PETERSBURG — The first question fired at Del. Lashrecse D. Aird Saturday afternoon was straight to the point, a fact not lost on the Petersburg lawmaker.
“What is the state’s opinion about Petersburg’s finances?”
Before she answered, Aird laughed and said, “I like a blunt questioner.” Then her response was almost as to the point as the question.
“The state is still very concerned about the progress the city is making,” Aird said. But In Virginia, she added, state government does not just automatically step in and take over a local ledger. Instead, the locality has to make a formal request for assistance from the state Auditor of Public Accounts, and Aird said even though the state has offered, the official request from Petersburg has not come in, to her knowledge.
According to the APA’s web site, Petersburg has not submitted an annual comprehensive financial report to the state since 2017. These reports are due on Nov. 30 of each year.
“But I believe fully that the state is paying close attention,” Aird said.
Saturday was the first of several “listening sessions” Aird has scheduled for the 63rd House District. She said in an interview prior to Saturday’s event at Union Station that she does not want to call them “town halls” because she wants to keep them as informal as possible.
“Given everything I sort of heard on the ground and saw coming out of several of the last elections, and given the shift that I am seeing in people’s, not necessarily attitudes but statements, and things that were being put out there, I thought it would be a good idea to make sure what I think I know about what people want and what they say they need is actually in line with the current climate,” Aird said. In recent tours of the district, she said she got a message from residents that “their leaders weren’t hearing them.”
The takeaway from the meeting series, Aird said, is that she and her staff will capture all of the topics raised by attendees, then try to provide answers. And if those answers cannot come from her, then she said she would share them with others who could, from local government to Virginia’s congressional representation.
While the trending political topics may be gun control and reproductive rights, Aird said she expected this series of sessions to focus more on community needs rather than hot-button issues.
“Specifically, resources for the youth, resources for children from an education standpoint and a community recreation standpoint,” she noted.
About 35 people turned out for Saturday’s session, and Aird’s prediction about what to expect rang mostly true. In addition to the question about Petersburg’s fiscal stress and state perception, she also fielded a question on a rumor that the Robert Bobb Group, which temporarily took over city operations in 2016 in an effort to turn Petersburg’s finances around, might be coming back.
Aird said she had not heard anything about a possible RBG return.
Another question raised during Saturday’s session involved low-income families’ accessibility to school textbooks. That citizen told Aird that children were not being allowed to bring textbooks home with them, and many of those families could not afford internet access, which is driving so many educational initiatives.
“That has not been brought to my attention,” Aird said. But another citizen told the group that textbooks are available at the Petersburg Public Library for kids to use.
Aird has scheduled three more sessions — Aug. 17 at Cosby High School in Midlothian and at Ragsdale Community Center in Dinwiddie, then the final one Aug. 24 at Eastside Enhancement Center in Dinwiddie.