Monday, August 31, 2009

Betraying the public trust

Stinky water in Kinloch smells in more than an olfactory way

The TCSD was created to encourage and enable economic development in eastern Goochland. That economic development was expected to manifest itself as corporate headquarters in the West Creek business park, industrial development in the Ashland Road corridor, retail and commercial in Centerville and a bit of residential growth around the edges.

Indeed, some members of the board of supervisors contend that the exclusive upscale communities in the east end are the best possible form of economic development. Homes with seven figure price tags and corresponding real estate assessments are touted during rezoning hearings as bringing revenue to the county while placing little demand on public services. That last is code for adding few or no children to public school rolls.

Kinloch, an affluent enclave of estate and coach homes is just such a place. Homes in Kinloch began to spring from the ground around the time that the TCSD went online, about four years ago.

Although Kinloch developer C. B. Robertson worried that the additional ad valorem tax levied on homes in Kinloch to pay for its inclusion in the TCSD would be a hindrance to sales, initial response was a positive. In fact, some people were so eager to live there that they camped out the night before the sales office opened lest they miss out. Little thought seems to have been given to the extra tax. Given their education and affluence, Kinloch homeowners are sophisticated enough to understand that the convenience of public utilities comes with a cost.

Those same homeowners realize that support systems for a new community often have a few kinks at the outset. However, the stinky water problem that has plagued many Kinloch residents for more than three years would try the patience of a saint.

On Thursday, August 27, members of the Kinloch Advisory Board, a group that represents resident concerns, met with interested citizens and county officials including District 4 supervisor Malvern R. “Rudy” Butler, county administrator Rebecca T. “Becky” Dickson and director of community development Don Charles to discuss the matter.

A public hearing on a proposed utility rate increase that will be held on Tuesday, September 1 at 7 p.m. in the board meeting room at the county administration building, 1800 Sandy Hook Road in Goochland Courthouse (Rt. 6 west to Rt. 522, the administration building in on the corner) seems to have precipitated the gathering.

Kinloch resident Dr. John Harbour, a scientist and chair of the KAB water task force, presented some background on the problem. He outlined the actions allegedly taken by the county under the aegis of the former county engineer. Harbour contended that the county never used a reliable scientific approach to the problem and there was little follow up on suggested actions. Results of tests for chlorine and bacteria levels presented to Kinloch residents were confusing and poorly organized, said Harbour. He contended that even simple spreadsheet software is able to prepare an easily understandable report.

The county has regularly opened a fire hydrant to flush the lines near Kinloch to clear the problem and suggested that homeowners flush their lines or perhaps replace the electrodes in their water heaters. (Goochland has been dumping about eight million gallons of water annually to flush TCSD water lines and prevent water from going stale. Henrico County, the source of TCSD water, must be paid for every drop.)

The water tank that serves Kinloch was emptied and cleaned, but, to Harbour’s frustration, the sediment in the tank was not analyzed to see if it contributed to the problem.

Ongoing discussions with the former county engineer, said Harbor were neither fruitful nor concrete.

An investigation undertaken by the Draper Aden engineering firm, which was deeply involved in construction of the TCSD, cast little light on the problem. “Their data did not make sense,” Harbour said. “They collected one set of data and had no plans to do more testing.”

Harbour strongly urged development of water testing procedures and sharing resulting information via a uniform data presentation with Kinloch residents. Chlorine levels need to be monitored to ensure that they are at recommended levels for safe water at all times.

This situation seems to echo the elevated methane levels at the county park on Fairground Road (built over a closed landfill) that was closed for an extended period earlier this year. That same former county engineer also failed to perform proper testing and even earned the county a handsome fine from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Charles, who inherited the Kinloch problem after the firing of the former county engineer, said that an automated flushing station will be installed in Kinloch in the next few weeks, but acknowledged that is only the beginning of a solution to the problem.

Various residents explained that the problem is not consistent. One home has the smelly water only in certain places. Not every home on a particular street is affected. There seems to be no clear solution and extensive detective work is necessary and long overdue.

Harbour summed up the frustration of Kinloch residents.

“It should not have taken this long to solve this problem,” he said. “Government should be responsive to the needs of its citizens. We understand that sometimes there is a need for bureaucratese, but you need to be clear with people. This wishy washy stuff is not helpful.”

Several residents also complained of inadequate water pressure.

Charles pledged to get to the bottom of the problem.

Dickson, who has been at the county’s helm since July 20, explained there a lot of pieces of the TCSD puzzle that need to be put together before any decisions are made on an increase in the ad valorem tax, which will not happen before 2010.

She also said that the proposed rate increase of no more than 13 percent will probably not be the end of rate increases. The TCSD, she said, is a young system and there could be more than $300,000 worth of ongoing maintenance items that need to be addressed. “This is the tip, I don’t know what the depth will be,” Dickson said of the problems swirling around the TCSD.

Debt service on the TCSD, which is back loaded, is funded by the ad valorem tax, currently 23 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, and 45 percent of the revenue realized from the increase in its assessed property values since the base year of 2004. The ad valorem tax is levied on all property included in the TCSD, which is listed by parcel number in the county ordinance (available on the county website at That same ordinance states that the ad valorem tax cannot be less than 15 cents per hundred until the debt is paid off about 30 years in the future.

The evidence of yet more gross mismanagement of county business revealed at the Kinloch meeting amounts to the county biting the hand that feeds it.

The TCSD currently has about 700 customers, including businesses like CarMax, that use 680,000 gallons per day of the five million gallons per day current capacity. These simple statistics were not available until Charles assumed responsibility for the utility department in December. The former county engineer apparently didn’t even bother to set up a simple index card system for keeping track of customers.

Butler lamented the county’s decision to piggyback on the utility systems of neighboring jurisdictions instead of taking over the Department of Corrections facilities near Courthouse Village. He contended that option would have cost Goochland about $38 million instead of the $68 million and climbing obligation of the TCSD. “I was outvoted on that one,” said Butler.

Dickson has been reviewing the documents under which the TCSD was created and alluded to some anomalies between the signed documents and the understanding that the supervisors had as to the terms of those agreements.

One Kinloch resident asked if anyone in the TCSD had gotten a “special deal.”
He may have been referring to the Hickory Haven and Sammary Forest subdivisions off of Hockett Road in Centerville. Those communities, comprised of modest homes built about 40 years ago, were served by a community water system that was increasingly difficult to maintain. Many of those homeowners were longtime county residents now senior citizens on fixed incomes. Because the residents of those subdivisions needed another water source and the county needed users to keep moving water through the line, a deal was struck.

The county paid connection and other fees but the costs then became a lien on the property. The county will be paid back when those homes are sold. In the meantime, those homeowners pay the full ad valorem tax, even though they get only water.

There are other landowners in the TCSD whose property may not be served by public utilities for many years but pay the tax.

Once again, Goochland citizens and taxpayers were ill served by the former county administration.

Citizens must pay more attention to the workings of county government and get involved when something seems awry. As the residents of Kinloch know, when something smells bad, keep asking questions and don’t back down until the problem is fixed.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Show us the money

We’d all like to know exactly how the government spends our hard earned tax dollars.

Next year’s county budget proceedings could be very ugly given the financial meltdown, implosion of property values and bad economy.

In Washington and Richmond, it will be business as usual, leaving the (literally) poor taxpayer with little clue how and why public money is spent.

Perhaps on the local level things could change.

During the citizen comment portion of the August Goochland Board of Supervisors’ meeting several speakers suggested that the county’s check register be put online.

There is precedent for such action.

In Sedgewick County, Kansas (at government expenditures are posted online for all the world to see. The website also includes a telephone number should citizens have any questions.

This is a relatively simple and effective way for local government to fulfill the promise of operational transparency.

Goochland’s annual budget process has gotten more obscure as government has become more complicated.

Up to a few years ago, a budget notebook was prepared for each supervisor and available to other interested parties for a nominal fee. This book listed detailed budget requests, which included the current salary for department heads and proposed wage and benefit increases. It outlined expenditures for items needed to fulfill the obligations of the department in detail.

The supervisors then met with all department heads in a day long marathon intended to give the board insight about daily county operations. In reality, most supervisors seemed bored and a few used it as an opportunity to bully their least favorite county employees.

Each department put on its best face and presented carefully crafted justification for every expenditure.

The board supposedly used the insight gained from those meetings to differentiate between necessary expenditures and extras. Departments, anticipating reductions, increased their requests so that after all the dust settled, there would be sufficient funds to get the job done.

Input from those meetings was used supposedly to craft a budget.
As part of the kabuki theater of the budget process a public hearing is held about a week before the board’s April meeting when it votes to set the tax rates retroactive to January 1. A highlight of the budget hearing is carefully choreographed presentations by teachers, parents and adorable students to protest any reductions in the amounts earmarked for the schools.

To its credit, the school board 2009 budget request was less than that in 2008.

The April vote is needed to ensure that the tax bills can be prepared in a timely manner so they can be mailed out well in advance of the early June due date for the first semiannual payment.

Although the supervisors use budget requests to decide how much money each department really needs to function, they do not mandate that every penny be spent according to the proposed budget. Departments have the flexibility to allocate the funds as they see fit, which provides the opportunity for prudent use of public dollars.

That is important because stuff happens and things can change radically between the adoption of an annual budget and the end of the fiscal year. For instance, when the 2008-09 budget was drafted, the school system had no idea that gas prices would soon head for the stratosphere.

Sounds good on paper. Unfortunately it seems as though the tax rate was decided upon sometime in the fall, long before the start of the budget process. In recent years, the budget numbers seem to have been determined by working backwards to ensure that it balances with the revenue generated by the predetermined tax rate.

Throughout the year, addendums are made to the money spent by the county. Each addendum is advertised showing proposed increases and source money, a public hearing is held, which usually generates no public comment, and the addition is voted into place. At the end of the year, it’s difficult to figure out just how much money the county spent or exactly where it comes from.

The official budget then, seems to be a guesstimate as to how much will be spent in a given fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.

Posting the county’s check register for all to see, however, will give citizens a good idea where the money goes.

The Sedgewick checkbook however, shows lacks a category that consumes the lion’s share of Goochland public revenue, the school system.

In Kansas, school boards have the authority to levy and collect the taxes that fund education.

In Virginia, even though our school boards are elected by the citizens, funds for education are controlled by the governing board of each jurisdiction.

One of the problems with educational funding in Virginia is that school boards must beg for funds from generally disinterested governing boards resulting in a lack of meaningful accountability for school dollars.

The school budget is roughly equal to all of the property taxes collected in Goochland.

Because of the usually adversarial relationship between the supervisors and the school board, details about the county education system are shrouded in mystery. Rumor thrives in an information vacuum to the detriment of all.

Virginia’s local governing boards will never cede control over huge school budgets so the system will never improve, but that’s another issue.

Taxpayers must know how their money is spent in the name of the public good.

They must also have access to the actions of those who act on behalf of citizens.

Records and minutes of public boards should also be posted online for anyone to see at any time.

In addition to minutes of meetings of the supervisors and planning commission, background information packets should be permanently available on the county website.

Transparency in government is a fancy way of saying that citizens must not be kept in the dark about the manner in which government conducts its business.

Goochland is blessed to have many smart people living within its borders. Some have a lot of book learning, many a gracious plenty of native intelligence and common sense. A few have both and they’re all quite capable of understanding when they’re being bamboozled.

Open the doors, open the books and open the records. The result of secrecy and obfuscation is massive mistrust of government. Let the sun shine in!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

More thoughts on biosolids

Why all the mystery?

Thanks to the persistence of concerned citizens, a public hearing about an application to apply biosolids to farmland in Goochland was held on August 3.

It was just that, a public hearing. Officials from the state water control board listened to comment on the application of filed by Nutriblend to land apply biosolids. A final decision on whether the application to apply biosolids on 1466 acres in Goochland will be made in October. The complete application is on the county website and there is a hard copy behind the circulation desk in the Goochland library.

It’s not too late to add your thoughts in writing. They can be sent before August 21 via email to; by fax to 804.527.5106 or by snail mail to Anita Tuttle, DEQ-Piedmont Regional Office, 4949-A Cox Road, Glen Allen, VA 23060. Reference Nutriblend draft permit VPA 00806. Written comments must include the names, mailing addresses and telephone numbers of the person commenting and all other people represented by that communication and a brief informal statement about how the proposal affects the person commenting.

Before the hearing, a panel of representatives from several state agencies entertained questions.

Their answers tended to offer little comfort to those concerned about the practice of using the processed residue from municipal sewage plants as fertilizer for farms and forested land.

Most of the people in the room seemed to be from western Goochland. Their homes are served by private water supplies including bored or drilled wells and springs. Of obvious concern was the fouling of surface and ground water by sludge applications.

Notably absent were those who live in eastern Goochland served by public water provided by the Henrico county water treatment plant. All of their water comes from the James River. Whatever goes into the James upstream from the plant at the corner of Gaskins and Three Chopt Roads, winds up in the water at some point.

One of the agencies distributed copies of the December 2008 final report of “the panel of experts convened by the Secretary of Natural Resources and The Secretary of Health and Human Resources to study the impact of land application of biosolids on human health and the environment pursuant to HJR 604(2007) to the Governor and General Assembly of Virginia.”

It’s quite a document that includes a lot of technical detail. It also outlines the need for further studies. In addition to possible bacteria and viruses that may remain in biosolids after treatment, other substances like heavy metals; pharmaceuticals; residue of personal care products and a host of miscellaneous chemicals could be included in the mix.

The report uses a lot of weasel words because no one really knows what is in every bit o biosolids. They come from many places and not every bit of biosolids is subject to testing to determine its components.

Testing to determine the exact contents of specific loads of biosolids is not regulated. Origination facilities may analyze their output at certain intervals, but rarely test every bit of output.

It’s also hard to say where the biosolids that will be put on any given field originate. According to a report filed with the county’s sludge czar, Hugh Hardwicke and available on the county’s website, the sludge can come from a host of places on the east coast including the United States Naval Academy and Bergen County, New Jersey.

A November 2007 report on the “Health Effects of Biosolids to Land: Available Scientific Evidence” prepared by state epidemiologists was also distributed at the hearing. This report discusses the various pathogens and contaminant that might be incorporated into biosolids.

It concludes: “The body of epidemiologic literature on the adverse health effects of biosolids is small.”

Studies performed on people claiming to have suffered ill health as a result of exposure to biosolids were inconclusive, said the state epidemiologists:

“Human health allegations associated with biosolids usually lack evidence of biological absorption, medically determined health effects and/or do not meet the biological plausibility test. On the other hand, no concerted effort has been made to collect and analyze data on related health effects resulting from biosolids applied to land.”

The report urges that complaints of biosolids related health effects should be investigated and that federal and state standards for monitoring the land application of biosolids should be observed.

Both reports observed that more detailed information about the long term effects of biosolids application are needed, but, given the dire economics facing the state budget, they will be pipe dreams for the foreseeable future.

So where does this leave Goochland?

For one thing, the location and schedule of applications should be easily available. The report about locations says that it will be spread on numbered fields between October 2009 and October 2010. The field numbers may have meaning to the biosolids folk and landowners, but do not describe their location to those without the magic decoder ring.

There is no reason that the location of the application cannot be plotted used the county’s geographic information system (GIS) and be located with the nearest street address.

The GIS system could also be used to prepare a list of neighboring property owners, who should receive a rough schedule of applications.

One of the state agency representatives at the question and answer session stated flatly that there is no legal requirement for the neighboring property owners to be notified prior to land application of biosolids. Why not just do it because it’s the right thing to do?

Adding a notation to the deed of land that had been the recipient of biosolids application would ensure that future owners of that property know exactly what they are getting.

That might take action at the state level. Biosolids are undoubtedly big business with deep pockets able to afford the best lobbyists.

Biosolids are not going away any time soon.

Careful monitoring of applications is about as good as it’s going to get. If the current county ordinance regulating land application of biosolids is not being observed, that must change.

The county has a moral obligation to monitor biosolids applications regardless of whose land it’s spread on.

We all live downstream from someone.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Into the fray

Tuesday’s board of supervisors’ meeting

Goochland’s new county administrator Becky Dickson got an earful at her first official board meeting on Tuesday, August 4.

The expected highlight of the day, the report on the forensic audit of the utilities department, paled in comparison to more disturbing information about the Tuckahoe Creek Service District.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Claiborne H. Stokes reported that the forensic audit uncovered no apparent evidence of criminal activity.

Matthew McDonald, speaking for the auditing firm, gave an overview of the audit report. He said that all of the undeposited checks were traced back and accounted for.
Stokes’ bottom line was that the forensic audit found that no evidence that anyone in the utilities department gained financially from the repeated failure to deposit checks.

McDonald said that it appeared that there was no established procedure for depositing checks and that each employee was given the latitude to decide how money would be handled. Use of three separate receipt books, which were not reconciled with county accounts, only exacerbated the problem.

Findings of the audit suggest that an eight-year old running a lemonade stand has a better grasp of handling money and reconciling accounts than the Goochland utilities department did.

Members of a standing room only audience were disappointed with the report. Stokes said that none of the former utility department employees had been interviewed. He also said that the report on the criminal investigation would not be given to the supervisors.

While the county was found to be whole financially, the audit did not dispel the cloud that hangs over fired utilities department employees or the former county administrator. People still wonder if they perhaps made some sort of deals with some utility customers to “lose” checks.

The supervisors who supported the former utilities director and county administrator whose inattention to detail permitted the situation to occur in the first place, did not even have the decency to look embarrassed at the revelations.

The Virginia Resource Authority, source of the bonds that financed the TCSD, requires an annual certification by the county administrator that the TCSD generates sufficient revenue to pay it debt service and adequate income to cover its operating expenses. Initial financial review of the TCSD revealed that current utility rates are insufficient to cover its operating expenses.

Last month, a 16 percent county utility rate increase was proposed to ensure that the certification is backed by fact.

Since then, on the recommendation of District 4 supervisor Rudy Butler, an increase in residential connection fees was added to the proposal. The increases will be voted on following a public hearing at the September 1 board of supervisors’ meeting.

Dickson stated that there will be no change in the TCSD ad valorem tax before January 1, 2010.

The board adopted a shortened meeting format a few months ago. Instead of starting with a morning workshop followed by an afternoon session starting at 1:30 p.m. and public hearings at night, board meetings now begin at 3 p.m. and workshops are part of the agenda.

A bit of procedural tweaking seems to be in order.

What should have been a routine motion to advertise the rate increase hearing mushroomed into a lengthy confabulation by District 5 supervisor Jim Eads about the TCSD in general. He seemed unable to differentiate between debt service and operating funds. His remarks were a veritable brain dump of catch phrases about the TCSD that had little relevance to the subject at hand.

In the future, the board would be well advised to hold workshops separate from actual meetings and adjust the starting time to accommodate the complexity of matters under discussion.

Public comment before the evening session included several exhortations to operate Goochland government in an open and honest manner in response to concerns that government operations has reverted to the stealth process that created the current mess.

The comments and manner in which they were expressed demonstrate once again the high caliber of people who live in Goochland and care deeply about good government.

Ben Slone and Bob Marcellus advocated putting the check register for both county government and the school system online to enable citizens to know how public dollars are spent.
Given the ballooning magnitude of the disorder in county government and rampant suspicions of elected officials, this transparency would go a long way toward restoring public trust.

Although there was much talk about openness and transparency at Dickson’s swearing in ceremony, it was not that long ago when the phrase transparent government was Goochland administration code for “we’ll talk about it in private and do as we please.”

Slone welcomed Dickson and told her about some of the amazing people who call Goochland home. He also denounced the immoral attitudes that characterized the “old regime” and alluded to the darker reasons that contributed to supervisors requesting the resignation of the former county attorney.
Slone predicted that the fiscal times ahead will be dark indeed and contended that the reduction in county property values may be closer to 20 percent than the 10 percent used in current projections.

To overcome these challenges, Slone said, government and citizens must work together in an honest, open and collaborative manner.

Richard LeBlanc, who read the Declaration of Independence at the Goochland Farmers Market on July Fourth, reminded the supervisors that their power is derived from those they govern. Citizens, said LeBlanc, have a vital need to know what is going on in local government so that they can make informed choices when voting for supervisors.

LeBlanc concurred that local government should be operated in a collaborative manner by means of a flattened structure with “reduced power distances” between citizens and government.

“We the people,” said LeBlanc, “have a right to know.”

One speaker observed that citizens need to know not only what the supervisors decide, but the thought processes behind those decisions.

We can only hope that the message sent by the stirring rhetoric was taken to heart.

Additional actions:

Following at least seven years’ of fruitless discussion and the expenditure of large sums of money, the board finally approved $600,000 for upgrades to the school bus maintenance facility. According to documentation furnished by the superintendent of schools, the improvements should handle most of the needs for about five years.

The supervisors voted 4-1, with Eads dissenting, to rezone the 10.29 acre parcel of land behind Satterwhite’s Restaurant in Centerville from A-2 to B-1. The rezoning is intended to accommodate a retail commercial development of a total of 85,000 square feet. A change in the final proposal delayed the installation of the proffered turn lanes until the widening of Rt. 250 is completed.

Centerville citizens did an outstanding job of reshaping this project from a dismal strip into what could be a charming enclave. Time and the economy will determine when this parcel develops.