Longtime civic center employee John Saunders has announced he is running for Salem City Council because he believes city employees and facilities need to be taken care of better. He is running as an independent candidate.
He said he “thinks things need to change in Salem and I want to be part of it.” He is the second candidate to announce, after Mayor Randy Foley. Another first-time candidate who is collecting required voter signatures and said he plans to run is retired Presbyterian minister Todd Hester, who also intends to run as an independent.
Saunders, 57, retired Feb. 28, 2017, after a total of 33 years, mostly at the Salem Civic Center and other civic facilities. He was Civic Facilities Director for his last three years after his former boss and good friend, Carey Harveycutter, stepped down to become tourism director for the city.
Harveycutter said Saunders – who started working for the city part-time when he was 12 by cleaning toilets and other chores when Salem had ice hockey games – started the Salem Fair which is the largest free-gate fair in Virginia. He is proud of that.
“The fair is a revenue spot made up of all individual businesses,” he pointed out. “Those owners buy trailers, buy tires in Salem, people eat in Salem restaurants.”
He is not proud that employee morale is down, and Saunders wants to do something about that. “Working for the City of Salem used to be the greatest job in the world,” he explained. “We’re good at not getting a pay raise if there is capital. I understand it took longer to rebound and a better economy took longer getting to Salem than other areas.”
Saunders’ announcement came just before city officials this week told employees that salaries for employees whose pay was below the minimum for that grade as shown by a new consultants’ study. The first increases would be April 13, with more hoped for after the beginning of the next fiscal year July 1. (See related pay study article in this week’s Salem Times-Register).
Saunders is also concerned about civic facilities such as the aging Salem Civic Center and football stadium, softball facilities at Mowyer Field and more.
“We need capital to be put back in those facilities to get us back on a level playing field to sell to people outside the valley,” he added. “We need to revitalize not only downtown Salem but other portions of Salem that have been neglected over the years. West Salem definitely needs a little boost; there are too many buildings down that way that are empty. And East Main Street is not the greatest entryway into Salem.”
He continued, “There’s a lot more to Salem than just downtown. It can’t just be restaurants.”
When asked if he would be in favor of raising taxes to generate more local revenue, Saunders said, “Only if necessary and doubtful at best. It’s time to reorganize how we take these new revenues and how we spend them.”
Saunders said he was trained under some of the greatest visionaries, when “Employees used to come first. We (Salem) used to be the visionaries, the people who took chances. Now it seems we procrastinate and don’t do anything.”
Saunders graduated from Salem High School in 1978 and earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Roanoke College. He is the son of the late Joseph and Florence Saunders. He described his mother as “calm and could make any situation better.”
He said his daughter Heather, 17, takes a great deal of his time since he retired. “She was adopted on the opening day of the Salem Fair in 2000,” he pointed out. He also spends his time on home improvement chores, golf and enjoys Salem Red Sox and ice hockey games. “After a career of nights and weekends, I’m excited to stay home more.”