Sep 29, 2009

Students drive voting

by Amanda Sullivan

The patriotic colors of red, white and blue were thoroughly emphasized last fall as Liberty University encouraged its students to vote in the presidential election. The colors are once again being promoted but for a slightly different reason.

Liberty is encouraging voter registration among students with a deadline of Oct. 5. However, this time the focus is on a local rather than a national level. The issues and representatives students will vote on will affect tuition rates, food taxes, sales taxes and lodging taxes.

“For years, we focused on national politics,” Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. said. “The local political issues have much more of a direct effect on students and their pocket books than any national issues or election but students were not allowed to vote locally.”

Throughout the years, Liberty students have been major contributors to the economic success of Lynchburg, according to Falwell. However, despite students’ financial support, the city council has opted to spend the majority of the funds it collected from students in downtown Lynchburg and away from Liberty, he said.

“Just last week, The News and Advance printed a story about how the city is going to replace the D-Street bridge, which is an old bridge that is decaying that leads to a very small neighborhood,” Falwell said. “I e-mailed the city manager and asked him where the money for that (project) was coming from. He said the city had set aside $3 million for the project.”

The City of Lynchburg has also funded similar projects like the Fifth Street traffic circle downtown. “I doubt the traffic circle will help the business on Fifth Street, but it will look pretty so (the council is) willing to spend the money,” Falwell said.

By funding these projects, the city has elevated the D-Street bridge and the traffic circle to be a higher priority than building a safe way for pedestrians to cross Wards Road.

“Thousands of people would benefit from Wards Road improvements, not just sidewalks but improvements to the roads.” Falwell said. “We don’t have money for that, but we have money to repair the D-Street bridge even though you can still get to that neighborhood easily without the bridge. You just have to go a little further down the road.”

Although the city council’s voting patterns have not benefited Liberty, the students’ interest in voting may be turning some heads.

“Since 4,200 students registered to vote last year and almost 1,000 this year, the council finally made some moves to create pedestrian facilities on Wards Road,” Falwell said. “They have not funded anything yet, but they did create the plan and had a couple of hearings.”

Although the city has approved the Wards Road project, it is unclear what the funding source will be. The City of Lynchburg’s solution seems to be the most recent ordinance passed – the Big-box ordinance.

“The city is scrambling to make it look like it is doing something about the situation on Wards Road,” Falwell said. “Unfortunately, their solution seems to focus on forcing Liberty students and big box retailers to pay for the fix. Just last week, they passed a Big-box ordinance designed to give (the city) more power to force big box retailers to pay for public road and pedestrian improvements.”

The ordinance was not supported by everyone on council.

“I voted and fought against this ordinance,” Councilman Jeff Helgeson said. “This new law takes away rights of property owners. In this tough economic time, we should be encouraging business and investment in Lynchburg, not putting up more onerous government hurdles and regulation.”

“It will negatively impact the property owners, and will be another roadblock for new businesses to locate and invest millions of their dollars here in Lynchburg,” Helgeson said.

The Big-box ordinance and projects such as Wards Road, the D-Street bridge and the Fifth Street traffic circle are just some of the more visible ways students are affected by the city council’s votes. Students are also affected – every time they go out to eat, shop at Walmart or invite their parents to visit for Homecoming – through the high tax rates.

“(Students) realize that every time they go to McDonalds they have to add 11.5 percent for a local food tax, and then to add insult to injury, the money is being spent on downtown pet projects,” Helgeson said. “Or (their tuition is increased because of the) extra permit fees the (school pays) every time the university needs to build.”

Falwell and others like Helgeson are encouraging students to register to vote and show up at the polls.

“With 11,900 students on campus, if only half of them vote, they could easily affect the outcome of local council elections,” Helgeson said. “They could elect council members that realize that Liberty University and its students are of vital importance to this community.”

“Liberty students have the responsibility to step up to the plate and make sure Liberty is treated fairly,” Falwell said. “(Then) we can work towards making Liberty University a world class university, so students can display their diplomas with pride for generations to come.”

Contact Amanda Sullivan at



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