Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A safe county is hard work

LEOs on the job

The blue cars with gold lettering are part of the landscape in Goochland. They, and the staff of the Sheriff’s Office, are on the job 24/7 every day of the year.

The Goochland Sherriff’s Office is the only county department where the phone is always answered in person by one of our fine dispatchers who work from the county control center deep under the courthouse complex.
Keeping the peace, even in a place like Goochland, is a complicated process.

A wonderful opportunity to learn more about the operation of our local law enforcement agency is coming up. The Goochland Sherriff’s office Citizens’ Academy, which is open to those 18 and older, starts on February 22. The sign up deadline is February 13. For an application and rules, go to www.goochlandsheriff.org or call 556-5349 for more information.

Sessions, which are held on Wednesday evenings, include: a tour of the Henrico County Jail; court security; investigations; drug interdiction; school security; traffic control and K-9 operations.

Participants are eligible to ride along with a sworn deputy on a regular duty shift to provide insight into the wide range of duties our LEOs perform on every day and the ever changing complications that they deftly navigate on a regular basis.

While you’re visiting the Sheriff’s Office website, take a few minutes to read the 2011 Annual Sheriff’s Report. Prepared by Sheriff James L. Agnew, this report gives an overview of the budget, staffing and significant events for the year just ended.

Keeping the peace in Goochland presents some unique challenges. Due to its long, narrow configuration, just getting around the county, whose land area is slightly larger than that of Henrico, can be tricky.

Law enforcement is a manpower intense operation, Agnew is fond of saying. Our deputies do an outstanding job with limited resources. This does not happen by accident but is the result of good management and a high degree of commitment by every member of the Sheriff’s Office.

By selecting only the highest caliber candidates for deputy and other staff positions and expecting high standards of performance, the Goochland Sheriff’s Office is a law enforcement agency with a reputation for excellence throughout the Commonwealth.

Learn more by joining the Sheriff’s Citizen Academy. Classes are limited to 25 people, so sign up today!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Planners waste time and opportunity

The January 19 meeting of the Goochland Planning Commission shows why the Tuckahoe Creek Service District is dead in the water.

Discrete items on the meeting’s agenda included discussion of an amendment to the M-1 zoning for West Creek to permit apartments and condominiums and creation of a new by right multifamily zoning category in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District.

These separate matters quickly became intertwined in an incomprehensible discussion that did little but underscore the incompetence of most of the commissioners, who were mostly clueless about the difference between West Creek and the TCSD.

By now the county’s principal planner Tom Coleman, who presented the proposals, should know that he must spoon feed information to the commissioners using short words and simple sentences.

West Creek is the 3,500 acre office park located between Broad Street and Route 6 at the eastern edge of the county. It has stringent design covenants and proffers to ensure only high quality development occurs there. It was zoned M-1 in its entirety when created about 20 years ago.

The TCSD is bounded on the north by the Hanover border the east by the Henrico border, Manakin Road, roughly to the west and Route 6,roughly to the south. The land in the TCSD is supposed to be served by public water and sewer. Land in the TCSD has many different zoning categories, including agricultural. All property in the TCSD is subject to an ad valorem tax, which was intended to service the at least $63 million bond debt incurred by the county incurred to build utility trunk lines.

Parts of West Creek are not in the TCSD because they obtained sewer and water before the TCSD was created in 2002. Planning commissioners should know all this.

The confusion was exacerbated by contentions that plans to build a gated, upscale apartment complex with more than 300 units in West Creek east of Rt. 288 just south of Broad Street would swamp county schools.

Commissioners turned a deaf ear to contentions made by developers that high end apartment are generally occupied by young professionals or aging baby boomers without school aged children.

Concerns about the fiscal impact of residential development on local schools are valid. County attorney Norman Sales was tasked by the planners to add language with “teeth” to the proposal to ensure that the county has recourse to curb a potential flood of school children.

Cash proffers were mentioned in passing by Coleman, but none of the commissioners latched on to the concept. Amending the M-1 zoning for West Creek to permit limited residential use would sidestep the proffer issue.

(Cash proffers, are, essentially, an entry fee levied on land rezoned for residential use since 2002. They are supposed to slow growth and help recover the capital costs generated by new residents including school construction. The current maximum cash proffer is $14,292, which became effective July 1, 2009.)

The proposed change to the West Creek M-1 zoning would apply to 75 acres throughout the planned park, slightly more than two percent of total acreage. About 30 acres would be in the project currently under consideration. Hopefully, the remainder would be used for a continuous care retirement facility, which would increase property values, create jobs and add no children to the school system.

To their credit, District 4 commissioners Jim Crews and Joe Andrews indicated that they were working their way through the details of the West Creek proposal, not dismissing it out of hand, as their fellow commissioners seemed intent on doing.

The planners were unable to understand that there were two very separate issued on the table. They concentrated instead on details of the proposed multifamily zoning ordinance for the rest of the TCSD.

A scary number of comments indicated that they believed that if the West Creek change was approved the entire TCSD would be covered with apartments at a 19 unit per acre density.

The proposed multifamily zoning ordinance is not ready for prime time. It should require a fiscal impact analysis that includes developer funded remedies for deficiencies.

However, because that will be a new zoning category every parcel of land must be rezoned, which includes community meetings and public hearings before both the planning commission and supervisors. Nothing will happen without copious oversight. Why were the commissioners unable to grasp this simple fact?

Several speakers mentioned the county’s strategic plan for economic development, which states on page 7, that limited mixed use with multifamily housing for workers is needed in the TCSD. It recommends high architectural design and landscape standards, which is what West Creek requires. Given the ad valorem tax, high land costs and development standards, these apartments will be high end housing.

Bizarre remarks made by several commissioners indicate that they had no knowledge of the strategic plan, which should have been required reading for anyone remotely involved in land use matters. (The plan is on the EDA section of the county website www.co.goochland.va.us)

This is what economic development, at least in the short term, will look like in West Creek, which will develop in a different manner than the Centerville village and the rest of the TCSD.

There are a number of good reasons to approve the West Creek request. First of all, something needs to jump start development in the TCSD. Pruitt Properties has a reputation for high quality development. This will not be a low income housing project. The real estate market has changed and Goochland remains mired in the past waiting in vain for the gentleman caller of corporate headquarters to show up.

Like it or not, eastern Goochland competes with Henrico for business. Development dollars that we badly need to bolster our real estate tax base and service the TCSD debt will continue to go elsewhere if we pretend otherwise. Some retailers to generate meaningful sales tax revenues for our schools would also be quite helpful.

The county will need to build new schools regardless of what happens in West Creek. As more than 3,000 homes at $7,040 per cash proffer, are needed to fund one elementary school, they are not the answer. We need a better way to deal with an increase in the school population than rejecting opportunities.

The proposed West Creek apartments could be the only ones ever built in Goochland. Or, they could be one more missed opportunity that paves the way for Goochland to be a place with high taxes and low expectations.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Open dialog

School board gets an earful

On their seventeenth day in office, our new school board members made history by holding an open conversation on the school budget.

For about two hours all details of the proposed school budget were fair game. Not only did school board members listen to comments, they responded in a thoughtful and honest way.

Gone are the mumbling bobble heads of yore. Thanks to a number of functioning microphones every comment, and there were many, was clearly audible. A recording of the meeting is available at http://blogs.glnd.k12.va.us/teachers/schoolboard/.

Attendance at the meeting, held in the high school auditorium, was a bit sparse. However, as the meeting was once again streamed live over the internet, perhaps many of the folks fortunate enough to have broadband access were watching from home.

This week’s iteration of the budget, it is a work in progress, was a bit less than last week’s. Among the cost reductions under consideration was reducing the school year by five days, which would reduce costs, mostly salary, by about $90,000 per day.

A truncated school year was perhaps the most objectionable budget reduction option mentioned. School board members, who are looking at every way to hold costs down, were not all that enthusiastic about this option.

“That will be the last knob we turn,” said Kevin Hazzard, District 2.
Board chair Beth District 4 said that there are “opportunities to save on many levels, but none come without a price.”

Indeed, discussion showed that the school board and parents consider the custodial staff to be a valued component of the school system and not simply “costs on two feet.”

A bid to outsource custodial services would reduce that line item by $288,900. The contractor expressed the intent to hire all current custodial staff and promised a seamless transition. Citizens and board members wanted to know if the savings would result in lower pay or payoffs for current employees.

Health insurance costs are a source of major budget heartburn. Currently, Goochland Schools pay the entire cost of healthcare for employees. This item has risen by seven percent from last year. John Wright, District 5 explained that health care costs are being carefully scrutinized. Wright and John Lumpkins, District 3 will meet with the health care consultant to discuss many options including health savings accounts.

Citizens suggested that all employees have skin in the game and be required to pay for a portion of their health care.

Our new school board continues to gather data and information from a wide range of sources as they work their way through the budget process.

Getting insights from teachers is apparently a delicate subject. Hardy said that discussion between teachers and school board members can have “awkward connotations.” Wright said that a suggestion box may need to be created going forward.

Be that as it may, our teachers have vital boots on the ground insight about what they must have and what they can do without. Teachers, please feel free to anonymously contribute your suggestions and post comments here at GOMM. They will be sent on to the school board with no attribution whatsoever.

The school board wants to hear from citizens as well. Contact them at http://www.glnd.k12.va.us/index/schoolboard/. Don’t be shy, they welcome comments and questions.

Much of the discussion was inside baseball, but the overall tone was quite impressive.

Hardy said that there is still much work to be done on the budget for fiscal year 2012-13, which will be approved by the school board on January 31. There will be a public hearing on the proposed school budget on January 24 at 7 p.m. The packet should be posted on the school board website early that day.

Board members pledged to explain the strategies used to reach decisions and how they weighed options against each other when making hard choices. All decisions, they said, will be data driven.

Unlike past years, this budget is being crafted using expected revenues, not a wish list, as a target bottom line. That does not mean that the school board will not try to justify allocation of additional funds. Yes, justify, not demand, this represents a monumental change in operating procedure and mindset.

Once again, our school budget will be very tight. The new school board is very open to finding supplemental funding sources from grants.
Michael Payne, District 1 said that he, like his fellow school board members, wants to hear from people. “I encourage people to contact me and tell me how to make it better.”

This will be an ongoing dialog, so speak up.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Into the breach

New school board on the job

On January 4, an entirely new Goochland County School Board held its organizational meeting. Beth Hardy, District 4 was elected chair. John Wright, District 5 will serve as vice chair. Other members are Michael Payne, District 1; Kevin Hazzard, District 2 and John Lumpkins, District 3.

Hardy said that she was both honored and humbled by her selection as chair. She also thanked the citizens for taking part in the recent historic elections. She said that the new school board understands that it is sworn to serve and will work hard to restore credibility and trust in its actions.

Getting down to nuts and bolts, Hardy said that complete school board meeting agendas will be posted on the school website in a timely manner. This will encourage, rather than stifle, informed comment during the sessions.

(Agendas and packets are available under the school board tab at www.glnd.k12.va.us. Budget information is expected to be posted there as it becomes available also.)

Hardy said that the new board is seeking ways to improve things and welcomes citizen input on any matter.

The most pressing item currently before the school board, said Hardy, is the budget for fiscal year 2012-13. Crafting the budget is an enormous and difficult task that is well worth the effort.

To that end, the school board will meet every Tuesday evening in January at the high school. All meetings will begin at 7 p.m. A joint budget meeting with the board of supervisors will be held on February 13.
This is the fulfillment of campaign promises by all newly elected supervisors and school board members to work together. We can expect meaningful discussion between the two boards and a thoughtful, innovative approach to money matters, which will lead to workable and mutually acceptable budget strategies.

This will be an important change from the counterproductive snarky comments and open hostility that characterized joint meetings in the past.
All supervisors attended the January 4 meeting and all school board members attended the supervisors’ meeting on January 3. This signal of collaboration rather than confrontation between the two boards bodes well for the future.

To be sure, hard fiscal decisions must be made in the next few months. This new school board began working on the budget as soon as the ballots were counted in November. It will squeeze each penny in the school budge until it bleeds to ensure that public funds are spent wisely to benefit our kids.

Another first for a Goochland School Board was adoption of a code of ethics.

During the public comment period, all school board members listened attentively and took notes unlike their predecessors who tended to ignore citizens who made the effort to comment at meetings.

The January 17 meeting will be a budget workshop to provide an opportunity for two way discussions. Wright and Hazzard said that they want to make the budget process more “conversational” and encourage public participation.

“This will be something of an experiment,” explained Hazzard. “Everything is fair game.”

This new attitude toward citizen participation in the budget process is the first step on a difficult path to a better way of doing things.

Goochland is truly blessed that these five citizens were selected by the voters to oversee our schools. All of them have been engaged in local public education for some time. Their children attend county schools and they know first-hand the strengths and weaknesses of our system. They bring complementary skills and outlooks to their daunting task.

Things are looking up.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The realities of governance

New board gets to work

Trust, a previously foreign concept to the Goochland Board of Supervisors, was the new buzzword at its inaugural meeting on January 3.

The atmosphere in the board room was positive and upbeat as the supervisors chatted cordially before the start of the session. County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson looked happy and relaxed a nice change from her "bravely preparing for a root canal" expression in the bad old days.

Newly elected supervisors: Susan Lascollete, District 1;Manuel Alvarez, Jr., District 2; R. H. “Bob” Minnick, District 4 and Ken Petersen, District 5 got right to work by electing Ned Creasey, District 3, the only returning incumbent, as their chairman. Petersen was chosen for vice chair. None of the 2012 Board of Supervisors was born in Goochland, a first for the county.

Creasey’s elevation is a delicious irony. Last year an entrenched triumvirate ignored a decade long custom of chair rotation to keep control of the board agenda and essentially muzzle Creasey. Now, he’s in charge and they’re gone.

The organizational portion of the meeting also included adoption of a revised code of ethics, which includes a process to address allegations of questionable conduct by a supervisor. This is a long overdue development and illustrates the character of the new supervisors.

Our new leaders got elected by planning their work and working their plan. Except for Minnick, who ran as an independent, the candidates worked together. They all executed successful campaign strategies, which portends well for the future operation of Goochland government. Minnick too crafted and executed a well-organized campaign that included a successful challenge to a faulty recount request.

The meeting began with an invocation by Rev. Dr. Jeffery B. Spence, who thanked the supervisors for the privilege of being to be the first to pray over them. He also thanked God for the fact that the American system works.
Lascollete moved to accept a resolution that voided one made last year authorizing an increase in annual salary for supervisors to $15,000 from the current $12,000 and increase the chairman’s salary from the current $15,000 to $18,000. The board unanimously approved the motion starting the year by keeping a campaign promise and acknowledging lean economic times.

Creasey said that he was humbled by the citizen support that resulted in his reelection. He pledged to work hard to earn that trust.

Lascollete thanked the District 1 citizens who supported her and said that the election was about them, not her. Great government, she said, does not happen by itself, but is the result of hard work. She urged citizens to remain vigilant and engaged in government action.

Alvarez thanked the citizens who put their trust in him. He said that during his campaign, he learned that Goochland’s citizens are very well informed, contrary to public perception. Never again, he pledged, will anyone sit on a board for 40 years.

Minnick said that he owes a huge debt to the voters of District 4 and the whole county. He said that Goochland’s staff is the best group of government he has ever seen and expressed his thanks for staff support.

Petersen congratulated all Goochland citizens for participating in the November elections. “Citizen Involvement is critical for our form of government to function and bring about this watershed transfer of power in Goochland with no bullets or thrown bottles but ballots,” he said.

Creasey said that the citizens of Goochland now have five servants who will serve them well and county staff better than before to acknowledge their contribution to excellence in public service and provide opportunity for advancement. That will reverse the pattern of people leaving county employment to go elsewhere for better opportunity.

Each new supervisor urged citizens to remain engaged and interested in local government and said that they want feedback from their constituents, whether positive or negative.

All of these comments illustrate a paradigm shift in attitude among those who guide our county’s government. (A recording of the entire meeting is available on the county website: www.co.goochland.va.us)

After many effusive and congratulatory citizen comments, the sobering reality of governance set in as county assessor Glenn Branham reported on the latest property valuations. These will be mailed to landowners on January 13 and will include details on the appeal process.

Property valuations declined by another four percent in the latest assessment, said Branham. The latest county reassessment found that rural land values declined by 5.8 percent. This he said was caused by the exit of speculators, who deal in large tracts of land, from the real estate market.

Commercial real estate activity, which represents 16.2 percent of the tax base, was flat for the year, said Branham. Of the 741 parcels of land in Goochland zoned for commercial use, 300 are vacant.

Branham said that 51 percent of land in the county is in land use taxation. Property tax rates for land use are $613 per acre for forestry use; $280 per acre for agricultural use and $400 per acre for horticultural use. Of the 14,837 parcels of land in the county, 2,000 are in land use.

The county is in the final stages of installing a new online land valuation database. Branham expects it to be operational in the near future.

On a motion made by Lascollete and seconded by Alvarez, the board unanimously approved deferral of a public hearing on compliance with the state mandated urban development area legislation until May. By then, the intent, if any, of the General Assembly to modify or repeal the mandate will be clear.

The last presentation at the meeting, held after many of the citizens who came to see the new board in action departed, was an environmental update on efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, which includes Goochland.

The federal clean water act, put into place to ensure that all waters are fishable and swimmable includes, has found that the Bay is still too dirty and mandates stricter controls over pollutants.

Dickson explained that the county must adopt a local storm water control strategy to be included in a regional plan. Failure to adopt such a strategy could result in the county being forced to do its own monitoring, essentially hiring fertilizer police.

Leigh Dunn, the county’s environmental planner said that permissible nutrient loads (the amount of bad stuff that finds its way into our rivers and streams) for Goochland were not calibrated from real data and made faulty assumptions using a model for the Bay.

Dunn said that the EPA found collecting real data too expensive. She said that the model works well for the Bay but problems arise when its data is interpolated for local conditions.

Dickson said that these requirements will increase the cost of development and add yet another layer of complication and expense to local government.

No one is in favor of polluted water, especially not in a county that depends heavily on private wells for drinking water, but there has to be a better way to get a handle on this issue than mandating more regulations and accompanying bureaucracy.

Our new supervisors face daunting challenges in the weeks and years ahead. One of their first tasks is to craft a budget. They will hold informal workshop sessions with all department heads on January 19 and February 7 and work closely with the new school board.

Bringing a set of complementary skills and a can do attitude to the job, our new board will blaze new trails as it guides Goochland down the perilous road ahead. The next year will be very interesting indeed.