Friday, January 21, 2011

Garbage In?

Talking trash

On Christmas Eve, the air along Fairground Road was scented with one of those facets of rural character — the aroma of burning garbage.

Many county residents have always burned their trash. Others hire commercial haulers to remove what is politely called “solid waste” from their property, while some periodically schlep their garbage to one of the county’s two convenience centers. The latter option has become tricky since July 1 when restricted hours of operation were imposed to save money.

Convenience center closures — Thursday for the Fairground Road facility Tuesday and Wednesday for the western one on Hadensville-Fife Road — can be a nuisance if you forget. Once you’ve got the stuff in your vehicle, you really don’t want take it home again. As gas prices rise, heading to the upper end of the county instead of the middle not only wastes time, but gets expensive. If usage at the WCC is low enough to justify a two-day closure perhaps it wasn’t needed all that badly in the first place.

County officials justify the convenience center closings as part of a “sharing the pain” strategy for service reductions necessitated by decreasing revenues from real estate taxes.

According to the Goochland County 2010-11 budget as shown on the county website the closures saved the county $224,115 over last year’s budget, about $4,300 a week. Most of the cost is probably hauling and disposal fees, but the main reduction in cost should be wages and benefits for employees.

It’s hard to believe that Goochlanders are generating less garbage just because the convenience centers have shorter hours. The wages and benefits of fine people who work there are probably not high enough to account for the difference.

The assumption seems to be that most county residents use the convenience centers on weekends so closing during the week aggravates relatively few people. It’s not unusual, however, to find a modest line at the Fairground Road facility even in the middle of a weekday.

Look for mention of a tipping fee — a charge to dump trash — during upcoming budget discussions. When Henrico supervisors imposed a modest tipping fee at its landfills about 20 or so years ago, while also voting themselves a hefty raise, some residents were so outraged that they took to dropping bags of trash by the side of the road.

There may be a darker purpose behind the closures. Remember last year’s budget hearing when county administrator Rebecca T. Dickson, at the behest of some supervisors, presented several different budget options.

Three of the options were based on different tax rates and one on essentially raiding the county’s cookie jar to make up the expected revenue shortfall.

In a 3-2 split, with Ned Creasey, District 3, Rudy Butler District and James Eads District 5 voted to retain the 53 cent tax rate last April. So far this year, they seem intent on a repeat. Hold onto your wallet if you have county water and sewer because those rates, and the ad valorem tax in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District, are sure to rise.

(The supervisors set tax rates at their April meeting retroactive to January 1 of each calendar year. Payments are due in June and December.)

Reducing hours of operation for the convenience centers and library, both widely used services, may have a purpose other than saving money. Perhaps the Board — or at least some of its members — hopes that citizens will be so annoyed at service reductions that they will offer little resistance to tax increases. After all, the argument goes, with falling assessments, the tax rate can go up but most tax bills will be lower than last year.

Maybe the answer to the budget shortfalls is to raise the real estate tax rate to $1 for one year to catch up. Those pesky rich folk on the gold coast would grumble while they write their tax bill checks. The people in the upper end of the county might have to choose between eating and paying tax on land that has been in their families for generations.

The rub is that not all taxes are created equal. Okay, no one likes to pay taxes, but someone has to pay for government services. Unlike federal and state taxes, which shrivel your paycheck before you get it and goes who knows where to pay for who knows what, local taxes stay right here.

They fund the local services that we take for granted, except for highway maintenance, which is handled by VDOT. Local taxes pay the salaries of people who work for the schools and county and are spent here to keep the few fine county businesses afloat.

We need to believe that governmental expenditures are justified. The school board especially needs to remember that citizens need confidence that their tax dollars are wisely spent.

There are no good answers. Some meaningful economic development about 10 years ago to cushion us against the vagaries of a cyclical economy would have been nice, but the supervisors have to deal with the cards on the table right now. There are no good hands. To further complicate matters, it’s an election year.

Does anyone know where to buy a burn barrel?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A bird in the hand

Trolling for business

On the evening of January 4, the Goochland Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve a series of rezoning and other land use changes for property in and around the 623 Landfill, which is located on the east side of Ashland Road (Rt. 623) north of Interstate 64 in the Centerville/Rockville area. The eastern boundary is the Henrico County line. James Eads, District 5 dissented.

The applications for these changes have been in the works for a while. In the interim, county staff, 623 Landfill, Inc., Luck Stone, Goochland citizens and the Henrico neighbors of the property have been discussing the proposed changes.

Since the public hearing before the Goochland Planning Commission on August 19, 2010 a few modifications were made. Negotiations seem to have been in progress until the vote, because the final agreement between Goochland County and 623 approved by the supervisors was not included in the board packet.

Under the final agreement, 623 will accept up to 1,200 tons of solid waste (general garbage) from the county’s convenience centers for processing at the material recovery facility (MRF) approved amongst the approved applications. Acceptance of 500 tons of construction debris per year and an annual tire amnesty day for county residents to dispose of old tires without a fee and an electronic day also for 15 years.

In both versions, 623 agreed to make a one-time contribution of $5,000 toward the July 4, 2011 fireworks in Goochland. The final version approved by the Board runs for 15 years while the agreement in the board packet covered only a 10year period. There was no comment on the rationale behind the extension.

The main purpose of the site is to accept 4,000 tons per day, averaged over a 90 day period, of construction debris, not municipal waste, from a service area “that shall include, but not be limited to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the States of the Atlantic Seaboard.”

Following the conclusion of the public hearing, Henrico homeowners who opposed the changes sniped that the price of a rezoning in Goochland is $5,000.

Then, those same people returned to their homes in Henrico, a jurisdiction served by 24/7 paid fire-rescue providers and a well-staffed police force that fired no teachers and had no major service reductions necessitated by declining tax revenues. A significant portion of sales tax revenues generated by Goochland residents is spent in Henrico. We subsidize them.

No one wants a landfill in their back yard. Most of the people who spoke during the public hearing mentioned knowledge of the modest landfill located behind them when they bought their property. It never occurred to them that the property might be sold and expanded.

It would be interesting to know if the same people objected as vigorously to the construction of the Gayton Road extension on the north side of I-64, which may well disrupt their lives far more than the changes at 623 Landfill.

County staff could have done a better job of explaining the situation at the public hearing. Aerial photographs with utility lines superimposed were part of the presentation.
While mention was made that a Tuckahoe Creek Service District sewer line goes through the 623 property, no one bothered to explain that the sewer line is used to remove run-off from the site, which was previously taken away in tanker trucks. Also, 623 Landfill pays commercial wastewater fees, badly needed by the county to service the TCSD debt.

Part of the agreement will permit the construction and operation of a materials recovery facility (MRF) for municipal waste, also known as garbage. This is a place where garbage is mined for recyclable material, which is then sold.

The land immediately behind the Henrico homes will be separated from the landfill with buffers and a berm. Operations immediately adjacent to the buffers will be used for limited “borrow” operations. That means that soil, well above the water table, will be removed for use in covering the layers of construction debris that go into the landfill.

According to the application, the borrowing activities will also level the ground preparing it to be developed by into some sort of business park by Luck Stone when the landfill is closed. The closing date is a squishy 15 or so years hence, depending on the economy.

The Supervisors are clearly holding on to the few birds they have in hand. While not the high quality development that everyone seems to want but cannot clearly define or, more importantly, attract to Goochland, the 623 Landfill is here and paying its way. Goochland needs any business it can get.

It looks like we’re going to get a Goodwill store on Broad Street Road east of Centerville too.

The West Creek Medical Center, which was in initially touted as a hospital, but will be more of a free-standing enhanced emergency department and trauma center, is underway. The WCMC will provide a welcome and much needed service in Goochland. Hopefully, over the years it will grow into a hospital that attracts related medical services, and jobs, to the area.

Rejection of a pre-zoning initiative at the Oilville-I64 interchange last year was a giant leap backward for Goochland’s economic development prospects.

Unfounded and pernicious rumors that the pre-zoning was intended to permit construction of a huge truck stop at the Oilville interchange circulated by ignorant individuals scared off high quality development prospects who took their dollars far away from Goochland. Landowners who spent a great deal of their own money on reports and studies to facilitate the rezoning are disgusted with the county. So, that interchange, which could generate significant revenue for the county, sits fallow.

The prospects for meaningful economic development in here are a joke. We need a new sign at the entrance to the county that proclaims “Welcome to Goochland, land of high taxes and low expectations.”

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Back to the future

More of the same for 2011

The Goochland Board of Supervisors held its first meeting of 2011 on Tuesday January 4 and set the tone for the year. More 3-2 votes and thinly disguised contempt between factions lie ahead.
Following the invocation, election, or appointment of board officers— the rules of procedures seem to contradict themselves on that point — was in order. Ned Creasey, District 3 nominated Rudy Butler District 4 for board chair. He seconded his own nomination. Then, Andrew Pryor, District 1 nominated William Quarles, Jr. District 2 which was seconded by Jim Eads, District 5. The Butler nominated failed 3-2 while the Quarles vote prevailed by the same margin. The vote for vice chair followed the same lines with Eads voted into the position marking the second straight year of the Quarles/Eads board leadership.
Predictably, during the citizen comment period several speakers blasted Eads, Pryor and Quarles for their failure to rotate the board chair. Ironically, the rotation issue was the centerpiece of Eads’ initial campaign in 1999. Following Eads’ election, supervisors from each district took turns as chair. This evaporated following the 2007 election.
Butler expressed his disdain for the vote and contended that failure to rotate the chair created an unfair advantage for some districts.
Why is being chairman so important beyond the ego boost? It’s certainly not the extra money that the chairman receives. It’s all about power.
The board chair has control over the agenda of meetings and he alone decides points of order. This is a huge deal. Given the disastrous consequences of the massive dysfunction of previous county administration, which are still bubbling to the surface, the ability to keep certain issues out of the public eye, is very important.
The streamlined board meeting offer far fewer opportunities for information leakage, but some items must be addressed in a public forum, especially those requiring board votes.
Happily, County Attorney Norman Sales seems to have put a very tight limit on the subjects that the board can address in closed session. Unlike his predecessor, whose thresholds for closed session criteria seems to have been lower.
Following the “elections” the supervisors approved rules of procedure and code of ethics. Please go to the county website and download part A of the January 4 board packet. Please read these documents carefully. Also, notice the date of the initial adoption of the Code of Ethics.
In spite of lots of lip service about transparency in government, some supervisors do not seem to understand that integrity means doing what is right even if no one else is watching.

Mrs. Nancy Morrison was recognized by the supervisors for 35 years of outstanding service upon her retirement from the Social Services Department.
Fire-rescue Chief Bill MacKay reported that both fire and EMS call volume increased in December. He congratulated Goochland citizens for having no fire fatalities during the year.
So far, only 13 people have signed up for the Emergency Medical Technician class starting this week. Classes are free to all members of Goochland fire-rescue companies. To join you must be at least 16 years of age, in good health, have a good driving record and be able to pass a background check by law enforcement. To find out more call 556-5304. This is a great way for young retirees to serve the community.
Sheriff Agnew reported that December was a quiet month for law enforcement in Goochland. Traffic accidents in the county were down about 33 percent from last year and of those that occurred, 65 percent were caused by men. Keep up the good driving record ladies!
County assessor Glenn Branham reported that the 2010 property assessments will be mailed on January 14 and landowners should begin to receive them early the following week. Challenges to the assessments must be filed within 30 days.
The assessed value of land in Goochland decreased by just under four percent in 2010. New construction values were down by 49 percent. The value of rural land decreased most in value, which Branham attributed to the lack of speculative buying by homebuilders and developers. Only nine commercial properties were sold in 2010 and there was a dramatic increase in foreclosures.
The land use taxation rate will rise from $220 per acre to $280. That’s right, per acre. The rest of us are taxed on the assessed value of the land.
County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson told the board that the county budget for fiscal year 2012, which begins on July 1, is being developed on the assumption of a 53 cent real estate tax rate. This will mean that the school system must cut another $693,000 from its budget above and beyond last year’s reductions.
The citizen comment portion of the evening session included a plea from a concerned parent about the school budget decline. This will be the first of many entreaties to the supervisors to find a way to channel more money to county schools.
Eads asked if the school board will be submitting a proposed budget based on expected revenues, which it did not do last year. Dr. Linda Underwood, superintendent of schools, who was at the meeting, said that she was not able to speak for the school board, but would convey Eads’ request.
That was the first volley in the annual budget battle between the supervisors and school board over money.
Following last year’s census the county will engage in a redistricting process to ensure that the five electoral districts in the county are evenly balanced. Because Virginia is one of the state subject to the Federal Voting Rights Act, all changes must be approved by the Justice Department. It will be interesting to see if this law enacted to safeguard voters’ rights will wind up delaying local elections in Goochland.
The county electoral board and Registrar are, however, being very proactive to do everything in their power to ensure fair and timely elections. Meetings will be held in each of the five districts to explain changes resulting from the census beginning in late spring. A new page will be added to the county website dealing exclusively with the redistricting process. Keep your eyes peeled for notice about these meetings and be sure to share any information with your friends and neighbors to make sure everyone knows what is going on.