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Fall 2019 Capital News Service

‘No pedestals, no weapons, no horses,’ -- Women’s Monument Unveiled on Capitol Square

By Susan Shibut, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Hundreds watched as the first seven statues of “Voices from the Garden: The Virginia Women’s Monument” were unveiled on the Capitol grounds this morning, on Indigenous Peoples Day. 

The monument is the nation’s first created to showcase remarkable women of Virginia.

Mary Margaret Whipple, vice chair of the Women’s Monument Commission, said the monument embodies the goals of the commission to honor real women in a way that is not mythic or symbolic. The Virginia General Assembly established the commission to determine and recommend an appropriate women’s monument for Capitol Square in 2010. 

“These women rose to the occasion and made significant achievements,” Whipple said. “They were from all walks of life. From different times and places. They were famous and obscure. Real women. Even imperfect women. Who have shaped the history of this commonwealth.” 

Clerk of the Senate Susan Clarke Schaar spoke about the decade-long process for the design and realization of the monument. She worked with professors and historians to design the structure. 

“No pedestals, no weapons, no horses,” Schaar said. “They wanted it to be approachable. They wanted it to be warm and welcoming. And they wanted to convey a sense of consensus building. And they wanted young women and young men to know that they could do anything they wanted to do with their lives.”

Gov. Ralph Northam said the monument is long overdue. 

“For far too long we have overlooked the transformative contributions of women and other underrepresented groups,” said Northam. “Until recently that has been the case on Capitol Square as well.”

Capitol Square is also home to the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, opened in 2008, and “Mantle,” a monument dedicated to Virginia’s Indian tribes in 2018. 

Artist Kehinde Wiley last month in Times Square unveiled “Rumors of War,” a statue of a young African American man on a horse in a pose modeled after Confederate monuments. The statue will be permanently moved to the entrance of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Arthur Ashe Boulevard in December.

2019 is the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America. It also marks the 400th anniversary of the first slaves arriving in Virginia. 

Sen. Ryan McDougle, a Republican running for reelection in the 4th District, brought his daughter Reagan on stage with him. He said the monument was about inspiring the accomplishments of women yet to come. 

“It’s about Reagan, and all the girls here today, and all the girls that will come; whether they have those role models in their families or not, they will be able to see that women that have come before them have achieved tremendous things,” McDougle said.

When the monument is completed it will feature a dozen bronze statues on a granite plaza and an etched glass Wall of Honor inscribed with 230 names of notable Virginian women and room for more. For a future honoree to qualify for the wall, she must be a native Virginian or have lived mostly in Virginia and must be deceased for at least 10 years.

The granite wall features a quote excerpted from a 1912 address that Mary Johnston, a 20th century Virginian author, made to an all-male Richmond conference of state governors:

“It did not come up in a night, the Woman Movement, and it is in no danger of perishing from view. It is here to stay and grow … It is indestructible, it is moving on with an ever- increasing depth and velocity, and it is going to revolutionize the world.”

The seven completed statues are Anne Burras Laydon, a Jamestown colonist; Cockacoeske, Pamunkey chieftain; Mary Draper Ingles, a frontierswoman; Elizabeth Keckly, seamstress and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln; Laura Copenhaver, an entrepreneur in the textile industry; Virginia Randolph, an educator; and Adèle Clark, suffragist and artist. 

Five more statues will be added as they are funded and completed — Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, America’s inaugural first lady; Clementina Bird Rind, the first female printer in Virginia; Sally Louisa Tompkins, a hospital administrator; Maggie L. Walker, a civil rights leader and entrepreneur; and Sarah G. Boyd Jones, teacher and physician. 

The statues, which each required a $200,000 investment, were sculpted by New York-based Ivan Schwartz, who also crafted the Capitol’s Thomas Jefferson statue.

Schwartz spoke about the lack of statues to, for, or about women. According to the Washington Post, of the estimated 5,193 public statues depicting historic figures on display on street corners and parks throughout the United States, 394 are of women. 

“Women have been excised from the marble pedestal of history,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz has recently worked on other sculptures of notable women around the country. He mentioned projects highlighting Susan B. Anthony, Anne Frank and Harriet Tubman.

“I still make sculptures of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington,” Schwartz said. “I don’t turn my back on these good gentlemen. But their gentlemen’s club, which has occupied our national living room, our nation’s public spaces, has at last started to admit women, African Americans and Native Americans.”

Girl Scouts unveiled the structures, pulling back a blue cloth as the name of each statue was announced by Susan Allen, chair of the Virginia Capitol Foundation and former first lady of Virginia. The Girl Scouts represented councils from the Commonwealth of Virginia, Virginia Skyline and the Colonial Coast. 

Allen gave closing remarks, calling the occasion “a monumental day.”

“Let us recognize our diverse past, and those on whose shoulders we stand so proudly today and be inspired to work on for a better future for our daughters and the young leaders of tomorrow like these lovely young women here today,” Allen said.

Virginia Ranks Among States With Lowest Crime Rates

 

By Jaclyn Barton, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia had the fourth lowest violent crime rate and 13th lowest property crime rate in the United States last year, according to new data from the FBI.

The commonwealth had 200 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 2018, the data showed. Only Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire had a lower violent crime rate. Nationally, there were 369 violent offenses per 100,000 population.

Virginia had about 1,666 property crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. A dozen states — topped by New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont — had lower property crime rates. Nationwide, the rate was 2,200 property crimes per 100,000 population.

From 2017 to 2018, the violent crime rate decreased 3% and the property crime rate fell 7% nationwide and in Virginia.

All of Virginia’s metropolitan areas had violent crime rates below the nationwide level, and most were below the national rate for property crimes.

The Winchester and Harrisonburg metro areas had the least violent crime — fewer than 140 offenses per 100,000 population.

The metro areas with the most violent crime were Roanoke (235 offenses per 100,000 residents), Richmond (239), Washington-Arlington-Alexandria (265) and Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News (307).The Virginia metro areas with the least property crime were Harrisonburg (1,137 offenses per 100,000 population) and Lynchburg (1,350). The metro areas with the most property crime were Richmond (2,156 offenses per 100,000 residents), Roanoke (2,378) and Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News (2,405).

Under the FBI’s definition, violent crimes include murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Property crimes include burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft.

Although Virginia’s overall statewide and metro-area crimes rates generally were low, the data revealed some trouble spots — especially regarding homicides.

Nationwide, there were 5 murders for every 100,000 people last year. Virginia’s murder rate was 4.6 per 100,000 population.

Most Virginia metro areas had murder rates below the national average. For example, the Winchester area didn’t report any homicides last year; the Blacksburg-Christiansburg area had just one; and the Charlottesville area had three (for a rate of 1.4 per 100,000 population).

But the murder rates in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria and Lynchburg metro areas were at the national average of 5 killings per 100,000 residents. The murder rates exceeded the national level in Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News and the Roanoke metro areas (about 7 murders per 100,000 residents) and the Richmond area (almost 8 murders per 100,000 population).

Murder rates were well above the national average in several Virginia cities, the FBI data showed. The murder rate last year was 44 killings per 100,000 population in Petersburg, 27 in Danville, 23 in Richmond, 21 in Portsmouth and 15 in Norfolk.

Of the 490 U.S. cities with a population between 25,000 and 35,000, only three had a higher murder rate than Petersburg. (One of the three was Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in 2018.)

Of the 31 U.S. cities with a population between 200,000 and 250,000, only two (Birmingham, Alabama, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana) had a murder rate higher than Richmond last year.

Among cities in Virginia, Portsmouth, Newport News, Richmond, Norfolk and Roanoke all had violent crime rates and property crime rates above the national average.

The Roanoke Police Department is active in community outreach programs created to reduce crime. They include neighborhood watch groups, a summer youth basketball league and programs to help students read and do their homework. Police officials attend as many as 30 community events each month.

“There is no way to determine causation factors for a potential decrease in crime. It could be a number of different reasons, and we cannot determine that any of our community outreach or crime prevention has impacted the crime rates,” said Caitlyn Cline, who does community outreach, public information and crime prevention for the Roanoke Police Department.

In 2018, Richmond reported 52 murders — more than any other city or county in Virginia. Still, that was a far cry from two decades ago.

“I don’t think Richmond or Virginia has a particularly high murder rate relative to places like Maryland and Baltimore,” said Patrick Lowery, assistant professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University.

He said that in 1994, the number of murders in Richmond “peaked at 160. In 2014, we were down to 43, so that’s about four times less homicides relative to 10 or 15 years ago.”

Overall, violent crime in every major American city has decreased since the early 1990s. Lowery attributes that to many factors, such as community outreach programs and changing sentencing laws.

The FBI data release, from an annual report called Crime in the United States, represents statistics reported by about 16,700 law-enforcement agencies last year.

In June, the Virginia State Police issued a state-level report called Crime in Virginia. The State Police report covered additional crimes such as kidnapping and abduction.

A total of 1,696 kidnapping and abduction offenses were reported in 2018. That number was up 6% from 2017. Prince William County had the most kidnappings last year — 111.

“It’s not as if random people are getting snatched off the street,” said Sgt. Jonathan Perock, supervisor for the Prince William County Police Department. “The majority of the time, it’s a domestic incident in which both parties are known to one another.”

 

 

Schools With the Best and Worst Graduation Rates

By Sravan Gannavarapu, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Three small rural school districts had 100% graduation rates this year, and the Brunswick County, Manassas and Richmond school systems had the state’s lowest graduation rates, according to data released by the Virginia Department of Education.

Colonial Beach and Charles City, which each had fewer than 50 students in their 2019 graduation classes, and Highland County, which had just 14, graduated all of their seniors. Twenty-seven district had rates of at least 95%, including such larger school districts as York, Montgomery and Hanover counties.

The proportion of Virginia high school students graduating on time dipped from 91.6% in 2018 to 91.5% in 2019, the data showed.

Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said Virginia’s on-time graduation rate has risen by more than 10 percentage points in the decade since the department began reporting graduation rates that account for every student who enters the ninth grade.

“I believe this long-term, upward trend will continue as school divisions and the commonwealth adopt equitable policies and practices that provide instructional and support services tailored to the unique needs of every learner,” Lane said.

During the past school year, 74 of the state’s 131 districts had graduation rates above the statewide average. That was true of 197 of Virginia’s 327 high schools.

Eleven high schools — most of them with 50 or fewer students — had 100% graduation rates in 2019. Six of those schools achieved perfect rates the previous year as well: Chincoteague High in Accomack County; Highland High in Highland County; Achievable Dream Academy in Newport News; Open High and Franklin Military Academy in Richmond; and Chilhowie High in Smyth County.

Greensville County Public Schools, which covers both Greensville County and the City of Emporia had a dropout rate of 9.1% and a graduation rate of 86.6%.  The graduation rate for the previous year was 88.8% while the dropout rate was 8.6%.

Among high schools with at least 400 seniors, three had graduation rates of 99% or higher: Thomas Jefferson High for School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County; Cosby High in Chesterfield County; and Rock Ridge High in Loudoun County.

Analysis of the data also showed that:

  • The Lunenburg County, Colonial Beach and Charles City County school divisions registered the most improvement in their graduation rates in 2019. Each district’s rate jumped by more than 10 percentage points from 2018.
  • The Brunswick, Amherst and Sussex County school divisions saw the biggest drops in graduation rates — at least 7 percentage points.

Many of the students who did not graduate on time are still pursuing their high school diploma or a GED. Other students, however, have quit school and are considered dropouts.

Statewide, the dropout rate rose from 5.5 in 2018 to 5.6 this past year. The dropout rates varied among demographic and socioeconomic groups. The rate was:

  • 4% for female students and 7% for male students
  • 2% for Asian students, 3% for white students, 6% for African American students and 17% for Hispanic students
  • 8% for economically disadvantaged students, 9% for students with disabilities, 22% for homeless students and 26% for English language learners
  • The Richmond Public Schools had the highest dropout rate in 2019 — more than 24%.

“We are of course deeply disappointed by the latest graduation numbers, but as we shared last spring, we knew a decline was possible — if not likely — as we stopped a number of inappropriate adult practices that were artificially inflating our rate,” Jason Kamras, superintendent of the Richmond school district, said in a statement.

“We clearly have more work to do, but I’m confident we are now heading in the right direction.”

Chesterfield County, which had a dropout rate of 7%, planned to do a “complete audit” of every student who had quit school, said Superintendent Merv Daugherty.

“This involves making personal contacts with each family with a goal of having the student re-enroll,” Daugherty said. “Additional student support services are also being incorporated to work with students who may be vulnerable to dropping out.”

Virginia To Develop Four New Solar Energy Projects

By Jimmy O’Keefe, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Permits were issued Thursday for the construction and operation of four new solar projects that are expected to offset carbon dioxide emissions in the state by 459 million pounds — the equivalent of driving more than 44,000 cars for a year.

“Virginia is adopting solar technology at record rates, and we are building an economy that is cleaner and greener as a result,” Gov. Ralph Northam stated in a press release announcing the permits, issued by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

The four new solar projects will produce an additional 192 megawatts of electricity. On average, 1 megawatt of solar energy can provide 190 homes with electrical power, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The newly announced solar projects will consist of the following:

  • Danville Farm, which is being developed in Pittsylvania County by Strata Solar Development and will generate 12 megawatts of electricity.

  • Dragonfly Solar, which is being developed in Campbell County by Apex Clean Energy Holdings and will generate 80 megawatts of electricity. 

  • Grasshopper Solar Project, which is being developed in Mecklenburg County by Dominion Energy Services and will generate 80 megawatts of electricity. 

  • Turner Solar, which is being developed in Henrico County by Cypress Creek Renewables and will generate 20 megawatts of electricity.

“Over the last five years, Virginia has seen a dramatic increase in installed solar developments,” DEQ Director David Paylor stated in a press release. “As of August this year, there are nearly a dozen small projects in Virginia producing 357 megawatts, enough to power more than 86,000 homes.”

Last month, Northam issued Executive Order 43, which calls for 100% of Virginia’s electricity to come from carbon-free sources by 2050. The executive order also calls for 30% of the state’s electricity to be powered by renewable energy resources by 2030. In 2018, 7% of Virginia’s electricity was generated from renewable energy sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration

“This Executive Order will help ensure that Virginia remains at the forefront of clean energy innovation, meets the urgency of the challenges brought on by climate change, and captures the economic, environmental, and health benefits of this energy growth in an equitable way that benefits all Virginians,” Northam stated in a press release when the executive order was issued. 

Solar energy developments can save taxpayers money. Partnering with Sun Tribe Solar, a Charlottesville-based company, Libbie Mill Library in Henrico County began installation of a rooftop solar system in September. The 122-kilowatt system is projected to save Henrico taxpayers $150,000 over the next 25 years. 

According to the governor’s executive order, at least 3,000 megawatts of electricity will be generated from solar and onshore wind sources by 2022. And by 2026, up to 2,500 megawatts of electricity will be generated by offshore wind sources. Currently, the state does not generate any large-scale electricity through wind farms, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  

Dominion Energy announced last month that it is building a 220-turbine wind farm off Virginia’s coastline. The project, projected to cost $7.8 billion, will be the largest offshore wind development in the U.S. Once the wind farm is complete, Dominion claims it will power 650,000 homes at peak wind. 

“Governor Ralph Northam has made it clear Virginia is committed to leading the way in offshore wind,” Mark Mitchell, vice president of generation construction for Dominion Energy, said in a press release. “We are rising to this challenge with this 2,600-megawatt commercial offshore wind development.”

DEQ is responsible for administering state and federal environmental policy in Virginia. The agency issues permits to regulate levels of pollution throughout the state.

Unemployment Drops in All Virginia Metro Areas

By Andrew Riddler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Staunton-Waynesboro area had the lowest unemployment rate in August of all metropolitan areas in Virginia — and one of the lowest in the country, according to data released this week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Unemployment in Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County was 2.5% in August. Of the approximately 390 metro areas in the U.S., only 21 had a lower unemployment rate.

All Virginia metro areas were below August’s national unemployment rate of 3.7%. Unemployment was below 3% in the Charlottesville, Winchester, Harrisonburg, Roanoke, Richmond and Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford metro areas. The rate was 3.1% in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News areas and 3.2% in the Lynchburg and Washington-Arlington-Alexandria areas.

All metro areas of Virginia saw their rates drop from August 2018 to this past August. The Harrisonburg area had the biggest decline — from 3.2% to 2.7%.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics released the metro-level data for August on Wednesday. That was a follow-up to an announcement on Sept. 20 that the national unemployment was 3.7% and Virginia’s statewide unemployment rate was 2.8% in August.

Also on Wednesday, the Virginia Employment Commission released the August unemployment rates for the state’s cities and counties. The data showed that compared with the previous year, unemployment rates went down in 124 of the 133 localities.

Even so, 27 cities and counties had unemployment rates at or above the national average in August. The localities were largely in the southwestern and southern parts of Virginia.

The highest levels of unemployment in August were in Buchanan County (5.7%), Petersburg (5.4%) and Danville and Dickenson and Wise counties (all at 4.9%). Emporia, Lexington and Lee County all had unemployment rates above 4.5%.

Arlington County continued to have the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 1.9%. The city of Fairfax was at 2%, and Alexandria and Falls Church were at 2.1%.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday that the national unemployment rate had dropped even lower — to 3.5% — in September. “The unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since May 1969 — over 50 years ago,” the White House said.

 

 

 

Virginia Attorney General Sparks Up Conversation on Legalizing Recreational Marijuana

By Jeff Raines, Capital News Service

RICHMOND –Attorney General Mark Herring tweeted his support for the legalization of recreational marijuana in Virginia Tuesday night. 

“Virginians know we can do better. It’s time to move toward legal, regulated adult use,” Herring said in his retweet ofa studythat revealed more than half of Virginians agree with him. 

The study, published by the University of Mary Washington last month, showed that 61% of Virginians support legalization of recreational marijuana, while 34% oppose legalization. The remaining respondents said they were uncertain.

 This is a noticeable uptick from a UMW study conducted in 2017 that showed 39% of Virginians supported legalizing marijuana for personal use. The 2017 question was worded differently, asking if marijuana should be legalized in general, for personal or medical use, or remain illegal. A plurality said medical marijuana should be legal and the rest (17%) were opposed to legalization. 

Recreational use of marijuana is becoming an increasingly popular issue for Virginia politicians as they go into the November State Senate elections and the upcoming 2021 gubernatorial elections. 

Stephen Farnsworth, a UMW political science professor, said he believes legalization is several years away, but the timeline could change if a Democratic majority is elected in November. Eighty percent of the Commonwealth’s youth (25 and under) are in favor of recreational marijuana, Farnsworth said. “Winning the support of younger voters can be key.” 

Herring, a candidate in the 2021 gubernatorial elections, has long voiced his support for decriminalization of marijuana. 

Micheal Kelly, director of communications for Herring, said in an email the attorney general believes “Virginia needs to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, take action to address past convictions, and a move towards legal and regulated adult use in Virginia.”

Almost all marijuana-related arrests last year (90%) were for possession alone, and arrests for marijuana possession have increased 115% from 2003 to 2017, according to a press release from the attorney general’s office. First time marijuana convictions in Virginia have risen 53% from 2008 to 2017, with enforcement costs estimated to be nearly $81 million a year.

General Assembly Candidates’ Environmental Report Cards Reveal Partisan Divides

 

By Emma North, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Sierra Club recently endorsed a number of candidates running on environmentally friendly platforms after its legislative scorecards — which give incumbents grades on their past environmental performance — presented a stark contrast between the priorities of the Democrat and Republican parties. 

Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, said that while she can’t know what drives the legislative decision making of others, she thinks environmental issues end up being addressed as partisan issues. 

“I think when most people talk about themselves and their families, it’s very nonpartisan,” Adams said. “When it gets into policy making it becomes more partisan and sadly that may just be because people aren’t remembering that it’s affecting their people and their family.”

General Assembly members could be tasked with passing legislation in the 2020 session that tackles issues such as coal ash management, clean energy mandates, climate change, Chesapeake Bay management and public land protection. For example, Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, campaigns on prioritizing the disposal of coal ash outside of her district, while Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Faquier, has focused her environmental support on the preservation of agricultural land. 

Nine legislators received an A-plus on the Sierra Club’s legislative scorecard for the 2019 General Assembly session, four from Prince William County. The lawmakers that received perfect scores were: 

Senators:

  • Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William

  • Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake

Delegates: 

  • Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond 

  • Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William

  • Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas

  • Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William

  • Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico 

  • Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William

  • Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax

With the exception of Rodman who is now running for a seat in Senate District 12, all of these incumbents are running for reelection in November. 

Of the 140 incumbent General Assembly members, 15 scored a C grade. All but 14 Democrats scored a B or above and all of the Republicans scored a D or F except for Vogel, who earned a C. 

Vogel was recognized as a legislative hero by the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. She represents District 27, which has a prominent agriculture industry and includes the counties of Frederick, Fauquier, Clarke, Stafford, Culpeper, Loudoun and the city of Winchester.

“I feel like I have to fight harder and do the right thing so that we have the opportunity to preserve agriculture and that means open space and that means good votes that usually skew more on ballots toward conservation votes,” Vogel said. 

The Republican Party of Virginia has a majority in the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate. The environment and clean energy are not included in the party’s priorities. 

“I wish I could have seen more of the candidates from both sides who are running for office talking about the environment,” said Guzman. “I believe that it should be part of the three main issues of your campaign if you are considering running for office.”

The legislative scorecard rated candidates based on how they voted on key bills, including HB 1934, which expanded the number of state agencies that can operate electric vehicle charging stations, and SB1456 and HB2329, which together would have removed barriers to generating solar energy.

“I think the environment is very important and as a legislator we have the responsibility to act today to secure the environment for future generations,” Guzman said. 

To help voters find candidates with environmentally conscious platforms the The Virginia LCV assembled a list of current endorsements to help voters find candidates with pro-environment platforms. Democrat Shelly Simonds is again challenging Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, for the House seat in District 94. Simonds said her campaign includes promoting clean energy, expanding urban farming and increasing public transportation for Newport News. 

All of the Virginia LCV endorsements for 2019 are Democratic candidates with the exception of Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan. 

Adams said she is disappointed in how some legislators don’t act in favor of a healthy Virginia and thinks that solutions such as adding more greenery to urban areas shouldn’t deal with party lines. 

“I really do hope that there is some kind of global awakening,” Adams said. “We can't make the environment partisan.”

Dominion To Fund Electric School Buses in Virginia

By Susan Shibut and Jason Boleman, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A greener commute could soon be in store for some students across Virginia.  

Richmond-based Dominion Energy is now accepting applications from public school districts interested in receiving electric school buses in a program aimed to reduce carbon emissions, lower transportation costs and strengthen Dominion’s electric grid. The program’s goal is to replace the existing 13,000 diesel school buses with electric models by 2030.

Upfront costs are about $120,000 higher than a comparable diesel bus, according to a report filed in July with the House Select Committee. Dominion will pay the cost difference for electric buses as well as the cost of new charging stations and infrastructure for selected schools.

The bus batteries can be tapped as an energy source and provide grid stability in times of high energy needs. During a power outage or emergency, for example, the buses could serve as mobile power stations. Schools will be selected for the program based on the locational benefit of their local power grid. 

According to Dominion, 1,050 buses would provide enough energy to power more than 10,000 homes. 

The new buses operate much more quietly than the current fleet, which could help facilitate communication between drivers and students. Each bus also is equipped with a seat belt for every student.

“Customers will benefit from the battery technology and vehicle-to-grid technology built into the bus system, which will enhance reliability and support renewable energy development,” said Dominion spokesperson Samantha Moore.

Richmond Public Schools Superintendent Jason Kamras said that the school district is “incredibly excited” about the possibility of the initiative coming to Richmond. 

“We believe we’re the perfect school division to launch this initiative as we’ve already demonstrated a commitment to making RPS ‘greener,’” said Kamras.

Electric school buses would be another in a series of environmental initiatives for Richmond Public Schools. Solar panels installed in 10 schools are on track to be operative in late October and into November, and another recent initiative replaced styrofoam cafeteria trays with recyclable alternatives. 

Air quality inside the buses is six times better than in non-electric models, according to Dominion, and one bus would reduce carbon emissions by 54,000 pounds each year. Dominion estimates that a switch to electric buses will reduce operation and maintenance costs for schools by 60%. 

“They have other benefits too you know, they clean the air, they’re quieter, they’re easier to maintain because they have fewer parts -- moving parts -- that need to be replaced than an internal combustion engine,” said Wendy Fewster, a LEED-certified RPS sustainability associate. 

The initiative was praised by environmental advocacy organization Environment Virginia, who encouraged school districts to apply for the initiative.

“Dominion’s announcement is an important part of addressing climate change and protecting the health of thousands of school children across the commonwealth,” said Elly Boehmer, director of Environment Virginia.

Dominion aims to have 50 electric school buses fully operational by the end of 2020. The company also wants to grow the program by 200 buses per year for the next five years, pending state approval. The costs for the initial 50 buses will be covered by Dominion’s base rate, with full program implementation expecting to cost less than $1 per month for the average Dominion Energy customer.

Applications for the program close Oct. 5.

Virginia’s Unemployment Rate Drops to 2.8%

 

By Andrew Riddler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Virginia continues to have one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates, state and federal officials said Friday.

The commonwealth’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped from 2.9 percent in July to 2.8 percent in August.

Virginia was tied with Utah and Colorado for the sixth-lowest unemployment rate last month. In July, Virginia and Colorado were tied for the seventh-lowest rate.

Virginia’s jobless rate continues to be much lower than the national average of 3.7 percent. Virginia has the third-lowest rate among states east of the Mississippi River, behind Vermont (2.1%) and New Hampshire (2.5%).

“The drop in Virginia’s unemployment rate is yet another sign that our economy remains strong and our efforts to create opportunity in every corner of the commonwealth are paying real dividends,” Gov. Ralph Northam said.

Timothy Aylor, an economist with the Virginia Employment Commission, also sees the falling rate as a strength for the state.

“Overall, as more people are able to find jobs and as people become more encouraged about the job market and re-enter it, I think that’s a good thing,” Aylor said. “It helps the state, and it helps the economy.”

Among the 18 states with the lowest unemployment rates in the country, Virginia has the largest labor force. Most of the 18 states have less than half of the labor force Virginia does. Aylor said this was a testament to the state’s economy.

“We have a highly skilled labor force. This is especially the case in some of the metro areas — Northern Virginia primarily,” Aylor said. “And this creates competition among employers as more employers take note of the quality of the workforce in the state.”

In Northern Virginia, unemployment is especially low — below the state average.

“For one reason or another, you can have a lower rate of people looking — you can have a lower rate of labor force participation — and that will kind of drive down the unemployment rate,” Aylor said.

“But that is not the case in an area like Alexandria or Arlington County in particular, where labor force participation rates are high and people are looking and finding work, and there is a lot of competition for it.”

Despite Virginia’s overall low rate, state officials affirmed their commitment to helping communities where unemployment is higher than average.

“We’re proud of this statewide unemployment rate,” said Brian Ball, Virginia’s secretary of commerce and trade. “But as some localities continue to struggle with a higher rate, the governor remains focused on bringing new investment and jobs to all regions of the commonwealth.”

Cheers! ABC Stores See Increase in Sales

By Pedro Coronado, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Let’s raise a toast to the top-selling liquor store in Central Virginia in 2018. The ABC outlet at 10 N. Thompson St. in Richmond, registered almost $8 million in gross sales and had the highest profit margin in the state.

Only two other ABC stores, both in Virginia Beach, had higher sales than the one on Thompson, just off Carytown — on the edge of the Fan district and 2 miles from the Virginia Commonwealth University campus.

Jean Louis, a regular customer at the Thompson Street store, says it usually features more liquor than nearby ABC outlets on Broad and West Main streets.

“I love how they always have more than one supply of luxurious bottles like Hennessy Richard,” Louis said.” Those kinds of bottles are usually rarely stocked in other stores, making them hard to find.”

During the 2018 fiscal year, the 370 stores operated by the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority rang up sales of $978,751,341. Overall, the rate of return (the profit plus taxes collected, divided by gross sales) was 34.8%.

The stores with the highest gross sales were at:

  • 1612 Laskin Road, Virginia Beach — $9,333,007
  • 405 30th St., Virginia Beach — $8,701,621
  • 10 N. Thompson St., Richmond — $7,966,262

The stores with the highest rates of return were at:

  • 10 N. Thompson St., Richmond — 40.7%
  • 2901 Hermitage Rd., Richmond — 40.7%
  • 405 30th St., Virginia Beach — 40.2%

The Virginia ABC has four main sources of revenue: state-imposed taxes on beer and wine sales, sales of distilled spirits at the agency’s stores, violation penalties and license fees. After each fiscal year, the commission releases a report on its sales and other activities.

During the 2019 fiscal year, which ended June 30, ABC brought in even more money — more than $1 billion. Agency officials announced in August that they had another record-breaking milestone as revenues increased about $72 million over the previous year.

For 2019, the commission had about $197 million in store profits, $223 million in retail taxes and $80 million in wine and beer taxes. As a result, it pumped almost $500 million into the state government’s general fund, which supports education, health, transportation, public safety and other services.

The top five brands purchased in Virginia ABC stores last year remained Tito’s Handmade (domestic vodka), Hennessy VS (cognac), Jack Daniel’s 7 Black (Tennessee whiskey), Jim Beam (straight bourbon), and Fireball Cinnamon (imported cordial).

Another metric is the total gallons sold by the state’s ABC stores. In 2018, that number exceeded 12 million gallons, up about 3% from the previous year.

Revenues have risen as ABC amped up its marketing and merchandising.

“ABC’s revenue growth is primarily the result of adding stores around the state to improve customer convenience, a robust series of targeted seasonal promotional campaigns and changing consumer trends,” Travis Hill, the commission’s chief executive officer, said in announcing the 2019 revenue numbers.

“We opened seven new stores in the last fiscal year, which provided greater accessibility for customers and increased sales. Customers aren’t necessarily drinking more; they’re buying more premium products that have a higher per bottle price tag. Additionally, they’re choosing distilled spirits over other products.”

ABC stores are holding various promotions in September, which Gov. Ralph Northam has designated as Virginia Spirits Month. Thursday, for example, was Spirited Bourbon Day, with 20% discounts on select bourbons. Other events include wine tastings and samplings at distilleries.

(Editor's Note: According to data supplied by the Capital News Service, the Gross Sales for the Emporia ABC Store were $2,337,510 with a 33.5% Rate of Return)

Population Is Expected to Shrink in Rural Virginia

By Emma North, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — “More and more people are relocating to Highland County, Virginia, everyday!” the county’s website says.

Online, local officials offer resources and encouragement for people to relocate to Highland County, the most sparsely populated in Virginia. A brochure urges readers to consider Highland’s “elevated lifestyle.”

But Highland County faces an uphill battle in attracting new residents. Demographers at the University of Virginia predict that the county’s population, now about 2,260, will drop 17% over the next two decades.

Of the state’s 133 cities and counties, U.Va.’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service projects that 53 will lose population by 2040. Most of those shrinking localities are in south, southwest and western Virginia.

“These areas are losing population every time the population is counted,” said Augie Wallmeyer, author of the book “Extremes of Virginia.”

“With a few minor exceptions, they just don’t have what it takes to retain people or attract new people.”

Many of the localities projected to lose population offer tranquility, clean air and beautiful views, but they lack job opportunities. Some also lack high-speed internet access that businesses need.

Wallmeyer said rural areas may lack sufficient health care and educational opportunities as well.

The state has implemented programs such as GO Virginia to encourage the growth of high-paying jobs throughout the commonwealth. Community colleges also are offering more job training programs. But Wallmeyer said there has been a lack of coordination among efforts to address problems in rural counties.

“Without coordination, you may find, for example, that GO Virginia might find a way to attract jobs to a county. But if the educational opportunities are very limited or if there is no good health care nearby or a terrible drug abuse problem or no amenities like Starbucks and that sort of thing, the effort fails,” Wallmeyer said.

The available workforce in rural counties becomes even smaller after factoring in age.

In an analysis of the data, Shonel Sen, a research and policy analyst for the Weldon Cooper Center’s Demographics Research Group, said that by next year, more than 30% of the residents in rural counties like Highland are expected to be over 65. That is double the statewide proportion of people over 65.

By 2040, people over 65 would make up more than 35% of the population of Highland and Lancaster counties, according to the center’s projections.

Having so many residents at retirement age subtracts from the available workforce. An aging population also creates a greater demand for health care, which many rural areas are struggling to provide.

The population trends affect not just the economy but also politics, Wallmeyer said. As rural counties shrink, so does their legislative representation. This makes it difficult to make their issues a priority at the state level.

“It bodes ill for people in those areas who think the political system can fix their problems,” Wallmeyer said.

The Demographics Research Group predicts that while parts of Virginia face drastic population losses, other parts will grapple with dramatic population gains. Overall, the state population will grow 14%, to almost 10 million, by 2040, the projections show.

Sen pointed out the “significant rural-urban divide” in Virginia. She noted that currently, 70% of the state’s residents live in the three largest metropolitan areas (Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the Richmond area) and only 12% live in non-metro areas.

By 2040, the demographers predict, Loudoun County would grow 55%, to almost 670,000 residents — adding the equivalent of the current population of Richmond. Loudoun would rise from being the state’s fourth most populous locality to the second, behind only Fairfax County.

The data also project high growth in other localities in Northern Virginia (such as Prince William and Stafford counties) and between Richmond and Williamsburg (New Kent and James City counties).

At the same time, the number of residents likely will decrease in rural areas. For instance, the center predicts that Buchanan County will lose almost a third of its population, going from more than 21,000 residents to about 14,500. The group’s data suggest that the populations of Danville and Martinsville, as well as Accomack and Grayson counties, will decline by more than one-fifth.

Voter Registration Is Up More in Democratic Strongholds

By Kelly Booth, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Over the past four years, voter registration has grown faster in Virginia localities that tend to vote Democratic than in localities that usually go Republican. That could spell trouble for the GOP heading into November’s elections.

Between August 2015 and August 2019, voter registration increased 9% in the state’s Democratic strongholds but only 6% in Republican strongholds, according to an analysis of data from the Virginia Department of Elections.

Democratic Party officials say they are pleased about the trend in a year when Virginians are electing state legislators but not a governor or U.S. senator.

“We always say slower turnout with Virginia’s off-year election and fully recognize that this is an off-off year election with no statewide race,” said Kathryn Gilley, communications director for the House Democratic Caucus. “That being said, the fact that there is so much new voter registration ... Virginians are really aware of the importance of this year.”

But Jeff Ryer, press secretary for the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus, said an increase in registered voters in Democratic areas doesn’t necessarily mean Democrats will win at the polls. He said something similar happened in Florida in 2016 and 2018, with news stories and opinion surveys predicting victories for Democrats.

“Not only did they (Democrats) not prevail, but they lost both,” Ryer said. “One of the things I really like to point out to people is Republicans do much better at the polls than in the polls.”

Gilley said Democrats are still energized from the 2016 presidential election, in which Hillary Clinton carried Virginia but lost in the Electoral College to Donald Trump.

“Trump’s election has really highlighted the importance of state legislatures,” Gilley said.

Pro-Trump vs. Pro-Clinton localities

Statewide in 2016, 50% of Virginia voters cast their ballots for Clinton and 44% for Trump. (The remaining votes went to the Libertarian and other minor-party candidates.)

Trump carried 93 cities and counties in Virginia, mostly in the less populated southern and western parts of the state where population has been flat or declining. Clinton carried 40 localities, largely in Northern Virginia, the Richmond area and Hampton Roads — areas that are more densely populated and generally are growing in population.

Last week, the Virginia Department of Elections posted data on how many people were registered to vote in each locality as of August. Capital News Service compared those numbers with the corresponding data for August 2015, when Virginia was preparing for a similar election in which only legislative and local offices were up for grabs.

During the four-year period, voter registration increased 6.4%, to 2.68 million, in the 93 localities that voted for Trump. But the number of voters jumped 8.6%, to 2.91 million, in the 40 localities that backed Clinton.

The difference was even bigger in the communities that went heavily for one candidate or another:

·         Seventy-six localities cast at least 55% of their votes for Trump. In those cities and counties combined, voter registration went up 5.8% over the past four years.

·         Thirty localities cast at least 55% of their votes for Clinton. Taken as a whole, those areas have seen an 8.7% jump in registered voters since 2015.

For example, voter registration is up 16% in Richmond and 11% in Alexandria — cities that cast at least three-fourths of their votes for Clinton.

In contrast, voter registration declined slightly in most of the localities that cast at least three-fourths of their votes for Trump. For instance, the number of registered voters is down 5% in Buchanan County and 7% in Dickenson County.

Not every locality reflected the trend. Voter registration increased 15% or more in the Republican strongholds of New Kent, Louisa and Goochland counties, and it dropped in Greensville County and the cities of Williamsburg and Franklin, which tend to vote for Democrats.

 

But overall, the number of registered voters went up more in Democratic localities than Republican ones.

Will redrawn districts help Democrats?

Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, noted that voter registration increased after 11 Virginia House districts were redrawn this year. That happened after the courts found that the districts had been racially gerrymandered. The redrawn districts generally are more favorable to Democrats.

“When lines are drawn more favorably for one party or the other, that increases the quality of the candidates who are willing to run, increases the amount of money that donors are willing to spend, and those two things can increase voter interest,” said Farnsworth, a professor of political science and international affairs.

“Expect higher turnout in some of those newly drawn districts because they’re more competitive than they used to be.”

All seats in the General Assembly are up for election on Nov. 5. Currently, Republicans hold a 21-19 majority in the Virginia Senate and a 51-49 edge in the House of Delegates.

Ryer noted that the Senate has had the same districts drawn by the Democrats since 2011.

“The Senate is operating under a Democratic gerrymander,” Ryer said. “Yet, despite the fact that the Democrats drew the lines, Republicans have been in the majority since those lines went into effect.”

Democrats are hoping to flip both chambers so that they control not only state government’s executive branch, with Ralph Northam’s election as governor in 2017, but also the legislative branch.

“If Democrats can pick up a few seats in either chamber, the legislature will shift. And if they pick up a couple of seats in both chambers, then Democrats will control the governor’s office as well as both chambers of the legislature — and we haven’t seen that in Virginia in 20 years,” Farnsworth said.

With control of the General Assembly at stake, Virginia’s legislative elections have attracted national attention.

“People really look to Virginia as an indicator for how the rest of the nation will vote, especially since we have become a purple (state) trending blue,” Gilley said.

“A lot of campaign operations and different groups almost use Virginia as like a test area for different tactics and strategies … National groups look at Virginia because we’ve got off-year elections, so they’ll implement strategies here to see if they want to use them in the regular-year election.”

Gilley said voters also were motivated by how close some elections have been in Virginia. In 2017, the race between Republican incumbent David Yancey and Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds in the 94th House District in Newport News ended in a tie. The election was decided by a lottery: Yancey’s name was pulled from a bowl, allowing Republicans to maintain control of the House.

Gilley said that election “really highlighted how important every single vote is.”

As Vaping Illnesses Mount, Officials Warn of Dangers of E-cigarettes

 

By Georgia Geen, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — When cases of lung disease linked to vaping began popping up across the country this summer, the Virginia Poison Center began receiving calls from people who thought they might have become ill from using e-cigarettes.

“Nobody knows why there’s all of a sudden been a cluster,” said Dr. S. Rutherfoord Rose, director of the Virginia Poison Center. “There is an inherent danger, and nobody really knows what that danger is. If you’re young and healthy, why risk it? Just stop.”

On Thursday, the Trump administration moved to ban flavored vapes in response to the spike in lung illnesses, the latest in a series of measures nationwide aimed at curbing e-cigarette use. This summer, a Virginia law went into effect that increased the age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21, and Virginia Commonwealth University instituted a smoking ban on its Monroe Park Campus.

Virginia is one of dozens of states with reports of vaping-related illness. Nationwide, officials have linked 380 cases of lung disease and six deaths to e-cigarettes.

Altria Group, the Henrico-based conglomerate that produces and sells tobacco and related products, is a top investor in Juul Labs Inc., maker of the popular Juul e-cigarettes. On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned Juul about its marketing practices, “including those targeted at students, tribes, health insurers and employers.”

“We agree that urgent action is needed, and we look forward to reviewing the guidance,” Altria spokesman George Parman said in an email. “Reducing youth use of e-vapor products is a top priority for Altria.”

Vaping often has been cast as a safe alternative to cigarettes. But Rose, who is also a professor at the VCU School of Medicine, said that because the products are so new, there is a lack of data on the long-term use of vaping. As a result, it’s “premature” to say e-cigarettes are indeed safer, Rose said.

“When these things were touted as a safe alternative to cigarettes, that was really only based on the harmful effects of long-term cigarettes. It really wasn’t a comparison because there wasn’t any data,” Rose said. “There’s certainly no data for long-term use of these products; they haven’t been around long enough.”

Using vapes early on can lead young people to smoke cigarettes in the future, according to a 2015 study.

How prevalent is vaping in Virginia?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has compiled data on e-cigarette use in 37 states and U.S. territories in 2017. The data showed that:

  • About 33% of Virginia high school students had used an electronic cigarette at some point. That compared with about 42% of high school students nationwide.
  • About 12% of high schoolers in Virginia were current vape users, just below the national average of 13%. (The CDC defines a current user as someone who has vaped at least once during the past 30 days.)
  • About 3% of the state’s high school students vaped frequently. That was on par with the national average. (A frequent user is someone who has used e-cigarettes at least 20 days during the past month.)
  • About 10% of Virginia’s young adults (ages 18-24) were current e-cigarette users. That also was about the national average.

“If somebody’s a teenager, a young person, you don’t want them to continue doing this for 20, 30 years,” Rose said. “There is an inherent danger, and nobody really knows what that danger is. If you’re young and healthy, why risk it?”

Last week, the FDA announced it had found a commonality — the presence of vitamin E acetate — among users who had fallen ill after vaping cannabis products. But Rose said it could take months or years to understand the cause of the outbreak, which he expects will grow before the situation improves.

The wide scope of products people are using — some of which contain nicotine or THC, and are purchased at stores or illicitly — makes it more challenging to narrow down an exact cause.

“There are a variety of products out there, people putting a variety of ingredients in those products,” Rose said. “So there’s not a lot of uniformity. There’s some common themes but not to all patients who have developed the problem.”

Some e-cigarette users are having second thoughts

VCU student Kevin McGarry has seen that variety firsthand. He said he started using a Juul over the summer, about a month or two after he stopped smoking cigarettes. He said he knew one person who modified a vape so that he could put “Juul juice” in it. That product has one of the highest nicotine concentrations of any e-cigarette, health officials say.

“There’s so many different things, all different kinds of new vapes coming out,” McGarry said, “new devices all the time.”

As a 20-year-old, McGarry said he’s found it more challenging to acquire Juul pods since the smoking age increased to 21 — but at the end of the day, “anyone who wants it could really get their hands on it.”

And data shows more people have picked up vaping in recent years. Nationally, the rate of current e-cigarette use among high school students increased to almost 21% in 2018, according to the CDC.

McGarry says he doesn’t plan to continue vaping for very long, and the recent outbreak of illnesses has a lot to do with that decision.

“Before all this came out, I was kind of comfortable thinking, ‘OK, yeah, I’m not smoking cigarettes anymore; this is a better alternative,’” McGarry said. “Seeing that these young kids are getting really sick just a few years into vaping, it’s really changed my mind.”

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