Friday, July 31, 2009

A riddle wrapped in an enigma inside a mystery

The Tuckahoe Creek Service District

Part I

An announcement that the operating fund for the Tuckahoe Creek Service District (TCSD)had a $150,000 deficit made at the July 7 Goochland Board of Supervisors’ meeting was the latest drop of worry in a cauldron of concern that has bubbled from its start.

Created by local ordinance in May 2002, the TCSD held much promise as an economic engine to attract high quality development to eastern Goochland and in turn relieve the burden of funding needed services and infrastructure from residential taxpayers.

Somewhere along the way, the project went awry and has never lived up to its potential. Instead of being self-sustaining, the TCSD is in danger of becoming a bottomless pit draining county financial resources needed elsewhere.

Covering 13.5 square miles in eastern Goochland, the TCSD is statutorily bounded on the south by Route 6, the north by the Hanover County line, the east by the Henrico county line and the west roughly by Manakin Road. Although parcels of land inside those boundaries are eligible for inclusion in the TCSD, not all land there is included.
Before the TCSD came along, water and sewer lines crawled out Rt. 6 in a piecemeal fashion. When Motorola announced that it would build a computer chip plant in West Creek in the mid ‘90s, the county negotiated an arrangement with Henrico to provide the plant with water. As the reality of that plant faded, the water allocation was used for other businesses that built in West Creek, including the Capital One campus.

The TCSD was not the first effort to provide large scale public utilities in eastern Goochland.

The first attempt came in the late ‘90’s and resulted in a debacle recalled by long time residents as the “toilet wars.”

The county planned to build its own sewage treatment plant on the James River, near the beautiful and historic Ben Dover property on the south side of Rte. 6.

Much of the planning for that scheme seems to have been done in secret, because Lou Preston doyenne of Ben Dover only learned of the project when she found survey teams measuring her property.

The resulting outcry from county residents, especially those who live in the nearby Meadows at Manakin, shut down that effort. To make her point, Preston arrayed old toilets along Route 6 in front of her property hence the name.

There was a memorable public meeting held in the auditorium at the old high school where a consultant proudly displayed a photo of a sewage treatment plant in the midst of an upscale northern Virginia neighborhood. When his uncomfortable silence answered the audience question, “which one of those houses is yours?” the meeting and plans for the sewage treatment plant ended.

We will probably never know why the supervisors decided to piggyback onto the public utilities of neighboring jurisdictions rather than build water and wastewater treatment plants in the county.

The coming of the Capital One Campus and completion of Rt. 288 as a high speed limited access highway that brought road access to the heart of West Creek changed everything. The supervisors seemed to have finally realized that Goochland’s location at the western edge of Richmond with excellent interstate access provided an opportunity to capture a portion of the growth moving its way.

West Creek seemed well positioned to be the next Innsbrook, but only if served by public water and sewer.

All of these factors birthed the TCSD, whose mantra became “those who benefit from the TCSD will pay for it.”

The premise behind the TCSD is simple. The county would install water and sewer trunk lines throughout the district. Sewer lines roughly followed creeks and water lines ran roughly along main roads.

A complicated set of agreements with Henrico County and the City of Richmond provided for connection to the Henrico water treatment plant at the comer of Gaskins and Three Chopt Roads and the Richmond sewer lines near the intersection of Cary Street and Maple Avenue behind St. Catherine’s School.

In addition to the water and sewer lines, a massive wastewater pump station was built behind the C&F Bank on Rt. 6.

To finance construction of this infrastructure, Goochland borrowed $62,747,167 via a Virginia Resource Authority bond issue in 2002. The estimated cost of building the initial infrastructure was about $58 million.

The VRA, however, seems to have had concerns about Goochland’s ability to service such a large debt, at the time more than the entire annual county budget, and mandated that the county borrow an additional $5 million to be invested for the sole purpose of generating $300,000 annual interest revenue as a debt service cushion.

Goochland levied an ad valorem tax on all property included in the TCSD on top of existing property tax.

When the TCSD was in the formative stages, county officials met with property owners large and small to explain the tax. At one meeting homeowners in Hickory Haven and Sammary Forest were told in the spring of 2002 that the ad valorem tax was not expected to exceed 15 cents per hundred dollars of assessed valuation. The initial ad valorem tax rate was 50 cents per hundred. Currently, it is 23 cents, but assessed valuations have increased drastically. A modest home in Hickory Haven pays about $600 ad valorem annually.

Reality seems to have set in over the summer of 2002. At an August meeting with financial counselor Lynn Ivey, who was instrumental in creation of the TCSD, urged the supervisors to begin levying the ad valorem tax at the start of 2003, well before any utility services were available, to ensure that debt service payments could be met.

The repayment schedule for the debt was back loaded, to allow the TCSD to grow and generate more revenue. In addition to the ad valorem tax, the TCSD was to be financed by connection fees, user fees and a portion of the increase in real estate tax above the 2004base year value of $225,900,600. According to figures produced by the county assessor, the assessed valuation of the TCSD in January 2007 was $656,367,300.

Because increasing the portion of county revenue derived from non-residential uses was the goal of the TCSD, residential use there was limited to about 30 percent. Kinloch was included from the start as was the Hermitage Country Club. Homes in Broad Run, however, were specifically excluded from the TCSD, so homeowners there with tired failing drain fields should save up for alternate on site septic systems instead of waiting for sewers.

The entire scheme looks really good on paper. Unfortunately, the devil seems to have been in the details.

Bad weather, including record rainfall in 2004, contractor disputes and cost overruns resulted in trunk lines that did not run all the way to the TCSD boundaries. Lawsuits, discovery of prehistoric native American artifacts and construction problems combined to make the TCSD seem snake bit from the start.

The punitively high connection costs and complicated easement process resulted in far fewer users than indicated by initial projections.

The million gallon water tank that rises like a giant plunger thrust skyward from Centerville has never been more than half full. To prevent it contents from becoming stale, the county often spills thousands of gallons on the ground, for which is pays Henrico handsomely.

It is not too late to get the TCSD back on track, but it will require a thorough, honest and transparent evaluation and an attitude change to succeed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Great expectations

New leadership in Goochland

Rebecca T. Dickson took the oath of office as county administrator from Lee Grubbs Turner, Clerk of the Goochland Circuit Court on Monday, July 20. It is the first time in 23 years that the county has changed administrators.

The board meeting room was filled to overflowing with dignitaries from neighboring jurisdictions, Dickson’s friends, colleagues from Chesterfield, family, county staff and citizens. An atmosphere of hope, good will and optimism prevailed.

Dr. John Thomas, director of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Policy spoke of his love for local government and its role in our culture.

He pointed out that the devastating consequences of failed institutions, shown during the financial meltdown, illustrate the importance of effective management in a functioning society.

He contended that effective professional government management needs strong political leadership to produce sound policy decisions, transparent operation and a relentless focus on positive outcomes to succeed.

The task of local government, said Thomas, is to deliver scores of public services, often in partnership with other groups. It is government’s role to bring all of the players to the table in a mutually beneficial collaboration. This cannot succeed under a command and control model.

Government managers must be team players to implement a shared vision.

Virginia, said Thomas, is blessed with outstanding local governments run by people who represent the best of their profession.

Board of supervisors’ chairman Andrew Pryor welcomed Dickson and thanked interim county administrator Lane Ramsey for bringing new ideas and a professional way of doing things to Goochland.

Pryor said that Dickson made a strong and positive initial impression on the supervisors. It was soon apparent that she was the best candidate to help move Goochland forward.

Choosing a woman as Goochland’s sixth county administrator signals a change of heart by a board that all too often expressed virulent misogyny. Dickson’s impeccable credentials and track record happily trumped all other considerations.

Dickson expressed eagerness and excitement about becoming a part of the Goochland team, itself a new term in the county government lexicon. She said that she was humbled by her selection and pledged to use her passion for excellence in public service to the benefit of all. She is eager to build on the county’s successes and deal with its challenges.

Dickson said that it was clear from the first meeting how much the supervisors care about Goochland and its future.
She thanked the county staff for her warm welcome and commended Goochland employees for their dedication to serving the citizens.

Dickson spoke about her journey in life to the Goochland administration building.

“You end up where you should be in spite of yourself, but it all comes down to grace,” she said. “The grace of others that provided me with opportunities, the grace that provided safety nets, the grace to forgive and to continue to work with me when I was clearly out of line. We all need grace and should grant and receive it when we can.”

Dickson acknowledged that Goochland has some sticky situations to work through, but is optimistic that positive open collaboration coupled with mutual respect will find sound solutions.

Ramsey recalled first meeting Dickson about 20 years ago and how impressed he was with her passion and dedication to public service.

“I have never seen anyone fall in love with local government like she did and apply her passion to achieve goals,” said Ramsey.

Dickson’s selection by a board wracked by internecine strife is a signal that the supervisors can work together for the greater good of Goochland. It’s time for them all to stop sniping at each other, roll up their sleeves and get down to business. Going forward, all county business must be open and transparent, a word that formerly was code for “let’s do this in secret.”

From now on, things should be done right the first time so everyone can take pride in the result.

Dickson has her work cut out for her.

One of her first and most important tasks is to dispel the malignant mistrust and resulting dysfunction that nearly crippled the county staff. Confidence of Goochland’s citizens and employees must be earned, not claimed by fiat.

Dickson has been exploring Goochland since her appointment was announced in May. She needs to see for herself how the land lies and gather input from all quarters, including her predecessor. She must evaluate all of the advice she receives and make her own judgment about its soundness.

Her people and fiscal skills will be put to good use getting the county’s finances organized and facilitating a cohesive and collaborative county staff.

As Goochland and its government grew, functions were expanded or created in a reactive manner. Like an old house whose wiring cannot quite keep up with modern power demands, the county blew a fuse earlier this year. Now it’s up to Dickson to not only rewire the government, but upgrade to the equivalent of a high capacity circuit breaker. The mechanisms to accomplish that are in the works.

Hopefully, Dickson’s experience in Chesterfield will help Goochland to copy its success and avoid its failures.

The future is bright.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Country life

Why does a rural county need parks?

Most people in Goochland believe protection of our rural character is vital. Rural, however, is a concept defined by the beholder. Denizens of River Road with public utilities and high speed internet believe that they live in the country.

Residents of the upper end of the county, far from the madding crowd and just about everything else, know that they are in the country and like their isolation just fine. Interestingly, neither group wants more new subdivisions in Goochland.

Why do people move to the “country” anyhow? Peace and privacy are high on the list followed by a simpler way of life and a better place to raise a family.

Kids. There’s the rub. Their needs are often best supplied by a community. Schools, playing fields, places to socialize so they don’t get into trouble are large-scale projects, which are often best provided by local government.

Never mind that in prehistoric times — when adults were young and everyone walked six miles to school in the snow uphill both ways — school, church, scouts and Four H provided ample diversion for the young. Times and expectations have changed.

Teams sports including soccer, softball, baseball and football build character, social and leadership skills and get the kids away from their computers and game consoles. The fellowship among the children and their families that is a by products of the activities builds and strengthens the community.

Thanks to the dedication and hard work of local citizens Goochland has a fine YMCA, another community builder. The gyms behind the administration building and former middle school also offer opportunities for organized recreation.

While the supervisors seemed to agree in theory that more fields were needed, until the recent purchase of parcels of land in Courthouse Village for a soccer complex and river front park, there was little action.

To his great credit, District 5 supervisor Jim Eads repeatedly advocated creation of a long term master plan for the county’s recreational needs complete with a cost estimate that can be used as the basis for a inclusion of a recreational bond referendum on a November ballot. Given the current economic climate, that referendum is a long way off, but the plan is in process.

The county invited citizen input on recreation needs and used that information to craft a Parks and Recreation master plan.

A meeting to discuss the plan, which can be viewed in its entirety at the Parks and Recreation portion of the county website, will be held at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 21 in the county administration building.

The plan examines and addresses everything from soccer fields to a dog park. Using a level of service approach, needed facilities are quantified on a per capita basis. A cost estimate is also included.

Some of the facilities that are included in the master plan provide interesting insight about the county’s people.

If people move to Goochland for more land, why do they need a dog park, usually found in urban areas populated by apartment dwellers. Although high density housing options would address the paucity of workforce housing in the county, Goochland currently permits neither apartments nor townhouses, but a dog park is in the master plan.

On the other end of the spectrum, riding trails are included for the equestrian community. Many people seem to believe that they can buy a few acres here, get a horse and trespass on the neighbors’ property. Owners of ATVs have the same attitude.

Friction between those who would range freely and property owners who do not want their land trespassed on must be addressed.

Another beneficial aspect of this plan is that it gives a locus for development of future recreational facilities and the amount of land they will need.

A complete inventory of land owned by the county, including preservation tracts that are part of rural preservation subdivisions is part of the plan.

Under current Goochland ordinance, preservation tracts may be turned over to the county if a homeowner’s association decides that it no longer wishes to assume maintenance. While this loophole could provide additional recreation space, it could also plunk a soccer field in the middle of an otherwise quiet residential community.

The Plan talks about annual festivals and parades. Many people were disappointed that this year’s spring festival, a successor to Goochland Day, did not include a parade.

At the March, 2009 supervisors’ meeting, the parade was discussed. Sheriff Agnew pointed out that since the last Goochland Day parade was held in 2001, Courthouse Village has changed dramatically.

The new library, YMCA, Goochland Farmers Market and both traffic lights did not exist back then. The Courthouse Commons Shopping Center had not been built and River Road West had little traffic on Saturday morning.

Now, there is a lot going on. The traditional parade route that began at Company 5 and concluded at the Courthouse green, where Goochland Day was traditionally held, would be a mess. As the festival is centered on the football field on Sandy Hook Road, ending the parade at the Courthouse would create wide scale confusion.

A new route must be devised and planning for the parade should begin well in advance of the event to ensure robust participation. Why not have a homecoming parade, or one on the Fourth of July?

The Plan is an excellent start to what will be a long and fruitful conversation about recreational facilities in Goochland. Come to the meeting and add your thoughts.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Mice in the pantry

Excrement hits ventilation device

Revelations about Goochland County finances that keep bubbling to the surface are troubling at best.

Information presented at Tuesday’s monthly Board of Supervisors’ meeting was like a report on the aftermath of tiny rodents in a pantry. A nibble here, destruction there, mouse manure everywhere!

Following a detailed description of the tasks to be undertaken by the county’s newly retained auditors KPMG, the first time in many years that fresh eyes have gazed on county finances, acting county administrator Lane Ramsey dropped a bombshell.

The operating funds for at least two of the county’s utility entities, the Tuckahoe Creek Service District and James River Sanitary District are inadequate to meet operating expenses. The TCSD is in the hole $125,000, James River $20,000.

Ramsey recommended a 16 percent increase in rates for the TCSD, which he contended would result in uniform water and sewer charges throughout the county. He explained that, under terms of the bond agreement between Goochland County and the Virginia Resources Authority that funded the TCSD, the county administrator must certify that utility rates are sufficient to cover operating costs of the system and that debt service payments are funded. Ramsey said that the ad valorem tax has generated sufficient funds to pay the debt service, but the rates do not cover operating costs.

Residential customers of the TCSD in attendance groaned aloud at the suggestion of yet another increase on rates that were raised by three percent just last year.

One member of the TCSD Advisory Committee left the room stone-faced at the conclusion of Ramsey’s remarks.

District 4 Supervisor Rudy Butler argued that residential connection fees in the TCSD should also be increased to generate additional funds. The board is expected to hold a public hearing on the rate increase at its September meeting. The matter will undoubtedly be discussed further at the August 4 board meeting.

In another agenda item, Ramsey urged the board to develop a comprehensive plan for county utilities looking out as much as 40 years in the future. The county has no system in place to ensure that utilities are financially self-sustaining; schedule and fund routine maintenance to safeguard system reliability nor make provisions for proper controls, processes and procedures to make all of that happen.

However, the plan’s price tag, which Ramsey speculated could be $250,000, puts it out of reach at this time.

A long-range county wide utility plan should have been a precursor to creation of the TCSD. Its absence is more mouse manure.

It seems that either no plans for routine maintenance of the various components of the TCSD, such as the massive pumps that move wastewater through the pump station on Route 6, were included in the rate computation formula or returns from the few users do not cover costs.

Right now, it is imperative for the county to get the TCSD accounts in order and do whatever it can to encourage development there.

In addition to the rate increase, Ramsey reminded the board that it approved funding construction of a water line in Henrico County on Three Chopt Road between the Gaskins Road water treatment plant and Thamesford Way. The cost, $3.8 million will come from the county’s general fund. Postponed during the initial construction of the TCSD, failure to pay for the line will jeopardize the county’s ability to obtain additional water.

This was initially included in the $63 million obtained from the bonds, but the money was spent on other construction projects.

Touted as an economic engine that would provide additional tax revenues to fund the needs of a growing county, the TCSD is in danger of becoming a bottomless pit. This did not occur overnight. What happened? Did someone forget to carry the two? The TCSD was supposed to be funded entirely through the bond issue, ad valorem tax, connection and user fees, not with county funds.

The three county employees most responsible for the TCSD have left the building. While county staff scrambles to pick up the pieces and make sense out of the mess, it’s hard to tell if supervisors, Eads, Quarles and Pryor, who defended the status quo, were duped by the trio, or complicit with their shenanigans.

Don Charles, Director of Community Development, who won the task of mucking out the utilities department, reported that the checks have been accounted for and almost all users are up to date on their utility accounts.

A report on the forensic accounting will be presented at the August 4 meeting. No criminal activity is believed to have been uncovered, just massive amounts of mouse manure.

The auditors will be take a good thorough look at all county financial operations, including the school system. They will look for possible fraud and make recommendations to improve operations. The auditors expect to present their final report to the Board near the end of the year.

In the evening, the board voted to make real estate assessments annual. That will keep property values more in line with prevailing conditions in the real estate market. Given current economic conditions, it will also result in lower tax revenues. To ensure funding for the current fiscal year, which ends after the first tax payment for calendar 2010 is paid, Ramsey recommended that the county reserve $1,172,000 of the general fund balance to cover an optimistic projection of 9.4 percent decrease in property valuations.

Given the number of area homes on the market for months if not years, and drastic price reductions, the actual decrease in property valuations may be much greater. The board, of course, can just dip into the general fund again to make up the difference.

Just how much is in the county’s general fund? Hopefully, the auditors will nail that down and make the number public. How exactly did all of that money accumulate? Have we been paying more taxes than were needed to fund a reasonable level of county services, or did someone again forget to carry the two?

The board needs to exercise caution with the general fund. It is doubtful that the miracle of the loaves and fishes will be repeated in Goochland.

The massive incompetence and abysmal stewardship of public funds, like mouse manure in the pantry, must be swept away and the shelves disinfected so that the county can move forward.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Happy Birthday America

Time for a new look at Common Sense

Our hearts go out to the valiant young Iranians as they are slaughtered by a repressive regime that probably stole an election. Their emails and Tweets reach out for help and support and get a tepid response from Washington.

As Americans, we identify with underdogs. Our cultural memory instinctively knows when it’s time to stand up for what’s right and roots for those who do so.

Unfortunately, that memory is starting to dim. Our moral compass spins with no sense of direction. We’ve become anesthetized by a pop culture that turns gruesome killing into video games and deifies entertainers and athletes whose exploits would earn them prison terms instead of fortunes in a sane world.

Though many of us profess pride in our freedoms and try to live moral and decent lives, it’s hard to swim against the tide.

We get our information from carefully crafted sound bites. Today’s mainstream media mavens may well be just too intellectually lazy to ask the hard questions. There is little doubt that they have forgotten that the primary duty of the media in a free society is to protect the people from government.
The scary part is that too few of us have even noticed or care that the media is now the mouthpiece for government instead of its watchdog.

Far too few people want to think for themselves. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are only too glad to step in and fill that void. As voters ignore elections in disgust, leaders are chosen by a select few with a narrow agenda.

Those who fear for their constitutional rights are often ridiculed.

Gun owners who take their second amendment rights seriously are perhaps the best example.

At the monthly luncheon of the Goochland Republican committee on Tuesday, June 30, area gun owners confronted Lynwood Cobb, the chairman of the party’s seventh district, about his decision to hold the annual Republican Roundup at the Innsbrook Pavilion.

The event, used to attract new members to the GOP, has been held at that privately owned facility, which does not permit firearms, for several years.

Cobb defended the choice contending that the location and amenities provided by the Innsbrook Pavilion are not available anywhere else in the area. Private property owners, he said, have the right to decide what sorts of activities are permitted at their facilities.

While on the surface this seems like a reasonable attitude, it also looks like a way for the Republicans to have it both ways with the firearms folk.

Republican legislators tend to support gun rights, but the party all too often tries to keep gun owners out of the limelight lest they be labeled gun nuts.

We will never know what might have happened if some students at Virginia Tech on that fateful day had been allowed to carry firearms in their backpacks.

Instead, the actions of a deranged student are cited as justification for diluting one of the most important rights guaranteed by our Constitution.

Perhaps if the Republican Party sponsored family events where responsible gun owners were free to attend with a firearm on their hip, others could meet people who understand that with rights come responsibilities.

If gun rights are taken away, can other freedoms that we take for granted be far behind?

Two hundred thirty-three years ago a group of influential men gathered in Philadelphia and signed a document that changed the course of human events. Though the signers are venerated by history, many of them faced personal ruin for their action in their lifetimes.

One of the precursors to that momentous gathering was the publication of a pamphlet, an ancestor of the blog, called Common Sense by Thomas Paine in January of 1776. It soon sold over 100,000 copies in a country whose population was about three million.

Paine, tired of the abuses of a distant king aided and abetted by a greedy parliament, was unabashedly in favor of independence. He outlined his perception of grievances in detail. Many of his sentiments could apply to our contemporary situation.

Read it for yourself at: It’s a long read. Print it out and take it to the beach. Think about it.

As you watch the local fireworks show on the Fourth(visit the county website at for detailed information,) recall the words “rockets red glare” from the Star Spangled Banner. That was written when Baltimore was under attack in the War of 1812.

We were attacked eight years ago. Except for the people of New York who deal with the gaping wound at the foot of Manahttan, the rest of the country has gone about its business, but we are still at war.

Listen to the words of the Declaration of Independence, which will be read at the Goochland Farmers Market at 10 a.m. on Saturday. Try to imagine you are a farmer hearing the words for the first time on your normal market day.

Is anyone ready to stand up for what they believe in today? Or, do we just go along to get along?

Will the greatness of America go out with a whimper rather than a bang? Unless we are watchful, our cherished freedoms will erode, drop by precious drop, until they are gone. Will we even notice?

It’s past time to pay close attention so the land of the free and the home of the brave will endure for a long time to comep.