in Hanover, for example — in turn this enables them to keep their base rate and volume metric rates for water usage relatively low.

Finally, even if you could find a few other cities in the country with a minimum service charge as high as $50 dollars, as Major Dwight Jones contends, Richmond’s $49.40 in monthly base charges for water and wastewater are definitely the highest in the immediate area.

Hanover County charges $14.17 before usage charges, compared with $17.10 in Henrico and $22.16 in Chesterfield (see the table at the end of the article for a list of comparably sized cities and their corresponding utility rates). In most instances, Richmond more than doubles them. And here’s the interesting part—Richmond is selling surrounding counties its own water from the James presumably at a lower rate than it sells the water to its own citizens. So you have to ask, if water can be sold more cheaply to outlying counties, why isn’t the price lowered for the local community? Furthermore, if a profit is being made off of these utility costs, shouldn’t that be used as a nest egg specifically earmarked for water infrastructure overhauls in the future? Rather than being skimmed off to the general fund?

Part II (in which The City backs down — sort of)

From the perspective of a city council person, it must have looked bad. You’re selling the city water to local counties at a cheaper rate than you’re selling it to your own citizens; an online petition has been signed by over a thousand residents linking your water rates to torture; and a few news pieces note that you’ve got some of the highest water rates in the country. It’s likely, if you’re a wise council member, or maybe just a council member with an eye toward the future, you’ll try to quell that fury. But in order to do that, you will need to make a decision. Do you actually lower rates or do you move the rates around a little. Reduce the one rate everyone is looking at … and then jack up all the rest? Good question.

Mayor Dwight Jones’ answered that question on March, 13, 2013 by way of an announcement on his city blog:

“Mayor Jones has called for a major change in the city’s water rate structure and particularly the base water and wastewater rates. The Mayor’s proposal calls for a substantial reduction in those base rates (from the current base rate total of $49.40 to $26.11) as well as a move to charging for volumetric usage. This means that residents and businesses will pay more for higher usages of water and wastewater.”

“Through this rate structure change, an estimated 50% of our residential households will see a decrease in their water and wastewater bills. This action responds to the numerous voices, including mine, requesting a review of our structure and way to reduce the base charges.”

The problem, as Scott Burger has pointed out, was that it wasn’t much of a reduction. Not really. When you add up the volume metric rate, the wastewater rate, the gas increase and the service rate, even with the 50% reduction, on average it still comes up as higher than your last year’s bill. To be precise, it comes to a net increase of 13.8%. Dollar for dollar, one activist compared his costs under the old rate schedule and calculated his bill under the new rate schedule: it came out to twelve dollars more.

Administrators of the non-profit Alliance for Progressive Values went through the proposed budget “papers” and crunched the numbers. As it stands, they noted that Richmonders pay more for water than almost any other city in the country. Breaking down the various papers for the budget they found increases in all volume charged rates; the wastewater volume rate increase was as high as 125%, effectively doubling that portion of the utility bill should the City budget pass in July. In addition, the recycling rate went up by 14.8%, gas fees by 3% and the standard water rate more than doubled (a complete breakdown of the numbers can be found at the end of this article.)

Scott Burger also pointed out that the DPU’s Payment-In-Lieu- Of-Taxes (PILOT) needed scrutiny because the base service charge could be reduced further if the DPU is not paying more than required into the general fund. And finally, “There still exists the glaring difference in residential water prices between the City and the surrounding counties, which may in effect be encouraging suburban sprawl.”

So last Monday, Scott Burger returned to City Hall. He brought out his signs again, and again he and a half-dozen other community activists stood outside the city council meeting denouncing the new proposed rates with cash cows and water faucets. Beneath their talk of excessive charges, there was a sense of betrayal.

“It’s no good,” said Rhonda Hening, vice-president of Alliance for Progressive Values. Scott Burger told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the cut in base charges were “laudable” but, holding a sign that he might have held a year ago demanding a change in the water rates, he used a familiar phrase to describe the new increase in volume charges: “despicable.”

And, he noted, the profit from those extra charges will still go straight into the general fund. The Richmond Times Dispatch reported that the city’s utilities are expected to contribute $23.8 million to the general fund next year, up from more than $22.1 million this year.

City Council President Charles R. Samuels, a dapper young man who looks to be in his late thirties told a reporter for the Richmond Times Dispatch that he hoped “people are excited to know that their voices are heard” on the water fees. Apparently, there was no irony intended.

When asked about specifics in the budget, he said, “We’re all absorbing the budget and getting ready for our meetings,” sounding a little like a man who wished the whole thing would just go away.

But neither Scott Burger nor Rhonda Hening nor the other activists look like they’re going anywhere. Ideally, they would like to see a further reduction in the base rate, down to 19 dollars or less, and a more nuanced volume rate schedule, with those consuming the most water (larger households or industries, for example) receiving a higher charge per gallon, while those whose consumption is light receive a discounted fee for conservation purposes. Also, they want to ensure sufficient funds are set aside for long-term infrastructure repair. Last Monday evening, outside the city council meeting, they waved their signs at passing traffic and occasionally a horn sounded. Reporters from local television stations and newspapers stopped by to ask what was going on. The activists were more than happy to explain.

**

The city council is scheduled to vote on the revised budget Monday, May 13, so stay tuned. In the mean time, express yourself! Here’s a handy list of email links and phone numbers for your Richmond city council members.

Courtesy of Scott Burger, below are some comparable minimum water/sewer service charges for other localities:
Richmond: $49.40 [includes no water/sewer volume]
Henrico: $16.27
Chesterfield: $22.16
Norfolk: $1.00
Charlottesville: $8.00
Petersburg: $13.90
Hopewell: $25.39
Alexandria: $18.20
Roanoke: $20.75
Washington DC: $3.86
Charlotte: $4.92
Greensboro: $3.04
Raleigh: $5.81
Columbia,SC: $11.01
Macon,GA $15.75
Tallahassee,FL $24.86
Pittsburgh: $16.59 (includes first 1000 gallons)
Knoxville: $24.75 (includes first 1,500 gallons)
Memphis: $10.82
Louisville Ky: $21.27
Little Rock AR: $20.72
Oklahoma City: $13.03
Kansas City Mo: $22.30
Milwaukee: $9.65
Lincoln Ne: $4.92
Bismarck ND: $12.20
Helena,MT: $6.97
New York City: $12.90 (includes 4 Ccf)
New Orleans: $15.65
Phoenix: $5.36
Albuquerque: $15.32
Dallas: $8.30
San Francisco: $7.90
Atlanta: $13.12
Seattle: $23.93

Below is the APV statement on the proposed Richmond Water Rates:
“At present, we pay monthly service fees of $19.68 for drinking water (wastewater has a separate service charge of $29.72—leading to the total water service charge of $49.40) and a volume charge per Ccf of $1.63. If this paper passes, we will begin paying a monthly service fee of $11.56 and a volume charge of $3.21 per Ccf starting in July of this year. While we are pleased with the lower base fee, the difference will be more than made up for with the dramatic increase in the volume charges. Applying the new rates to existing bills, we found a net increase of 13.8%.

Paper 53-2013 raises gas fees 3%. Current charges include a monthly service fee of $11.05 and a volume charge per Ccf of .47. If passed, the rates will jump to a monthly service fee of $11.36 and a volume charge per Ccf of .483.

Paper 57-2013 raises the fees for recycling. Current recycling charges are $1.69. The proposed recycling charge to begin in July is $1.94. This seems like a fairly small amount, but in fact it is an increase of 14.8%.

Paper 62-2013 has the highest increases, with wastewater volume fees increasing nearly 125%. Today, the monthly service fee is $29.72 and the volume charge per Ccf is $2.586. If this paper passes, the new monthly service fee will drop to $14.55, but the volume charge per Ccf will rise to $5.82. In practical terms, this means that the wastewater portion of your utility bill will more than double come July.”

~by Jack Johnson

APV ~ Please help Us Be A Big Progressive Voice!

Make the Voice Choice! Join APV to roar with the big guys!

Want to Roar Back at the Big Guys?
Join Alliance for Progressive Values today.

With your help, we can turn up the volume on the progressive voice being heard at local, state and national levels. Each new APV member adds to our impact and strengthens our efforts to educate and influence the public, the media and elected officials about the progressive issues that matter to us all.

APV is an all volunteer, not-for-profit organization working to promote basic, common sense progressive values: economic fairness, social justice, and good government.

Among many other ongoing projects, APV currently directs task forces in Women’s Reproductive Rights, Clean Energy and the Environment, Sustainable Agriculture and the Food Supply, as well as fighting Voter Suppression and promoting Clean Elections.

The positions APV takes on specific issues are guided by our members. Your input, gained through surveys, polling and open meetings, determines our way forward. Your thoughts and recommendations in APV’s Facebook member group also guide our positions. There, you’ll enjoy political discussions mingled with articles, cartoons, updates or whatever keeps you in the loop.

Other valuable information from our Public Policy Director, Victoria Bragunier, our Board of Directors, our Lobbying Support Group and the leaders of other projects, is posted on our website and our Fan page. In cooperation with other progressive groups, APV keeps members well-informed about concerning trends and pending legislation, as well as last-minute developments that need immediate attention. Members also receive regular news letters and highlights from our president, Scott Price.

Here’s our last newsletter, a year-end wrap-up of APV’s action!

And that’s not all. APV’s monthly Salons are great, too! In Richmond, on the second Monday of each month, APV invites members and guests to a casual, after work get-together at Helen’s Restaurant at 2527 West Main Street for a complimentary light dinner (cash bar for wine, cocktails and beer).

There, we have guest speakers, lively discussions and lots of member input, all of which strengthen our resolve and prove to be a lot of fun. But you should come and see for yourself. Please join us. We’d love to meet you and you can talk with APV staff and other members about issues APV is working on.

As you may know, APV is a growing, well-respected and wonderfully active group, and we truly depend on our many fully engaged and energetic volunteers – members and staff alike. But we also know that some people do not have the time or ability to extend themselves more actively. When you become a member of APV, please know that you’re in good company, and that we appreciate your support and your membership regardless of other participation or active service you may want to offer. All levels of engagement are welcome!

Simply put, we need you. The other side has an enormous amount of money and a dedicated and aggressive base. They won’t give up no matter how badly their policies fail us, or how much damage they do to our country. I think we’ve all realized that by now, and that’s why we fight! The Alliance for Progressive Values is here to stay. We’re gaining strength and we’re in this battle for the long run, so please give us your support and help us in any way you can.

For one thing, you could help with our New Year’s Fund Drive which is still going on. We know times are tough, but we have only just passed the 50% mark and need to make our goal of $3000 for the first half of 2013. Help us get the message out, please?

Join APV today and Give Your Values a Voice!

APV Website, FAQ, and contact information

APV Facebook Fan Page

Join APV Now (25 dollars per year) or Donate here!

We sincerely thank you, and hope to hear from you soon!

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