Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mucking out

More pain ahead

The initial proposed $44.8 million Goochland County budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins on July 1, was publicly presented to the supervisors last night. This included drastic increases in county utility rates and another hike in the ad valorem tax levied on land in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District.

County administrator Rebecca Dickson stated that there may well be changes before the final budget is adopted in April. Public input is encouraged and welcome, she said. The proposed budget with extensive background material will soon be available on the county website www.co.goochland.va.us. Please take a look at this document. It provides good insight about county operations.

Residents from the Parke at Centerville and Kinloch expressed their outrage at both the ad valorem tax and utility rate increase.
These folks have every reason to be furious about the ad valorem tax. They bought homes in good faith and learned only at closing that they had another tax to pay.

Of greater concern are the homeowners in the older subdivisions of Hickory haven and Sammary Forest who were bamboozled into joining the TCSD about ten years ago. These folks were led to believe that the ad valorem tax would be around 15 cents instead of the 50 cents that showed up on the tax bill. These communities pay full ad valorem tax but have only water service.

Residents of the Parke urged the supervisors to spread the ad valorem tax county wide contending that all Goochland taxpayers should share the burden. Aside from the fact that the ad valorem tax can probably only be legally levied on landowners in the TCSD, the county collects real estate tax on only 45 percent of any increase in TCSD land value over the 2004 base year. The remainder is used for debt service. So the whole county is contributing.

To add insult to injury, a significant sewer overbilling came to light, to the tune of about $200,000. The county has made adjustments, but the change had a negative effect on assumptions for the entire system. Haven’t they found all the inconsistencies in utility billing yet?

To mitigate utility rate increases, a consolidation of all county utility systems was proposed. This would establish one set of user rates county wide resulting in bimonthly water bills of $52.96 and sewer bills of $76.88 for an 8,000 gallon minimum use. That is a total bimonthly increase for the TCSD of $29.16 and $8.44 for other users. Several speakers contended that they use far less water than that and resent being billed for something they do not use.

For unknown reasons in the past utility rates did not factor in the cost of routine maintenance and eventual replacement. Going forward, the administration is working hard to make utilities self-sustaining and wean them off of general fund support, of about $400,000 annually. This is yet another way that the entire county chips in to fund the TCSD.

“This will be a bit painful for TCSD users whose rates did not increase all along as did those in Courthouse Village,” Dickson explained.

The real problem with the utility system is that is far too small to be run efficiently. According to information in the budget, there are only 1,187 utility customers county wide, 942 residential and 123 commercial.

A four cent increase in the ad valorem tax to 38 cents was also recommended by staff. Aggregate property values in the TCSD fell from $777 million in 2009 to $661 million in 2012.

More users are needed forthwith. The county must be fiercely proactive in finding ways to increase the utility customer base. A plan to add more than 300 apartments to the TCSD is wending its way to the supervisors. Speeding this along could nearly double the current TCSD customer count of 345.

Residents in Kinloch and the Parke at Centerville were instrumental in the election of supervisors Ken Petersen District 5 and Bob Minnick District 4. They pretty much accused the other board members of not caring about the TCSD mess. Board chair Ned Creasey District 3 assured them that the entire board is very concerned about the situation.

The whole board does seem concerned about the TCSD, but it cannot dig out of this mess overnight, especially in this fragile economy.

In March, all supervisors and school board members will hold joint town meetings in their Districts. Please try to attend or let your supervisor know your thoughts on the budget. They really do want to hear from you.

Based on a 53 cent per hundred dollar of valuation real estate tax, the proposed budget includes new approaches to funding some segments of county services.

For instance, a cost recovery program for EMS is expected to generate approximately $271,000 for the last half of the fiscal year assuming a January 2013 implementation.

Insurance of patients transported to area hospitals by Goochland rescue squads will be billed for the service. Details of the plan will be forthcoming in community meetings and public hearings. A “soft billing” collection method will be part of this policy in which charges for the uninsured or unable to pay will not be aggressively pursued. No one will be denied EMS transport.

Personal property taxes will be collected twice a year, which is expected to result in a one time “bump” of $2.6 million. This windfall will be used to build a new fire-rescue station, probably at Hadensville.

A major emphasis will be put on economic development next year. Hopefully, this will attract new business to the TCSD to deal with the burgeoning debt burden and utility costs.

The supervisors seem mindful that they must keep tax rates competitive to attract new business. This will be a delicate juggling act.

Dickson said that shrinking real estate values are expected to decline an additional three percent next year. We’re not out of the woods yet. Keeping tax and utility rates competitive and adequately funding county services will be a delicate juggling act.

Bringing history to life

Next Sunday, March 4, 2012 at 3 p.m. Roxane Gatling Gilmore, former First Lady of Virginia, will discuss her 2011 book “Restoring the Governor’s House” at the Goochland Branch Library, 3075 River Road West in Goochland Courthouse Village.
Gilmore brings a unique perspective to the task of writing an account of this restoration. The Virginia Governor’s House is the oldest continuously used state executive mansion in the country. As the Commonwealth changes governors every four years lots of families have lived here including Gilmore’s.
Having actively participated in the restoration, she brings a personal and detailed knowledge of updating an historic structure for use in the 21st century from the cultural and practical considerations to the problems encountered along the way and their solutions. The book is the result of notes she took during the restoration process.
An assistant professor of classics at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Gilmore is an engaging speaker and no doubt her talk will include many anecdotes about the Governor’s House.
Please join the Friends of the Goochland Branch Library for this very special event. Refreshments will be served.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Breaking eggs

Facts were as scarce as hen’s teeth during consideration of a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that would permit apartments in a morsel of West Creek at the February 16 meeting of the Goochland planning commission. The commissioners danced around the chicken/egg conundrum of which should come first, homes or businesses.

After a bizarre but relatively brief public hearing the commission split its vote five to five on recommending approval of the amendment. The tie vote moves the matter to the board of supervisors for final disposition.
At issue was a proposed amendment to M-1 zoning that applies only to 60 total acres in the West Creek business park. If approved, this change will pave the way for construction of a gated upscale apartment complex, some sort of retail operation and medical offices.

The 30 acre parcel of land currently under the microscope is located east of Rt. 288, south of Broad Street Road and west of Tuckahoe Creek opposite of the Wawa gas station. Even though this proposal had been before the commission in December, January and last week, staff should have had a map that clearly illustrated the location.

The three commissioners who rejected a request to resign from the commission from the new board of supervisors— James Atkinson District 1; Ty Querry District 2 and board chair Courtney Hyers District 5—worked hard to stall the matter.

Atkinson indicated that he and Hyers had previously discussed the matter “on the telephone.”

In previous sessions, the commission raised concerns that the apartments might exceed the utility capacity of the Tuckahoe Creek Service District. Principal planner Tom Coleman reported that the TCSD currently uses 13.5 percent of its water capacity and one point five percent of its sewer capacity.

Atkinson got snippy because the change would apply to 60 acres, down from the initial 75 acres, but still more than he requested at a February 8 workshop. He seemed unaware that the ordinance change applies only to M-1 zoning in West Creek, not the entire county. If only 30 acres was included in the ordinance amendment, West Creek would need to repeat the process for additional acreage. This is the kind of attitude that drives development dollars to other jurisdictions.

Hyers contended that any action on multifamily housing in West Creek should be deferred until the county hires an economic development person. She said that position has been vacant since the former economic development director left “six or seven years ago.” He moved to greener pastures in 2010.

Much of the discussion about the proposed amendment to the M-1 zoning that applies only to West Creek revolved around the issue of the number of children a large apartment complex would add to our school system.

It was quite interesting that no one mentioned either the Parke at Manakin or the Parke at Centerville, two relatively high density communities that were also supposed to swamp the local education system. Both of those subdivisions are essentially built out and have brought only a handful of children to county schools. More hard facts omitted from the discussion.

Hyers repeatedly contended that the county cannot afford to permit apartments because our schools cannot handle the significant influx of new students from the apartments. She also argued that the additional real estate tax generated by the increased property value would not be enough to fund the impact of more residents on law enforcement and fire-rescue.

Could Hyers really be unaware that personal property taxes, including those levied on motor vehicles, are a significant funding source for non-school services? A passel of upscale apartments occupied by young professionals who own expensive cars registered in Goochland would add money to county coffers. Now those cars are registered elsewhere.

Lowe Lunsford District 5, who, as a courtesy, tendered his resignation without being asked, deftly shut down that line of thought by reminding his fellow commissioners that they are charged only with making recommendations about land use issues. Worrying about the fiscal impact of a zoning is the responsibility of the board of supervisors because they have to pay for the consequences.

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate site for upscale apartments in Goochland than this one at the eastern edge of the county, with access to a six lane road, served by public utilities contained from expansion by roads and Tuckahoe Creek. Access to Broad Street Road will be controlled by a traffic signal.

Any project in West Creek is subject to a wide array of proffers and covenants to uphold design and development criteria that exceed those in zoning ordinances. These apartments will set a precedent of high standards to guide any development that follows.

Only a handful of people commented during the public hearing, which seems to indicate that few people are concerned about the issue.

One man believed that the land in question fronted Route 6 and that he would see it from his front window. There are no homes anywhere near the proposed site on the south side of Broad Street Road.

A very confused citizen argued that the county is unable to handle a fire in an “80 story building” because the county’s sole ladder truck is in Courthouse Village.

According to Tommy Carter District 3 commissioner, who is also a past chief of Goochland Fire-Rescue, there are now two 105 foot ladder trucks in the county, one stationed at Manakin on the edge of West Creek. Carter further explained that a new apartment building is required by building code to have a sprinkler system to extinguish fires when they start.

Bob Rich, who represented District 4 on the commission and served as its chair, spoke in favor of the change. “This is a fiscal opportunity for Goochland that will set quality standards for what follows,” Rich said. “Get it done right and get it done now.”

Paul Costello opposed the 19 unit per acre density and contended that the amendment would give too much control of this project to corporate developers. Given the county’s spotty track record of using zoning ordinances as cudgel rather than carrot, an exception in this case is warranted.

Querry seemed to support the idea of using development on the 30 acres as a test case to gauge the impact of multifamily housing on the county but ultimately voted against it.

A planning commission that cannot put aside its own agenda to make land use recommendations based on the merit of the proposal, not the name of the developer, serves no purpose.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Order in the court

Goochland often feels like a small town even though it is spread over 184 square miles.

An example of this occurred on February 14 in Goochland Circuit court when Judge Timothy K. Sanner took time from the docket to recognize Bailiff Horace Herndon who will retire in the next few weeks in a gracious and heartfelt manner.

“Deputy Herndon is one of the finest people I’ve had the privilege to work with and get to know,” said Sanner. “His overriding concern as a bailiff has been the safety and wellbeing of court attendees, which earned him the respect of all, including the commonwealth’s attorney; attorneys; witnesses and even prisoners.”

The judge seemed a bit emotional as he spoke about Herndon, who has served Goochland for the last 12 years and been in law enforcement for 44 years. At his suggestion, all present rose to applaud Herndon.

Sanner explained that bailiffs arrive early to secure the courthouse and stay after court is over, which can often result in long days.
Herndon said that he has thoroughly enjoyed working with Sanner and has great respect and admiration for the judge and everyone who works with the courts. He also holds Sheriff James L. Agnew and all of his fellow deputies in high regard.

Herndon has always treated everyone in the courtroom, whether they appear in business attire or manacles, with respect, which was returned in kind.
Deputies who work court security have a hard job. They are responsible for fetching prisoners from correctional facilities around the state so they can appear in Goochland courts and returning them the same day.

While court is in session, bailiffs must stand for hours wearing a heavy utility belt equipped with weapon, handcuffs and other tools of the trade. They must remain alert to guarantee the safety of the courtroom, which must be demanding during lengthy and sometimes dull trials. Bailliffs must also be discreet.

At the close of the morning’s session, one of the attorneys appearing before Sanner told the judge that it is nice to know that “someone still does that.” Welcome to Goochland where common courtesy is still in vogue.
Sanner has served Goochland well in his years on the bench.

The breadth of issues that come before Sanner is remarkable. He adjudicates both civil and criminal matters that range from land use to murder.

Herndon observed that Sanner has an amazing grasp of facts and is able to retain details about trials for years.

Sanner seems to be just and fair. Not everyone is pleased with all of his judgments, which are pronounced with thoughtful eloquence. Recognizing a fine man like Horace Herndon for doing a tough job well and with grace speaks volumes about both men.

Sanner’s caseload and that of the other judges on the 16th Circuit has been dramatically increased due to last month’s resignation of John G. Berry who presided over last fall’s recount matter. The timing of Berry’s resignation makes it somewhat unlikely that the General Assembly will appoint a replacement this year. There is also some speculation that Berry will not be replaced.

Sanner and the other 16th circuit judges must fill the judicial void left in Fluvanna and Culpeper. That means that civil trials will not be heard before 2013 and lots of calendar juggling will be required to ensure speedy criminal trials.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Rolling up the rug Part II

The Goochland Board of Supervisors is making changes large and small to better serve their constituents as they promised during last year’s elections.

At the Board’s February 7 meeting, there were quite many indications that things are changing for the better. Here are some random observations on the session.

During budget workshops, the board sits at a bank of tables against the conference room wall facing presenters and citizens. This casual atmosphere encourages meaningful and productive discussion, which will lead to good, but hard, budget decisions.

Like their counterparts on the school board, the new supervisors are learning at warp speed while bringing their varied skill sets to the table.

Board vice chair Ken Petersen District 5 suggested that the county be fiscally proactive in good times so it can ensure adequate funding for necessary county functions in an economic downturn. This may not seem like an earth shaking proposal, but it represents a radical departure from the past.

Manuel Alvarez, District 2 announced that he has been researching the best way to implement live internet streaming of board meetings, which will hopefully commence with the March 6 meeting. Yet another campaign promise immediately addressed. The school board started live streaming last month.

When the new supervisors got their first checks—they get paid twice a month—they found $50 more than expected. Seems their predecessors gave themselves an extra $100 a month, essentially a 10 percent annual bonus. How much gas could the county have bought with that $7,200?

County attorney Norman Sales told the board that the county code “is a mess” and replete with poorly drafted ordinances. He plans to redo the laws by revising an entire chapter of the code when updating local laws to reflect changes made by the General Assembly each year. The improvements just keep on coming!

Sales will also work on resolving the boundary issue with Louisa County that has been in the works since the wedding of Pocahontas. It seems likely that impediments to resolution of that issue, at least on the Goochland side, should be few this time around.

Rob Crandol, from VDoT, the state agency whose motto is “oops!” reported that the Broad Street Road project in Centerville will be completed by July.

However, said Crandol, VDoT realizes that the Manakin and Broad Street Road interchange, still under construction, isn’t “quite right” so it will need to be quickly reengineered. Seems it’s too narrow for large trucks and horse trailers to negotiate the corner.

Crandol made this bizarre statement with a straight face. The widening project, whose justification is lost in the mists of time, had been under consideration for almost a decade. During that time, many public meetings were held by VDoT officials equipped with maps and road cross sections of Centerville.

Why didn’t anyone from VDoT bother to research the type of vehicles use the Manakin/Broad Street Roads intersection and design the lanes accordingly? Is that really such a complicated matter? Surely there must be a chart at VDoT central with lane widths and turn radii that will accommodate horse trailers and dump trucks.

These folks, whose jobs should be eliminated immediately, gave the impression that the finished widened road would look very like Broad Street Road east of Centerville with a grassed median.

We were told when construction began that there was some extra money available for amenities including the traffic signal at Company 3, sidewalks and landscaping.

The sidewalks in front of the Broadview Shopping Center are little more than paved continuations of the curb, right at the edge of the roadway. Instead of encouraging “walkability” in what was supposed to be the charming Centerville Village, they dare pedestrians to play in traffic.

The median is an ugly thing that may eventually have some sort of vegetation. About the only thing this median accomplishes is to cut off the Shell station, which has been there for at least 15 years, from westbound traffic. Bob Minnick District 4 asked Crandol to address this issue. Why wasn’t it part of the original plan? The Shell station has been there for about 15 years. Did the great engineers at VDoT miss that too?

Crandol said that completion of most of the project will be delayed until the asphalt plants reopen in warmer weather. This can’t some soon enough so motorists can stop playing dodge the barrels, which is great fun on rainy nights. Crandol expects the barrel maze to be gone by mid-April.
Our state officials must reform VDoT and not just slough off road maintenance and construction to localities.

If the Broad Street Road widening, which has cost about a bazillion dollars and taken far too long, is any indication, this agency is a fiscal and engineering disaster.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Rolling up the rug

The other budget

Remember all that stuff that got swept under the metaphorical rug of Goochland government? Well, there’s a new bunch in charge and they’ve rolled back the rug and are starting to clean up the mess.

After a brief organizational meeting on January 3, the new supervisors plunged into learning how the county operates by working on the budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins on July 1.

On January 19, they spend a full day learning how departments and agencies funded wholly or in part by the county operate. They continued this endeavor at a work session before their February 7 meeting. (Packets for the sessions are available on the county website www.co.goochland.va.us under the supervisors’ page.) Please take a look at these packets. They paint a clear picture of the fiscal challenges the county faces. All of these items are paid for with funds other than those generated by real estate taxes, which go to the schools.

For a supposedly affluent county, Goochland spends a lot of money helping economically challenged residents. From Social Services to the health department to the Free Clinic, local folks in need can find the help they need. These services tend to be funded by a myriad of sources so the county does not bear the burden alone.

Many of these agencies leverage county funds to stretch their budgets to help as many people as possible, but the requests for assistance are at historic levels and continue to rise as state and federal governments are also looking for ways to trim their spending.

Perhaps the most poignant item on the February 7 agenda was the fire-rescue presentation, which included replacement and construction for aging stations and an additional $114,867 to fund two additional full-time career providers to ensure that there will be 24/7 EMS coverage in the east end of the county. This will complement round the clock coverage in the western part of Goochland.

Statistics in the presentation indicate that volunteer hours and numbers experienced a dramatic falloff in the past two years. It was quite troubling that no supervisor questioned the reasons for the steep decline.
Unlike other agencies, fire-rescue included in its presentation a proposal to implement a cost recovery program, in essence billing for ambulance service, to provide a revenue stream to offset rising expenses.

Surrounding jurisdictions, except Henrico, have similar policies in place.
Many health insurance programs have a provision to pay for ambulance service. A “soft billing” approach would be used that would not actively pursue payment from the economically challenged. The cost recovery program is somewhat controversial. It will be vitally important to educate the citizens that this measure will not deny anyone service for any reason.
This may well be the death knell of the volunteer fire-rescue serve that has served Goochland proudly and well since 1952.

The demise of a volunteer fire-rescue in Goochland became inevitable with the influx of newcomers who have neither the time nor the inclination to devote the time and commitment necessary to become an EMT or firefighter. It’s all well and good to have a state-of-the-art ambulance, but without a crew, it’s just a pile of metal, glass and rubber. In 2009, the county hired its first career fire-rescue employees to ensure daytime weekday coverage.

Our EMS has a sterling reputation in Virginia for high standards of pre-hospital emergency care, which is the result of a lot of hard work and commitment at all levels of the organization.

Goochland fire-rescue has had a magnificent corps of dedicated volunteers who give freely of their time and talents to save lives and protect property in the county. There just aren’t enough of them to keep up with the demand for service.

Sadly, the days when most volunteers worked in the county for companies that let them leave their jobs to respond to emergencies are long gone.
Volunteer numbers may decline further as some decide that they do not want to become unpaid county employees. Also, charitable contributions to fire-rescue companies may fall off as citizens begin to view fire-rescue as a government function that operates on a fee for service basis.

Most of this is inside baseball, the internal politics of a civic organization. At the end of the day people just want to know that when they dial 911 an ambulance or fire truck will show up quickly with a skilled crew. They do not care who owns the equipment or if the providers are career or volunteer as long as they do the job well.

It is up to the supervisors to provide for the health safety and welfare of the citizens in a fiscally responsible manner. The cost recovery option is one way to meet these goals. The policy must be enacted by a county ordinance, which will require a public hearing and is expected to generate community meetings on the subject throughout the county later this year.

This is one of many hard choices our new board will address in coming months.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

31 days

Goochland voters chose well when they selected a new school board at last November’s election.

Two years ago, a handful of parents took a hard look at the proposed school budget and questioned, in detail and in vain, the thought processes used in crafting that fiscal document. Now, many of them are on “the other side of the table” and have been quite open about they made their decisions.

One month after they took office, the new school board voted on a budget for fiscal year 2012-13, which begins on July 1. Although the proposed budget is complete, the school board indicated that they will continue to ferret out slack in the budget and redirected those funds to the classroom.

“This is the product of many late nights and does not reflect our endgame. Our work is not yet done,” board chair Beth Hardy District 4 said. “We still don’t know how much it costs to run our schools.”

The new school board went through the budget, line by line juggling mandated costs that have little room for adjustment and trying to plan for other expenses, like bus fuel.

Given the near glut of natural gas, it might be prudent to explore using that fuel to power our bus fleet. The cost of conversion could be prohibitive, but might be a long term way to get a handle on this volatile expense. There was no time to address that this year.

Board vice chair John Wright, District 5 explained that the school board will continue to identify savings to fund a list of identified “add backs.”

Contingency funds were established as repositories for as yet unidentified savings until they can be reappropriated as required by law. This will provide flexibility as the school year unfolds and, hopefully, eliminate significant left over funds in June.

The proposed school budget, which was sent to the supervisors on February 2, cuts no teachers, a fulfillment of campaign promises and good news for our kids.

Adjustments include reduction of the number of days worked by administrative personnel; employee contributions for benefits and reductions in amounts budgeted for items like electricity. (Go to www.glnd.k12.va.us for full details on the school board tab.)

The matter of custodial services hs not been resolved. An outsourcing proposal reduced the cost of this function by about $190,000. There are too many questions about job loss and pay reduction for current janitors for comfort.

A petition with 310 names protesting the outsourcing of custodial services was presented at the meeting. The current scheme could eliminate jobs and reduce salary for current custodians.

Kevin Hazzard, District 2 said that he is not comfortable with the proposal for this item used in the budget and that additional bids with stipulations including retention of current employees will be sought.

“We know what we’re doing here effects people,” John Lumpkins District 3 said.
He contended that the best way to reduce the unemployment rate long term is to work toward a hundred percent graduation rate.

Each board member commented thoughtfully on the budget.

“Our eyes were opened wide,” said Michael Payne District 1. “When you touch one thing something else goes out of balance.”

Hazzard said that the budget is the result of a lot of
hard decisions and many 20 hour days.

The entire board thanked superintendent of schools Dr. Linda Underwood and her staff for their cooperation and hard work.

“We are learning at warp speed,” Hardy said. “There was so much we wanted to do with this budget that we can’t do. We wanted to be fair while streamlining administration and operations and focus on the classroom.
”This is a pivotal year, Hardy said. The school board is working hard to earn the trust of the supervisors and citizens.We get it. These are your schools.”

The board of supervisors will be faced with dreadful budgetary choices this year. Schools consume a little more than all of the real estate taxes collected by the county. Lower assessments mean lower taxes and fewer dollars for schools. Finding funds for the remainder of county services will be hard.

Mirrors have been packed away and smoke machines turned off. We’re getting hard numbers based on facts. The picture isn’t pretty, but it is honest. Our new school board is to be commended for its hard work, which has just begun.

These fine folks deserve our thanks and our trust.