Sunday, November 28, 2010

Good reasons and real reasons

How smart is smart growth?

Buzzwords have replaced simple declarative sentences to explain important concepts. A request for a concise definition of a buzzword will often draw a blank stare of derision. If you don’t know, you should be too embarrassed to ask, is the not so subtle message sent in reply.

One such term that seems to be everywhere and is touted as the cure for pretty much everything but the heartbreak of psoriasis is “smart growth.”

This is a broad land use concept that allegedly seeks to protect us from the dreaded “sprawl,” which, according to its proponents, is eating up land at an alarming rate. Once land is covered with houses, shopping centers and roads to connect them, it will never revert to open space.

Proponents of smart growth contend that we “sprawl” is destroying the environment, society and running up a huge unsustainable tab in infrastructure costs.

What they advocate is basically recreation of healthy cities by allowing construction of only high-density housing options close to stores and services. Mixed use — putting housing, retail, business and other types of zoning on the same parcel of land governed by a master plan — is an example of smart growth. Proponents of mixed use contend that its residents can work, shop and play within walking distance of their homes. This requires fewer roads, less driving reducing traffic and protecting the environment.

West Broad Village in Short Pump is touted as such a place. The townhouses and apartments there seem nice enough, but on site employment opportunities are limited. It’s questionable if many of the people who work in its tenant businesses, mostly stores, earn enough to afford to live there. People who work in nearby Innsbrook still must drive to work except for those with a death wish who insist that Broad Street at rush hour is a suitable bicycle venue.

Walking within West Broad Village is easy and pleasant. Yet, even a trip to Target or to a movie requires a car.

Anyone who questions the validity of smart growth tenets is branded as a right wing nutcase.

A counter movement contends that “smart growth” is shorthand for the local implementation of the United Nations’ Agenda 21, Google the term for more information, which seems to advocate that concentration of population into small areas to easily control people for sinister purposes.

To further confuse the issue, the Commonwealth of Virginia has mandated that all “high growth” jurisdictions, which include Goochland County, must establish something called an Urban Growth Area (UDA) with residential densities higher than the established norm to absorb growth for the next few decades.

Higher density housing also, in theory, is supposed to lower the per-unit home cost.

Sounds great on paper.

People tend to move to Goochland for its rural lifestyle, whose definition is in the eye of the beholder, but generally includes a bit of peace and privacy.

However, given the high cost of land, which translates into expensive houses, there are a fair number of people, including teaches and deputies, who would like to live in the community they serve, that simply cannot afford to live here.

Many other long-term county residents are getting to the point in life where they are unable or unwilling to maintain large houses and property, but don’t want to leave Goochland.

Why not use the state mandate for higher density housing to target a very small area to be used for townhouses and even a continuing care senior citizen community?

A perfect location is east of Rt. 288 between Broad Street Road and Interstate 64. The roads are in as are sewer and water lines desperately in need of customers. Natural boundaries would prevent this zoning from bleeding into adjoining areas.

Detractors contend that apartments or townhouses will become slums in a few years. Housing value is more dependent on the general economy and well-managed government than density.

Many urban areas now considered slums were once homes of affluent people who abandoned them because of economic or political conditions. There is no guarantee that existing communities in Goochland including currently exclusive Kinloch and Randolph Square will not fall on hard times as the population ages and tastes in housing and economic conditions change.

It’s absurd to believe that folks who want to move to Goochland for peace and privacy would consider a townhouse. But it would be nice for aging Goochlanders, or those whose parents are getting on in yeas, to have care options closer to home. This would also be a source of revenue for the county and jobs for our citizens.

Townhouses and apartment would also provide homes for young people starting out who all too often move out of the county to live in an apartment and buy a first house.

Apartments over retail shops in parts of Centerville would help create the village that everyone seems to want in theory. This is not a new concept to Goochland. Many of our more seasoned citizens started out as young married couples living in apartments after World War II.

While it is absurd to assume that allowing only high- density housing will absorb all of the demand for large lots, it is time to permit limited land use for apartments or townhouses. A wide rage of housing options paves the way for a thriving community.

Healthy neighborhoods evolve. They cannot be engineered but can be encouraged by the proper environment. Goochland needs to seize this state mandate as an opportunity and not a punishment.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On to election Day

Matters close to home

Basking in the glow of Election Day 2010, the Goochland Tea Party turned its attention to local matters at its November 11 meeting. The high school auditorium was about half filled with faces not usually seen at local gatherings, a good portent for change.

Tea Party chair Susan Lascollette urged all present to attend local government meetings, whose schedules, along with a wealth of detailed information about the county is posed at the county website

After a tribute to veterans, Dr. Jeff Spence urged everyone to donate generously to the Goochland Christmas Mother, a locally operated all volunteer charity that helps the people that need it most during the holiday season. (Contributions to this worthy 501 c (3) group may be sent to P O Box 322 Goochland, VA 23063.)

The main topic of the evening was one of vital importance, Goochland County finances.

Ben Slone, who lives in Maidens, runs a successful business in Courthouse Village, is a member of the county’s Economic Development Authority and chairman of the Goochland Republican Committee was the speaker.

Before delving into the county’s finances, Slone spoke about the importance of every vote cast in an election. In the District 1 supervisor race in 1999, said Slone, the six vote margin of victory was tainted by allegations of voter fraud.

John Wright, a CPA by trade who lives in Manakin, spoke briefly about the county’s 2009 comprehensive annual financial report. (The county’s auditors, KPMG will present the CAFR for the fiscal year ended June 30, 2010 at the December 7 supervisors’’ meeting.)

Although the 2009 CAFR was reported on in an earlier GOMM post, Wright’s reflections deserve attention. This audit created a blueprint of the monumental mismanagement in the previous regime, which will haunt the county for years to come.

Before 2009, Goochland County employed the same accounting firm to both close and audit its books. This, said Wright, is counter to accepted best practices of accounting, which require at least the appearance of objectivity.

The fact that the same firm prepared and audited county financial reports for decades “raised some red flags” in Wright’s opinion.

To maintain objectivity, businesses and other entities change auditors every so often to give fresh eyes an opportunity to catch errors.

The 2009 CAFR resulted in 40 separate restatements, or corrections. Its completion resulted in accurate numbers to serve as a foundation going forward.

Wright reiterated concerns voiced by others about the previous auditors’ failure to notice irregularities in the utilities’ department, which led to a change in county administration.

As a result of the 2009 CAFR, said Wright “we know what we own and what we owe.”

Slone then began his discourse on county finances, whose picture is now clearer, but less pleasing than before the 2009 CAFR.

The county’s general fund, whose exact size was a matter of conjecture and had been thought to be more that $25 million, now stands, stripped of all of the smoke and mirrors used by the previous administration, at $12.4 million.

In 2002, the supervisors borrowed money from the Virginia Resource Authority to cover the cost of building water and sewer lines to foster economic development in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District. At the time, that amount was touted as $63 million. Instead of building its own facilities, Goochland entered into agreements with Henrico County and the City of Richmond for these services.

The loan was back loaded, payments increasing as, supposedly, the area built out, which in theory, should have generated more tax and other revenue to service the debt.

Growth in the TCSD, in spite of the burgeoning economy in the early part of this decade, was disappointing at best. The area has never come close to using the five million gallon per day utility capacity even though infrastructure construction costs paid to build perhaps the largest capacity wastewater pumping station on the east coast. Current usage is estimated at 688,000 gallons per day. An additional TCSD water line, to further increase capacity, is currently under construction in Henrico County whose cost bled about $3 million from the amazing disappearing fund balance.

The TCSD debt is the 800 pound gorilla looming over Goochland’s future.

The 2009 CAFR also discovered that the wastewater agreement with the City of Richmond included a $21.3 million cost that was supposed to have been paid incrementally through user fees. This obligation was never included in the county’s debt projections. That’s a little like forgetting that you have a home equity loan in addition to your mortgage. Because usage has been far lower than expectations, Richmond has insisted on increases in user fees, which will probably be repeated for the next few years.

Slone presented a graph of the various TCSD financial obligations burdening Goochland. The lines rise steeply toward the future. This does not include other debt incurred by the county.

Why is this important? In the next few years, Goochland County must pay a $10 million balloon payment. Our total current annual budget is about $59 million.

The VRA is keeping a close eye on Goochland’s finances. The county cannot borrow any additional money without the VRA’s blessing. This means no new schools in the foreseeable future even though all three elementary schools are aging and filling up.

Goochland must pay its debts. Slone speculated that the ad valorem tax, paid only by TCSD landowners in addition to real estate taxes, may increase. Unfortunately, that could discourage economic development, perhaps the only hope to get out of this mess.

To further exacerbate the situation, about eight miles of force main, pressurized pipe, may be faulty and improperly installed and maintained. There has already been at least one failure when a section of this pipe shredded spewing raw sewage along River road.

Slone beleives that there way to restructure the debt and reorganize the TCSD itself to make the county’s obligations more digestible. However, the majority of the current board of supervisors, who must approve any such action, blithely whistle past the graveyard on the whole issue.

He contended that the refusal of a majority of current supervisors to even investigate the possibility of legal action against the former auditors, is very troubling.

Slone urged all present to pay close attention to the actions of the board of supervisors, especially how its members vote on important matters and educate themselves about issues facing Goochland.

Real change, he said, will come about when the voters have spoken at the ballot box on November 8, 2011. Good thoughts all.

Unless candidates come forward who can both win elections and govern wisely, little will change. So far two candidates have come forward in District 5 to fill the seat currently held by James W. Eads. While it is still early in the game, Goochland’s future is in peril and there must be ongoing substantive discussions about issues before the next local elections.

The Goochland Tea Party is a welcome addition to public discourse in the county. Hopefully, it will sponsor several candidate forums to explore a wide range of local issues and educate the voters who will have the final say.

Monday, November 8, 2010

This could be the start of something big

Random thoughts on the election

The shock waves of last Tuesday’s elections are still reverberating around the country. Winners bask in the glow of victory while contemplating the hard cold reality of the task before them.

Voters indicated that they are paying attention to government and did not like what was going on. All members of congress have been put on notice that they too can be sent packing.

Our own Eric Cantor received more than 50 percent of votes cast. While that is a very respectable margin, it could have been much higher. He seems to understand that he too can find himself in the loser column if he does not deliver on the promises of campaign rhetoric.

In a relative non-event election wise, 57 percent of Goochland’s registered voters troubled themselves to cast ballots last Tuesday. Hopefully, that will translate into a very high voter turnout next year to implement real change closer to home.

The length and depth of the electorate’s attention span, however, remains to be seen.

At it’s birth, the Tea Party advocated change at all levels of government from local school boards to the White House. They believe that both parties need fundamental change. So far, folks have gotten all riled up about Congress, but will they do the same next November here in Goochland when we elect local officials?

In the 2007 elections, only one sitting school board members was unsuccessfully challenged at the polls and two sitting supervisors ran without opposition.

Almost two years have passed since the upheaval in county administration precipitated by the discovery of, at best, mind boggling incompetence in the utilities department.

Incumbents seem to be confident that by the next election local voters will have forgotten all about that mess. Indeed, their refusal to investigate the possibility of legal remedies against former auditors who missed the mess indicates a strategy of sweeping past transgressions under the proverbial rug.

Redistricting as the result of the 2010 census may also play a role in local elections.

Goochland is currently grappling with the consequences of years of gross mismanagement. Just last Wednesday the supervisors were reminded once again that the size of the county’s general fund was significantly overstated as a mater of course for years. While the county is not broke, yet, it must find a way to handle a staggering debt load and provide necessary services to its citizens.

An October 18 joint meeting between the supervisors and members of the county’s Economic Development Authority that included input from representatives of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership offered some interesting insights into Goochland’s inability to attract significant economic development in spite of its strategic location.

The conversation at that meeting outlined basic mechanisms of successful economic development. The upshot is that Goochland needs to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. The majority of board members still seem to believe that Goochland can pick and choose among lucrative economic suitors and does not need to compete for business.

Goochland has held itself apart from the Richmond Region and is rarely included in presentations to out of town businesses interested in moving to central Virginia.

The companies that have significant presences in Goochland, especially Capital One, which did not develop its West Creek campus to its full potential, are positioning themselves more with the Richmond region than Goochland.

Innocent or wacky questions and remarks offered by board chair William Quarles, District 2; supervisors James Eads District 5, and Andrew Pryor District 1 indicate that they are just gaining awareness of the importance of economic development.

Had this meeting been held about ten years ago before creation of the Tuckahoe Creek Service District, the county would probably be in better financial shape.

Economic development is just one of the important issues that confront Goochland and will impact every taxpayer in coming years. Will county voters maintain their interest as the conversation turns to mind numbing local policy discussions or return to the status quo? Will candidates who can win elections and govern wisely step forward? Stay tuned.

Governmental reform at all levels begins at the ballot box.

Don’t forget the Goochland Tea Party meeting this Thursday, November 11 at 7 p.m. at Goochland High School. The main topic will be the county’s finances.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Watching the paint dry

Supervisors slog though tedious meeting

At their regular monthly meeting on November 3 Goochland County’s supervisors addressed a myriad of routine matters.

Ned Creasey District 3 was absent, recovering from surgery. Please pray for his swift and complete recovery.

George Gill, chairman of the board of director of Goochland’s Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program presented a brief overview of the program. Its function is to act as the voice of abused and neglected children and ears of the court in situations to ensure that decisions are made in the best interest of the child. The non-profit program is funded by grants and donations and overseen by the court.

Extraordinarily dedicated volunteers give their time, talent and compassion to help children. He introduced Anne Casey the CASA executive director who said that more volunteers are needed and classes begin in January. For more information about being part of this program, contact the CASA office at 556-5876.

Discussion of a land purchase by the county was deferred to the December board meeting when all of the details will be in place. This is a major change in board proceedings. The supervisors should be commended for this step toward government transparency.

Goochland Fire-Rescue Chief Bill MacKay reported that a home was destroyed by fire in the upper end of the county in October with no injuries. Had the fire occurred while the family was sleeping, the outcome would have been different because the home’s smoke detector was not in working order.

SMOKE DETECTORS SAVE LIVES. WHEN YOU TURN YOUR CLOCKS BACK THIS WEEKEND, CHANGE THE BATTERIES IN YOUR SMOKE DETECTOR AND TEST TO ENSURE THAT THEY ARE IN WORKING ORDER. If you need a smoke detector or have any questions about fire safety, please call fire-rescue administration at 556-5304 for assistance.

MacKay warned that dry weather and falling leaves will increase the danger of brush fires and urged all residents to use extreme caution with outside burning activities. Keep your fires small and do not burn when it is windy!

County Sherriff Jim Agnew reported that roving burglars are still plaguing parts of the county.

Happily, he said, there were no incidents on Halloween or at polling places. Agnew said that a former employee of the county’s social services department was arrested for embezzlement as the result of an investigation sparked by another employee and charges are pending. Sadly, this sort of activity occurs in even the best run organizations but thanks to principled employees it was eliminated.

Both Agnew and MacKay urge caution when traveling through construction zones in Centerville especially during the short days and bad weather of the months ahead.

Among the many housekeeping items on the agenda was an update of the county employee handbook. Changes include the establishment of a culture of “non-retaliation for reporting fraud and abuse” by county employees.

What a change from just two years ago when the previous regime in collusion with some supervisors attempted to establish a reign of terror threatening dissenting employees with immediate termination.

Handbook changes also address the amount of annual leave carryover permitted and include a code of ethics. Although the handbook says that the county will be a drug and alcohol free workplace, random, unannounced testing does not apply to all employees. Why not?

Then the board moved on to money issues, specifically, how much is left in the county’s fund balance.

In the last year or so, the supervisors agreed, at least in theory, to tap the county’s savings to pay for a water line installed along Three Chopt Road in Henrico as part of the Tuckahoe Creek Service District; some school items; creation of a utilizes master plan and other things needed but not funded in the annual budget. At the end of the day, according to John Wack, Deputy county Administrator for financial affairs, the county fund balance will be about $12.4 million.

District 4 Supervisor Rudy Butler was very distressed about this. He wanted to know what happened to all of the money that used to be in the county fund balance.

According to county administrator Rebecca T. Dickson, the figures presented by Wack are based on the county’s 2009 CAFR. She said that in past years the amount in fund balance had been overstated because it did not reflect the amounts that the supervisors planned to remove from that account. In other words, the previous regime used the rosie scenario method of accounting and the board had no clue how much money was left in county coffers.

Board chairman William Quarles, District 2 attributed the anomaly to the fact that the county “previously had not used best practices when accounting for fund balance.”

James Eads, District 5, attributed the differences to “past years’ turbulence in the budget.”

For many years the county paid good money to outside auditors to supposedly inspect the county’s books and present the supervisors with an accurate picture of the county’s financial condition to enable them to make decisions. As last year’s CAFR (see county website for complete report) illustrated, Goochland’s finances were, at best, confused in previous years.

Now, Quarles and Eads and probably Andrew Pryor, District 1, who has said little about the fiasco, want to forget about the bad old days and move forward. Unfortunately, that long-term inattention to best practices in financial matters cost the county money in many ways.

Last year, for instance, the county expended $475,000 just to get a handle on the finances of the Tuckahoe Creek Service District, which glaring evidence of incompetence by the previous auditors.

For some reason, the majority of supervisors are unwilling to explore legal remedies against those auditors even to recoup the cost of last year’s CAFR.

Next year Goochland elects its local officials. We must keep asking questions about fiscal matters past and present and not let anything be swept under the rug!