Monday, February 28, 2011

Rites of spring

Psy ops

It’s that time of year again. The days are longer, hardy daffodils emerge from the ground and Goochland’s school administration is girding for battle with the Board of Supervisors over next year’s budget.

For the past few years, the supervisors have requested the schools to prepare proposed budgets based on expected revenues. Instead, the schools demand more money than is available giving little justification for the increase. Each time the supervisors ask for line item salary information about all school employees, especially those in the central office, they get vague response and all salaries lumped into one line item.
At budget time, the school board and Superintendent Dr. Linda Underwood become combative. What should be a reasonable discussion turns ugly.
In recent years, the schools have manipulated parents to harass the supervisors into increasing school funding. Parents are told that if the school budget is cut, their children will suffer. Believing that their children’s education is at risk, the parents fall into line. It’s hard to fault their concern.

For example, the follow email was circulated among parents and teachers on February 25, 2011.

“The agenda packet for the Board of Supervisors meeting for Tuesday has been posted.

The proposed school budget is $1.425 million less than the School Board requested. Working from the PowerPoint slides in the packet, I only see the bottom line, not the by-category recommendation.

The $1.425 million consists (roughly) of the $693,000 reduction requested by the county at the beginning of the process, the $444,000 VRS increase, and the increases requested to restore 2 furlough days and the math specialist.

I usually have plans b, c, and d in my back pocket. Many of you have heard me say that I just don't have those plans in this case. The only place we have left to go is (again) positions to make up that kind of shortfall. We will certainly have to look at some of the possibilities rejected earlier in the budget planning process in order to perhaps reduce the number of positions we will be forced to eliminate.

The Board of Supervisors may set the tax rate at the Tuesday meeting. That means that it will be too late to do anything about revenues after that date. If anyone wants the supervisors to hear his/her opinion on school funding or the tax rate, Tuesday could be the last chance.

If you need to forward this email, feel free.

Thank you -Linda

Linda A. Underwood, Ed.D.
Goochland County Public Schools”

This tactic is very reminiscent of psychological warfare, sometimes referred to as psy ops.

Wikipedia comment on this form of battle:
The U.S. Department of Defense defines psychological warfare as:
"The planned use of propaganda and other psychological actions having the primary purpose of influencing the opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behavior of hostile foreign groups in such a way as to support the achievement of national objectives.”

Underwood’s message contains at least one piece of information that is false.

The supervisors will not and cannot set the tax rate on March 1. The tax rate will be voted on by the supervisors at their April 5 meeting. A public hearing on the county budget, which includes school funding, will be held on March 29 at 7 p.m. In past years the rate and budget allocations have been changed, literally, at the last minute.

In an ironic twist Underwood complains that the county budget does not contain by item budget recommendations, something that she and her stooges on the school board have refused to supply to the supervisors for years.

The proposed county budget is upfront on its website The proposed school budget may be lurking somewhere on the school system’s website but it’s not readily accessible. How is that transparent operation?

As Goochland County prepares to enter yet another fiscal year with declining revenues the attitude of school administration is troubling. Public education is a worthy expenditure of tax dollars. However, there must be a high level of trust that those funds are well and wisely spent. The lack of transparency in the school budget, especially in difficult economic climates, does nothing to dispel concerns that the money is not going where it is needed the most.
We all need to remember this nonsense at the polls in November.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Visions of the future

Urban density in the country?

You’d think that the Commonwealth of Virginia has more than enough on its plate without poking its nose into local land use issues. Not so.

Alarm at the rapid pace of growth in some parts of Virginia, Goochland included, led the state to mandate that jurisdictions with high percentage growth rates designate urban development areas (UDAs)to concentrate development and combat dreaded sprawl. The size of the required UDA is determined using a formula based on the number of acres “consumed” by recent development and can very depending upon the permitted density in the UDA.

Goochland’s required UDA acreage varies between 433 and 961 acres. The higher the density, the lower the required acreage. For instance, apartments, which have a much higher unit per acre density than single family detached homes, could satisfy the UDA acreage with a much smaller footprint.

The nuts and bolts process of creating UDAs is funded by grants from VDOT, the state agency that was so short of funds under the Kaine administration that all of the interstate rest areas were closed a few years ago. Then last year, VDOT found enough unspent money to reopen the rest areas and get many other transportation projects off the ground.

One fiscal benefit of UDAs, their supporters contend, is that concentrating development decreases the amount of new roads that need to be built to support that development, which in turn reduces the cost of ongoing road maintenance. The annual maintenance of state roads is allegedly the highest item in the VDOT budget.

To make the UDA pill easier for localities to swallow, VDOT provided a grant of $50,000 to pay consultants it selected to help Goochland craft its own UDA policy.

Goochland is required to revise its comprehensive land use plan to show the desired location of UDAs — there could be more than one — and amend zoning ordinances to support them. The county is not required to do anything to ensure that the UDA development actually happens.

Tom Coleman, the principal planner for Goochland County recently made presentations about UDAs at the county administration building in Courthouse Village and at Company 3 fire-rescue station in Centerville.

The Centerville on February 22 meeting was well attended. Many of the people in the audience were residents of Belleview Gardens, who are battling a pending rezoning that would place a large Goodwill Store at the entrance to their community.

Comments and questions were thoughtful and civil. In general, citizens seem to understand the benefits of increasing the commercial tax base in Goochland but no one wants it in their backyard.

The presentation was informative, as far as it went. Please visit the county website and go to the planning department page. An outline of the UDA presentation is there along with the preliminary reports from the consultant.

These documents contain a great deal of interesting information about population growth projections, county employment and so forth. According to the consultants, Goochland’s population could grow to be more than 35,000 from its current 21,000 by 2030. That’s still about 10 percent of Henrico’s population and Goochland has slightly more land.

Newcomers to Goochland seem most alarmed about the growth patterns in the county. Long time residents worry that the “smart growth” proponents will put land use policies into place that will further erode their private property rights.

Indeed, demands that some speakers made about wanting more power to decide how land they do not own will be developed, were troubling.

The UDA issue is yet another area where finding good balance between the public good and private property rights is crucial.

Local developer Scott Gaeser spoke eloquently in favor of encouraging growth in the county’s villages to protect the rural areas from development. Gaeser pointed out that the zoning on his land, including Manakintowne in
Centerville, has been in place for 20 years and pretty much limits him to building a gas station.

He believes that the notion of encouraging development in villages served by public utilities and a good road system is sound and achievable.

The vagueness of the UDA process is also disturbing. If specific areas are designated for UDAs with higher density, what about other parcels of land in a village? This could degenerate into yet another boondoggle for the good old boys leaving other landowners out in the cold.

What sort of high-density housing will be appropriate? In some minds the term “apartments” means low income housing projects. It can also mean condos overlooking the golf course. Some also worry that apartments will add more students to our school system. High density housing can also mean age restricted communities that place few demands on schools.

There were lots of questions about roads. Workable villages, contended Coleman, have grid transportation systems to provide more than one route through a village.

He said that there are no plans to extend Mills Road, currently a residential street that is the only access point to Belleview Gardens, to Three Chopt Road to the north.

Versions of the county’s proposed thoroughfare plan clearly show Mills Road connecting with Three Chopt. It is hard for citizens to have confidence in statement made by county officials when they “forget” such details.

Several speakers generally supported the notion of higher density development in both Courthouse and Centerville Villages, but only if market driven and funded by private sector money. There is great concern that UDAs will prevent those who own property outside of village areas will be unable to rezone their land as they see fit.

These meetings are the first step toward creating UDAs in Goochland. Additional meetings, hopefully with more detailed specifics, are expected in coming months.

The most positive aspect of UDAs so far is people are paying attention and asking questions. More citizens need to give land use matters their attention before the bulldozers are on the lot next door.

Too often important decisions are made in response to input from a small number of citizens. That must stop for the good of all.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Connecting the dots

Unintended consequences

Goodwill Industries wants to build a big new facility in eastern Goochland County in the general area where we need and want business. The plan includes a large thrift store and an employment center to help people find jobs.

Goodwill stores are generally staffed by people with serious criminal histories trying to put their lives back together, a noble purpose. However, such jobsites should not be located anywhere near residential areas

The problem is that the proposed location is on the corner of Belleview Gardens, a new and fairly upscale residential community, located just east of Tuckahoe Creek on the north side of Broad Street Road.

There had been a few houses in there for many years, but it was not until after the Tuckahoe Creek Service District utilities came online that an enterprising developer had the vacant land rezoned in 2004 for smaller lots, which would use water and sewer.

Given the expected pressure for commercial growth in the Broad Street Road corridor, remember, this rezoning occurred about a year after Short Pump Town Center opened, this seemed an odd place to locate upscale single family homes. A townhouse or apartment community might have been more appropriate, but of course, Goochland has no such zoning options.

Although the rezoning was approved, little thought seems to have been given to the expectations of the people who would live in those homes or how plunking several upscale homes in an area generally considered destined for commercial development would change the big picture. Right now it seems like the county is pretending that the existence of Belleview Gardens has no impact on development plans.

Why would anyone in their right mind believe that it makes sense to establish a large Goodwill complex at the edge of a residential community? This is a stupid idea as is the portion of the county’s proposed thoroughfare plan that would connect Mills Road, which is now a residential street, with Ashland Road to move northbound traffic from Broad Street Road.

Why on earth would Goodwill want to locate this facility on that parcel of land? Where are their expected clients and employees going to come from and how are they going to get there?

According to November 2010 news reports, Goodwill Industries plans to finance the facility with bonds. Why is an organization like Goodwill taking on debt? Aren’t its thrift stores usually located in areas of low-income housing? Is that eastern Goochland or adjacent Short Pump?

Those who live near the proposed Goodwill facility are up in arms and rightly so. If that sort of facility is appropriate for the Centerville area, shouldn’t it be located closer to existing businesses or perhaps along Ashland Road in an industrial area?

As Short Pump bloomed some Goochlanders feared that its growth would overrun our county. Would that it had. Instead, we sit wistfully on our side of the county line and watch as our residents take their sales tax dollars to Henrico County because there are few places to buy things here.

Just how desperate is Goochland for new business? On the surface, it seems like the supervisors are very desperate for business, but are they really?

Rumors abound that the property in question is being offered to Goodwill at a very attractive price. No doubt because the current owner is disgusted with Goochland County land use policy and wants to get rid of the land and run to a place where they have a reasonable expectation of being able to do business.

Last year the supervisors rejected a proposal to facilitate development at the Interstate 64/Oilville Road interchange. Detractors of that proposal spread false information that a truck stop was to be built there. Businesses then looking hard at Oilville would have brought revenue, jobs and no truck stops.

Now, nothing will be built there for at least a generation, except for perhaps yet another gas station/convenience store.

The Oilville interchange is a good place to encourage development. There are no homes in the immediate vicinity. Would the folks who continually derail businesses they contend are not “right” for Goochland please publish a list of what sort of businesses are acceptable? Coffee shops and art galleries are not going to fund even a minimal level of county services.

While all of this is percolating, Goochland County continues to hound (pun intended) the Paws Inn on Plaza Drive. For at least the last decade Goochland County has spent lots of tax dollars in legal and other fees to close a functioning business. The county decided, after issuing all sorts of permits to Paws Inn when it first opened, that it was in the wrong place and must move.

We will probably never know the real reasons for the vendetta against Paws Inn, but noise generated by barking dogs is not at the top of the list. However, at least three supervisors must consider the matter important enough to continue the legal battle. With all of the other stuff on the table, it is past time for the county to drop legal action against Paws Inn and stop wasting tax dollars on legal fees.

The Goodwill rezoning is currently scheduled for a public hearing before the planning commission at its March 17 meeting. If the planners vote on the application, regardless of their recommendation, it will move onto the supervisors for a final vote, perhaps in May.

In recent years, the county has made community meetings between developers and neighbors of land under consideration for development by the county a prerequisite for zoning applications. This provides the opportunity for citizens to air concerns and obtain information “from the horse’s mouth” rather than the rumor mill.

The supervisors must approve the rezoning application for the Goodwill proposal to happen. Although the county can discourage landowners from filing rezoning applications, every landowner has the right to make a case before the governing board. Not all rezoning applications are approved.

Belleview Gardens is to be applauded for its proactive stance in protecting the neighborhood from this bizarre intrusion.

However, it is somewhat naïve to assume that there will be no business development in the Broad Street Road corridor.

Perhaps a small daycare or modest assisted living facility built on a neighborhood scale would be more compatible with Belleview Gardens. This conversation must continue and expand.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Take a deep breath

Controlling the purse strings

Brenda Grubbs resigned as Goochland County Treasurer just before 5 p.m. on Friday, February 11 as Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli began to prepare ouster proceedings against her.

The sordid details of this bizarre episode in county history will dribble out over the next few months as the county cleans up the mess and moves on with the people’s business.

Some citizens reportedly gave the supervisors an earful at a budget workshop meeting last night and called for them all to resign.

Before we throw the baby out with the bathwater it’s important to note that three board members, Andrew Pryor, District 1, Board Chair William Quarles, District 2 and James Eads, District 5 voted together to prevent rotation of the chairmanship in January. This put the group that some have dubbed as “the three blind mice” in the driver’s seat. Because the chairman controls the agenda of public meetings he can prevent comment from fellow board members and the public.

It’s good to see citizens expressing their outrage at the way county business is conducted. Where were they at the 2007 elections?

There are many matters that need further explanation to the citizens. For example, the 2009 Comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR) painted an alarming picture of long standing fiscal dysfunction. The TBM accepted the report, began to fix some of the problems and moved on.

Many of the problems seem to have been the result of inattention by the previous auditing firm. Goochland County spent huge sums of tax dollars to conduct the CAFR, yet has done nothing to investigate what legal remedies it might have against the former auditors to at least cover the cost of the extensive 2009 CAFR.

Recent events concerning the County Treasurer have put the issue of who should be in charge of county funds into sharp focus.

Currently, Goochland operates under a system that elects both a treasurer and Commissioner of the Revenue. These positions are constitutional officers and operate under state control.

According to remarks made by Goochland County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson on February 9, the office of treasurer was created as a Constitutional Officer by the state so that the person responsible for a county’s money is elected by and responsible to the citizens, not the supervisors or county officials.

Both are physically located in the county administration building and work closely with the county to manage Goochland’s money and serve its citizens.

The treasurer computes, prepares and mails tax bills and collects all payments due the county. The Treasurer is also charged with investing county funds.

The commissioner of the revenue handles assessments of personal property taxes for businesses and individuals. This function also handles business licenses, consumer utility and machinery and tool taxes.

The Commissioner of the revenue also helps citizens prepare their state tax returns and processes those returns electronically to expedite refunds. Tax relief for the elderly and disabled is also administered by the commissioner of the revenue.

The two offices function as part of a three-legged stool of county finances.

Some people, including a few supervisors, have been advocating that Goochland change its form of local government to a county manager format. This would eliminate the offices of treasurer and commissioner of the revenue. Functions performed by those two departments would be consolidated under a county director of finance, reporting to the county manager, who reports to the board of supervisors.

Proponents of this form of government contend that it would streamline operations and save the cost of the two constitutional officers. The employees who work in both departments would still be needed so the job loss would be minimal.

On the other hand, a lot of Goochlanders feel very strongly that the way we’ve been handling our money works just fine. They believe that, at least in part, the good and caring service dispensed by the treasurer and commissioner of the revenue is due to the fact that they must run for office every four years.

A county finance department, they believe, operated by government employees with little incentive to go the extra mile is a step in the wrong direction.

Then, there’s the checks and balances matter. Right now everyone is shaking their heads in sad disbelief about the reported revelations that Grubbs embezzled large amounts of county money and sent it out of the country for reasons yet to be revealed.

Many people seem to have forgotten that Grubbs was a lone, early voice questioning about missing checks and deposits in Utility Department mess a few years ago.

What would have happened had Goochland’s money been managed by someone who reported to the head of county administration? Would the high weird there ever come to light if all money matters were handled by one office?

Do we really want to streamline oversight out of our system? Or, would it be better to ensure that competent people are elected to the office of treasurer?

Remember, Grubbs ran unopposed in 2007 even though some supervisors even then were grumbling about her performance almost from the day she took office in 2004. Had there been more transparency on all levels of local government someone else might have run for the office.

This is an important issue, one that everyone should stop and think about.

The good news is that the form of county government cannot be changed without public hearings and citizen approval via referendum.

Important changes should not be made in the heat of a crisis, but only after careful thought and deliberation.

This is what happens when voters don’t pay attention. In past years, Goochland has been recognized for its high voter turnout — in presidential elections.

Far fewer voters bother to exercise their franchise during local elections, which will be held this November. It would be interesting to take random polls of county residents to see if they are able to name their supervisor or school board representative.

Citizens tend to get the kind of government they deserve. It’s time to pay attention and think hard about what is and has been going on.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Nuts and bolts of a vision

What is a village part IX

The Goochland Comprehensive Land Use Plan was arranged around something called “the village concept” more than 30 years ago. Since then various citizen groups have endeavored to craft a concrete definition of a village that could be applied to county land use.

Although several plans were created, some in detail, the supervisors have yet to endorse or support the meaningful change in zoning ordinances that would make any of them possible. In the meantime, our county grows via cookie cutter subdivisions and strip shopping centers.

On Wednesday, February 9 Citizens Concerned with Goochland Growth presented part 2 of its Goochland Village Series titled “Learning from a neighboring village model.”

Trip Pollard an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law center started the session with an overview of growth issues. He said that, based on the preliminary 2010 census figures, Goochland’s population increased by about 28 percent, making it one of the faster growing jurisdiction in the Commonwealth.

Scary numbers, right? Not so fast.

At the 2000 census Goochland’s population was 16,833. Preliminary 2010 census reports indicate that the county’s population on April 1, 2010 was 21,717, an increase of 4,854. Goochland’s land area at just over 284 square miles is slightly larger than that of Henrico County whose population is over 300,000.

On April 1, 2011 our population will drop by about 450 when the James River Correctional Center closes and its inmates, who are counted as part of Goochland’s population, move to another prison.

Pollard also presented statistics about the number of miles that residents of the Richmond drive each year and contended that our roads are very congested. The cost of building and maintaining roads keeps growing as people move further away from their jobs.

Again, this is scary stuff. County residents complain about the road congestion and contend that existing roads cannot handle one more vehicle. Yet it is possible to drive on many county roads at non-peak hours and see few other cars. People are always complaining to Sheriff Agnew about speeders. In general, it’s very hard to speed on congested roads.

He also raised the specter of vanishing open space, which segued into the evening’s main event.

The focus of the program was New Kent Courthouse Village where private developer John Crump developed some land in a style he calls “new ruralism” that includes residential, commercial, institutional and cultural uses adjacent to the New Kent County Courthouse Complex.

New Kent and Goochland have many similarities. Their populations are about the same size; they are just outside of the first tier jurisdictions of the Richmond metro area and are on Interstate 64 between Richmond and other popular destinations.

Crump, who grew up on land in New Kent that has been in his family for generations, saw an opportunity to bring amenities to the New Kent Courthouse area, attract new residents and, if the economy ever improves, make a little money on the deal. He also saw an opportunity to add New Kent Courthouse to the growing tourism market in central Virginia.

Crump began to notice that people across the demographic scale were losing interest in the McMansion housing style.

“People wanted to move to the country and have 15 acres and a mule,” Crump quipped. “After a few years, they wondered what to do with the other 14 acres.”

Crump began to investigate exactly which part of “rural” brought folks out of the cities and suburbs. His search took him to England, where he studied traditional villages.

He found that those villages grew organically over long periods of time with little planning or grouping of uses in specific places like contemporary zoning theory.

Please visit for details.

The important part of the presentation was that the transformation of New Kent Courthouse from a bunch of county buildings to a place that people could live and enjoy was that it was created on private land with private funding.

New Kent County was provided a regulatory environment that enabled the project to exist. This included creating zoning for high-density development, including residential. While Crump did mention that such development requires public water and sewer, he did not elaborate how that was implemented.

The entire New Kent Village project consumes a very small amount of land. It also provides a variety of housing choices including small but high quality detached homes; townhouse type dwellings and options for rental property like flats over garages.

New Kent Village is an intriguing concept. Is a similar idea appropriate for Goochland? Perhaps, but it would work only in the few parts of the county served by sewer and water.

Goochland Courthouse Village is far from scenic and maybe beyond help. The overlay district rules that are supposed to ensure attractive development only put a damper on attracting new business there. A charming sub-village there would add character and bring in people to patronize local businesses.

It’s past time for Goochland to adopt zoning ordinances that permit higher density development in limited areas and create a regulatory environment that acts as an incentive rather than a hindrance to private investment in the county.

High-density zoning should be created as another option for landowners to realize the value of their property, not to curtail private property rights.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Useful information

Two important links popped up on the Goochland County website this morning. This emphasizes the importance of this site and the need to ensure that all residents have reliable internet access.

One link outlines the hours and services that will be provided by a mobile DMV in the Courthouse Village area while the Treasurer’s Office is closed. Both county administration and DMV are to be commended for finding a way to minimize disruption of this service to our citizens.

The other link provides dates and times for the two community meetings scheduled by the County’s Department of Community Development regarding the creation of Urban Development Areas (UDA) issue resulting from state mandates.

The UDA link also includes two surveys about citizen attitude toward the development of Courthouse Village and the Centerville Village. Participation is open to all regardless of where in Goochland you reside.

Please participate in the UDA meetings, or at least complete the survey. All too often our local officials make important decisions based upon the input of the few citizens who make their views known.

It is time for all county citizens to pay attention and be informed voters in November.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Damage control

Removing the treasurer

The Goochland Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on a motion made by Rudy Butler District 4 and seconded by Ned Creasy District 3 to approve a resolution requesting Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell to initiate an ouster proceeding against the County Treasurer Brenda Grubbs and appoint an interim treasurer. (Please go to the Supervisors’ page on the county website for the full text of this resolution.)

The vote was taken during a special called public meeting that began at 10 a.m. on Wednesday morning, February 9. Concerned citizens from all over the county, three Richmond TV crews and reporters from print media paid close attention to the proceedings. The board room was nearly filled to its 250 seat capacity.

Following a call to order by board chair District 2 Supervisors William Quarles, County Administrator Rebecca T. Dickson gave a brief update in the ongoing investigation. Quarles permitted no citizen comment, but invited those present to attend the next board meeting on Tuesday, February 15 at 7 p.m. to make their thoughts heard.

Dickson commended the supervisors for their steadfast support and desire to “address this matter swiftly.” She characterized the responsiveness of the board as “remarkable.”

Dickson then explained that the office of Treasurer was established by the Virginia Constitution of 1870 and enjoys the independent status as an elected official. There seem to be no specific qualifications for holding the office of treasurer.

The office seems to have been given this independent status to ensure that local funds will be collected, invested and disbursed by an officer who is selected by and responsible to the citizens. The Treasurer is also charged with investing local funds and maintaining records of local finances. The treasurer is responsible for every form of revenue that comes to a locality including taxes; water and sewer fees; permit fees and court, sheriff and clerk fees.

Because the treasurer is independent, the Board of Supervisors or County administration cannot compel the treasurer to do anything.

Dickson cited specific concerns that the supervisors and county administration have had with Grubbs in the past two years including delayed monthly reconciliations; delays in issuing tax bills; delays in processing utility bills: investment of county funds; lack of internal controls and lack of delegation of duties.

Three letters from the Board of Supervisors to Grubbs during the past two year expressing the Board’s dissatisfaction and concern over her performance resulted in no progress on financial improvements. Attempts to relieve Grubbs of some financial duties were also unsuccessful. “She was never willing to let go of much of anything,” Dickson said of Grubbs.

During the past year, said Dickson, Board members sought ways to compel Grubbs to make needed changes and comply with county requests for financial improvements. They also struggled with ways deal with a non-responsive treasurer who seemed unqualified for the job and with no desire to change.

Dickson said that the external audits did not “catch” Grubbs’ alleged embezzlement because that is believed to have begun in August, 2010 and the latest CAFR covered the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2010.

The ongoing investigation, being conducted by Wachovia/Wells Fargo; the Virginia State Police; state auditors and the Virginia Attorney General’s office working closely with county staff, the county attorney and Goochland Sheriff’s Office will be in process for many month, said Dickson.

She asked that anyone having information pertinent to this investigation contact the Goochland Sheriff’s office at 556-5349.

As a Constitutional Officer, Grubbs is paid by the Commonwealth. Of her approximately $72,00 annual salary, the county pays about $9,000 and cannot withhold that paycheck as long as she remains in office. Dickson pointed out that while Grubbs has admitted to embezzlement, she has not been convicted. The County has encouraged Grubbs to resign with no success.

There is a public official bond in place for $400,000, an amount determined in the Code of Virginia by the County’s population. Goochland, said Dickson, will not explore collection under the bond until the investigation is complete. So far the amount of money allegedly embezzled is believed to be $135,000.

Following notification from Wachovia about unusual activity on county accounts, staff revoked the ability for anyone to retrieve cash via counter checks from county accounts. No mention was made of why this was ever permitted.

The Board of Supervisors met in closed session on Saturday, January 29, 2011 probably to authorize these actions.

Grubbs’ ability to electronically transfer funds was also revoked, which triggered the revelations of February 3 that resulted in Grubbs’ arrest and reported confession.

County Attorney Normal Sales explained that state law authorizes the governor to suspend a treasurer and appoint an interim treasurer until the ouster proceedings are concluded.

When a Constitutional Office is vacated, regardless of reason, the Code of Virginia states that the highest ranking deputy shall assume the duties of that office until qualified voters fill the vacancy.

Dickson said that the chief deputy in the treasurer’s office does not intend to fill the vacancy.

As Goochland is scheduled to elect its Treasurer this November, Sales said it could be likely that the interim treasurer will serve until then.

Sales said that a removal process initiated by a petition containing at least 486 signatures of registered voters, which is ten percent of the number of votes cast for Grubbs in the 2007 election is another way to remove her from office. Such a petition is being circulated and had 44 signatures at 11 a.m.

In the meantime, employees in the treasurer’s office are on administrative leave. Skeletal operations are being conducted out of the office of the Commissioner of the Revenue by county employees shifted from other departments.

All DMV computers and materials have been removed from the county administration building. Dickson said that a DMV mobile unit will be stationed in the lower parking lot on Sandy Hook Road near its intersection with Fairgrounds Road several days per week. This will offer all DMV services. Hours of operation will be announced soon.

Dickson said that the investigation has already put a great deal of stress on county employees who are shifting responsibilities to ensure that operations continue. She commended everyone for their willingness to pitch in.

So, the county has every expectation of being made whole for the money allegedly embezzled. The cost of the investigation remains unknown, but could prove to be a worthwhile investment in the long run.

Removal of Grubbs from office is being actively pursued on two fronts.

The big question is still why?

Language in the resolution transmittal letter from Dickson to Charles E. James, Esq. Chief Deputy Attorney General may provide some insight.

“...Numerous individuals, including myself, have made efforts to encourage Ms. Grubbs to resign her office of Treasurer. However, as of the date of this writing, she has yet to offer her resignation. It is rumored that Ms. Grubbs may be deeply in debt. If such rumors are true, then Ms. Grubb’s salary as Treasurer may be her only reliable source of income at this time. Moreover, it is not unusual for elected officials who are charged with a crime to resist a resignation upon being charged with hopes of using such factor as a bargaining chip in a potential plea agreement in a criminal case. In either event, it may be some time before Ms. Grubbs actually resigns her position, if at all.”

Dickson and the supervisors seem to have taken all of the right steps to resolve this sad and shocking situation. It will be interesting to see how the investigation unfolds and just how many facts will be revealed.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Taking the keys away

Removing elected officials

The aging of America came to the forefront at the start of 2011 as leading edge Baby Boomers began to turn 65. Close on the heels of that is the Ronald Reagan Centennial, compete with speculation by his youngest son that the Gipper may have been in the early stages of the Alzheimer’s disease that claimed his life while still in the White House. Those allegations are quite curious because it seems that young Ron was at least somewhat estranged from his father during that time.
We have gotten so accustomed to the curious comments made by Vice President Joe Biden that they are dismissed as wacky comments. The mainstream media seems to have forgotten that Biden underwent brain surgery in 1988 to fix an aneurysm.
As Boomers gray many of them grapple with the challenges of aging parents. Indeed, Boomers of a certain age are either dreading, deeply involved with, or getting over the heart wrenching experience of watching their parents decline.
One of the more delicate dilemmas faced by many families is when and how to get Mom or Dad to stop driving before they hurt themselves or someone else. It will be interesting to see how the Boomers deal with that when their turn comes. Cars that drive themselves will find a huge market among Boomers.
As life expectancy increases people remain actively involved in all facets of activity. The age of 65 was selected as “normal” retirement age because few people lived that long in the late 1800s. Those who were still around at 65 were not expected to survive much longer, so providing an old age pension was an inexpensive way to ensure employee loyalty.
Now people routinely survive well into their eighth decade and often participate fully in a wide range of activities, including government and business. They contribute wisdom and judgment gained by experience to their endeavors.
Sometimes, however, people remain in responsible positions as their cognition declines. The danger posed by dear Uncle Harry to staying behind the wheel when he forgets to drive on the right side of the road is clear. If he doesn’t believe he is unable to drive, taking his keys away is a long and painful process.
In matters of government, removal from office is a convoluted process, as it should be. But the problems created by those who stay on are more difficult to measure.
On the one hand, those people may no longer be able to understand the issues at hand and make useful decisions. On the other hand, they sometimes make embarrassing but necessary observations about matters that others try to sweep under the rug.
In Virginia we have general elections every year. In theory, this should ensure that public officials are kept on their toes and sent to the showers by voters when they are no longer up to the task. In reality, many jurisdictions have elected officials who have been in office longer than some hereditary monarchs.
Every election period the voters, for whatever reason, give those long term incumbents one more term until they have been in office for decades.
Then, there are situations like that swirling around Goochland County Treasurer Brenda Grubbs.
Last week, Grubbs was reportedly arrested for confessing to embezzling large sums of money from the county and moving it via wire transfer to the United Arab Emirates. Since then investigators from a wide range of law enforcement agencies have been swarming over county financial records. In spite of all that, Grubbs remains in office and is still collecting her salary.
Surely Grubbs is not the first Virginia Constitutional officer to be in serious legal trouble. Given the volatile nature of politics it is important that elected officials not be removed from office for frivolous reasons. Surely there is some legal mechanism that would at least put Grubbs on unsalaried leave until she has received her day in court.
Conditions that permitted Grubbs to make wire transfers were brought to the attention of the Board of Supervisors in the 2010 Comprehensive Annual Financial Review (CAFR).
The CAFR states that adequate segregation of duties does not exist in the Treasurer’s Office and that the “treasurer has the ability to initiate, approve and post wire transfers without secondary approval.” Those remarks are found on page 129 of the 2010 CAFR, which is posted in its entirety on the county website on the Finance Department page.
In light of recent developments, it is incomprehensible that the supervisors ignored this warning. You would think, after the financial mess in the utility department, whose resolution still has a slight aroma of cover up, that they would be hyper vigilant about money matters. It is also curious that the board chairman permitted no discussion or questions about the CAFR following its presentation during the January 2011 board meeting.
Stewardship of public money is perhaps the most important duty of the supervisors. Failure to address threats to the safety of county money is very troubling. Hopefully, the voters of Goochland will make the necessary changes in November.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Money troubles

Painful rite of spring

The February 1 meeting of the Goochland Board of Supervisors was overshadowed by the pall of the further decline in real estate tax revenues.
Board chair William Quarles, Jr. District 2 explained that written replies to questions raised during the citizen comment period at the beginning of each board session are now posted on the county website on the right side supervisors’ page. This is a very positive step on the part of the board. All too often in the past questions raised during board meetings were either forgotten, or answered privately. This new step is a simple way to provide information for anyone who is interested.
The Comprehensive Annual financial Report (CAFR) for fiscal year 2010, which ended on June 30, 2010, is also on the county website under the Department of Finance. Pay special attention to all of the notes to the CAFR especially page 65, which was only alluded to during the presentation of the results of the 2010 CAFR. Also please read the last three pages of that report very carefully. During that presentation at the January meeting, Quarles did not permit the other supervisors to ask questions about the CAFR. This once again underscores how the board chair controls meetings.
During the afternoon session Goochland Fire-Rescue Chief Bill MacKay explained the reasoning behind a move to formally establish the county fire-rescue department and enumerate the duties of the chief.
In 2002, the county hired its first paid chief of fire-rescue and in 2009 hired paid providers to augment the volunteers who have provided EMS and fire protective services in Goochland for decades. Seems like this is yet another one of those pesky housekeeping details overlooked during the previous regime One of the justifications for the actions is to establish the authority to grant EMS franchises to ensure that all EMS calls originating in the county observe the high standards currently in place. It is believed that this action was precipitated, at least in part, by the advent of the West Creek Medical Center.
MacKay said that this also lays the groundwork in case the county decides to pursue a cost recovery program for EMS services so that users of EMS pay for it. No such decision has been made, nor does cost recovery seem to be on the supervisors’ current agenda. Details may be viewed in the board packet for the meeting on the county website on the Board of Supervisors’ page.
The supervisors will hold a public hearing on this matter on the evening of March 1, 2011.
During the evening session, the school board presented its budget for fiscal 2012, which begins on July 1, 2011.
The presentation itself was longwinded and disjointed. Presented in a tag team format with each school board member explaining a portion, the message that came across loud and clear was “it’s complicated.” Some of the board members seemed to have trouble remembering their lines and were prompted by Dr. Linda Underwood Superintendent of Schools. Parents made passionate pleas for more money in the school budget and urged the supervisors to raise the tax rate. This was quite a change from last year when many of those same parents refused to support the budget presented by the school board.
Underwood seems to have refined her battle strategy and realized that she needed those parents on her side. It would be interesting to know the tactics used to create the change in attitude. Were the parents persuaded, threatened or a little of both. Regardless, it’s hard to fault the deep concern of parents about their children’s education. They contend that the school budget was cut to the bone last year and further reductions would cause grave harm to the quality of education in Goochland.
Some of those parents also expressed annoyance that those pesky rich people(PRP)on the gold coast were not paying more taxes. One gentleman suggested that the taxes be indexed somehow so that the economically challenged citizens would not be burdened by higher taxes and the PRP could just pay higher taxes to make up the difference.
After the school board bombarded the supervisors with en extended volley of numbers, County Administrator Rebecca T. Dickson said that the difference between the amount the county expects to have available for school funding and the amount in the budget presented is just under $1 million, not the $287,399 or so the parents claim. This difference Dickson explained was that the schools assumed flat revenues for fiscal 2012, not a further decrease. For the second year in a row, the school system ignored the supervisors’’ request to prepare a budget based on the expected available revenues, not the amount of money it wanted.
The increase in school budget was justified by school board members with the need to restore two of the four furlough days for teachers; hire some additional teachers including a math specialist who would train all county teachers and deal with increasing cost of necessary items like fuel.
To further complicate the equation, the schools requested that the money be allocated in a lump sum, rather than be category to provide greater flexibility.
At first blush, that seems like a good idea. If one projected cost, say the electric bill turns out to be less than expected and another higher the fuel bill, the money can be easily shifted around without asking the supervisors for permission. However, the lump sum idea also removes any pretense of fiscal transparency. Citizens must know how their tax dollars are spent.
At one point exchanges between school board chair Ivan Mattox, Sr., District 3 and District 5 supervisor James Eads became quite heated. This confrontation has occurred before and will again.
Sadly, Goochland is not the only jurisdiction where school boards and elected officials who provide education funds engage in annual battles about money.
Part of the problem is that, although elected, school boards do not have the power to raise their own revenues. They cannot levy taxes to fund school budgets. In some states school boards do have that power. Under that approach, when a projected budget increases more than a certain percent over the previous year, a referendum is needed to approve the increase. That means the school board has to convince a majority of voters who turn out for the referendum to permit the tax increase. In Goochland, the school board only has to convince five people, the supervisors, to give them the money — thus the importance of motivated parents.
There seem to be two kinds of people when it comes to school tax, those with kids in the system who never believe that the schools get enough money and those who are believe that the schools get far too much already. Finding the common ground in the no man’s land between the two extremes to craft a workable and affordable budget is a daunting task. Most citizens support the concept of public education to ensure that all children are equipped with the intellectual tools to succeed in life. The devil is in the details, however, and the battle over how much is enough to fund education is perennial.
This whole quandary illustrates the burden of unfunded mandates and regulations. Underwood explained that the Goochland school division is required by state and federal regulations to complete an exhausting array of reports on a bewildering array of items.
In addition she contended that our great teachers are working harder for less pay. They haven’t had a raise in years and, with the furlough days, are making less money than they did last year.
Unfortunately, many of the citizens whose taxes the school board is so eager to increase have not gotten raises either. Some have lost their jobs and watched the value of their homes, often their largest asset, and decrease.
One of the most significant challenges faced by Goochland County government is the wide disparity in circumstance from one end of the county to the other. We have a few very affluent households, quite a few very economically challenged households and the rest are somewhere in between. The PRP households seem to either send their children to private school or are empty nesters. The people at the other end of the spectrum are resigned to accepting whatever the schools are offering in a particular year. Those in the middle, until recently a small and silent portion of the population, have become very vocal. Many have moved to Goochland from places where the hefty price of a home includes excellent public schools. This is a new phenomenon for the county and some supervisors just don’t know what to make of it.
The budget clock is ticking. Tax rates will be set on April 5. The discourse in the interim will be interesting to say the least.