Wednesday, February 27, 2013

All politics are local

Remember how things were under the old regime? About this time of year, the school board would be predicting dire consequences if the supervisors failed to fully fund the proposed budget. If this did not happen, popular and important programs like football, slots at the governors' schools, teaching positions and so forth would go away. A former superintendent even predicted that a flat budget for the upcoming fiscal year would plunge the schools into a death spiral. Parents panicked and bombarded the supervisors with demands to raise taxes to pay for schools. It was quite ugly. One former school board member even proposed closing Goochland Elementary School to save money.

Since taking office last year, both boar checked their egos at the door and got to work figuring out how to make do without raising taxes. The school budget includes new initiatives like career and technical education, a bit of money for band uniforms and science equipment.

The county budget includes a raise for all employees, new deputies, and keeping the library open for a full schedule.

By putting their heads together instead of butting heads, both boards have managed to find a new bus garage and are investigating possibilities for additional elementary school space in the east end of the county.

In short, collaboration rather than confrontation is finding solutions to problems without raising taxes.
Ronald Regan one said "it's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."

If it works here, why can't it work in Washington? Once again, Goochland takes the lead.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sounds of silence part deux

An application for a conditional use permit to create a commercial event venue at the 30,000 square foot Dover Hall estate on Manakin Road drew a good bit of neighborhood comment during the February 21 planning commission meeting.

Dennis and Cynthia Pryor, owners of the 55 acre site of Dover Hall, which was built in 1999, have come to the realization that the structure is not suitable as a private residence and its best use is hosting large events. The Pryors currently live in modest home nearby.

Pryor explained that Dover Hall has been the site of many large events including fund raisers for political and philanthropic causes. Some of those galas have drawn more than 600 guests. The CUP limits the head count of attendees to 299 inside the home and 400 for the entire site. Under no circumstances will fireworks be allowed.

He contended that Dover Hall is an asset to the entire Central Virginia region and is an excellent way to showcase the finest that Goochland has to offer. In the past decade, said Pryor, approximately 70 eventsb took place at Dover Hall with no problem--except maybe those unfortunate fireworks--in the past decade. The only difference is that a fee would be charged for the venue, he said. Pryor has retained a professional event planner to ensure the quality and integrity of operations.

"It is expensive to run a house of this size,"Pryor said. Proceeds from commercializing Dover Hall will fund its upkeep and enable him to complete the formal gardens. The site must be brought into compliance with fire and other building codes for a commercial use before it can go into operation.

Although Pryor contended that he is sensitive to his neighbors, they were quite skeptical.

Dover Hall is about one third of a mile from the Deep Run Hunt Club, one of the nation's most prestigious equestrian organizations. It is surrounded by horse farms and expensive homes. Manakin Road is narrow, winding and heavily traveled.

Several neighbors objected to what they characterized as the spot zoning of plunking a commercial establishment, whose use is intended to attract hundreds of people, to. A rural residential area. These people will drive to Dover Hall, exacerbating an already dicey traffic situation, and they will probably hoist a glass or two at Dover Hall before getting behind the wheel to leave.
Then, there is the noise.

Ross Mackenzie, whose editorial contributions are sorely missed, and his wife Jennie live a few miles from Dover Hall. They are terrified of the havoc that noise from loud music, which is an integral part of the contemporary upscale wedding, will wreak on the area.

Mackenzie told the commissioners that, until the county has a solid, enforceable noise ordinance on the books, uses like that hoped for at Dover Hall should be prohibited.
The high cost of decibel meters, the only reliable and defensible measuring noise, has kept the county from enacting a noise ordinance.

Mrs. Mackenzie said that a neighbor with a penchant for horribly loud music destroyed the quality of life in her home. She fears that commercial use of Dover Hall will bring those bad old days back

We all know how sound carries in Goochland. Everyone can hear train whistles from time to time regardless of how close they live to the railroad tracks. Peace and quiet is a foundation of rural character too. Perhaps it's time to hold a bake sale--maybe at Dover Hall-- to buy decibel meters for the Sheriff.

Pryor said that music played inside the ballroom could hardly be heard in other parts of the house and said that adding sides to tents erected outside would contain noise.

Commission chair Courtney Hyers, District 5, said that the intrusion of a commercial use in this area represents a radical change in "the heart of horse country." She acknowledged the generous support of many organizations by the Pryors but wished Dover Hall were located elsewhere.

Darvin Satterwhite, acting as counsel for a Dover Hall neighbor, stated that Goochland has no zoning law that allows what Dover Hall wants to do. The A2 zoning category makes no provision for establishment of a place of public assembly.

Now that the supervisors have dealt with the TCSD debt, it's time to craft zoning for bed and breakfasts, country inns and event venues. Cramming cramming square pegs into round holes zoning wise only causes heartburn down the road.

The application also asks to operate a bed and breakfast without serving food. Pryor explained that provision would allow members of a wedding party, for instance, to spend the night in one of Dover Hall 's magnificent bedroom suites.

Steve Hughes, who lives across the street from Dover Hall, echoed many of his neighbors in asking that no turn lanes be required on the property. He contended that Pryor's proposal is the least impactful scenario for the property and raised the specter of a field filled with houses.

Dover Hall had been listed with a prestigious real estate firm for many years, with, apparently, no takers. There is some speculation that a CUP to operate an event venue would make the property more attractive to buyers.

Objections to the CUP included difficulty of enforcement of some provisions and many variations on noise and traffic issues.

However, issuance of a CUP enhances the county's ability to regulate activities at Dover Hall.Currently, it has no say, beyond issuance of large crowd permits.

The commissioners voted 3-2 ( commissioners Matt Brewer At large and Derek Murray District 3 were absent) to recommend approval of a CUP that allows no more than five outside music events--all other music must be indoors--for a duration of five years that terminates at sale of the property. The Board of Supervisors will have the final word on this matter following another public hearing.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pennies from heaven

Goochland’s supervisors realize that no pennies will be forthcoming from heaven to help balance the county FY 2014 based on a 53 cent per $100 of valuation real estate tax rate.

Ensuring continued delivery of governmental services without raising taxes in lean times is a delicate task. To that end, the board is meeting with local governmental agencies who receive all or part of their funding from the county to prioritize spending.

Information in the board packet for work sessions on February 5 and 11, located on the supervisors’ page of the county website provides a wealth of information on how the county spends tax dollars.

Uncertainty about state allocations to localities; the specter of a federal sequester; and the impact of the Affordable Care Act further complicate the process.

The school board presented its proposed budget to the supervisors in person on the 11th. The documents are available for all to peruse on the school website School board members and Superintendent Dr. James Lane declared that they are ready, willing, and eager to answer any and all questions about this document.

This unprecedented cooperation and collaboration between the county and schools bodes well for students, teachers, and taxpayers. Indeed, County Administrator Rebecca Dickson thanked Lane for sharing revenue and spending projections for the current fiscal year with the county. “This is absolutely a miracle, just wonderful,” she said of the information.

In past years, joint budget sessions between these two boards were contentions and downright snarky. This year, it was a love fest.

Each supervisor received a thick loose leaf binder containing the school budget. Lane volunteered to “drill down” further into the numbers to answer any question whatsoever. This is such a nice change from past years when the schools essentially told the supervisors that school budget details were none of their business.

Aside from the positive value of openness and transparency, the time and energy wasted in the past on turf wars will be better used addressing fiscal challenges.

The supervisors are looking for measures other than tax hikes to pay the bills. For instance, the EMS cost recovery program, which went into effect on January 1, is expected to generate about a half million dollars annually.

Needs of most agencies fall into two categories-- people and equipment. In the past few years, replacement of police cars, school buses, and items like computers was postponed, but it cannot be put off much longer.  As Sheriff James L. Agnew pointed out, even well maintained vehicles wear out. Lane contended that if the county does not start some school bus replacement it will never catch up.

Agnew also explained his need to add more deputies. Turnover is a significant expense, not only in terms of dollars spent, but losing experienced deputies is a serious cost. Agnew contended that additional deputies are needed to expand coverage throughout the county on all shifts. (See February 5 package for  details.)

No matter how carefully a budget, which is a planning tool, is crafted, there are unexpected cost increases. Agnew brought along a handful of ammunition for the various firearms used by deputies. The price of bullets is sky rocketing, he reported asking the board to increase his budget so deputies can go to the practice range more than once per year.

Qiana Foote, Director of Information Technology said that the county’s computers are beyond their useful life and some software is no longer supported.

The Monacan Soil and Water Conservation District is just about running on budgetary fumes and barely able to function.

The board listens intently to every presentation, often asking probing questions to make sense of the landslide of numbers.

For instance, Susan Lascollete District 1 asked if the fourth quarter decline in new cases for the county’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program indicated reduced need. CASA executive director Ann Casey explained that, alas, the smaller number simply reflects fewer court dates in the last quarter of the year due to the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays.

Agencies that help those in need, especially Social services and the Free Clinic and Family Services report drastic increases in the need for assistance.

County Treasurer Pamela Johnson echoed the sentiment of department heads as she pointed out that long time employees represent an asset and investment of the county, not an expense.

Johnson, Agnew, Director of Social Services Kimberly Jefferson and Lane echoed these sentiments. Goochland’s starting salaries compare well to neighboring jurisdictions, but fall off as employees gain seniority and valuable experience. We’ve become something of a training ground as people begin their careers here, get some experience and go elsewhere for more money and opportunity.

Jefferson said succession is of particular concern in her agency as senior staff, who are conversant with the maze of policies and  programs used to serve clients, are nearing retirement and cannot be replaced with entry level employees.

Agnew said that salary compression, resulting from increasing starting pay, but not ratcheting it through the ranks, can lead to experienced deputies moving to other agencies for better pay and more advancement opportunities.

To further complicate the salary picture, the addition of high dollar positions to county staff in recent years while the remainder of county employees got no raises, rankles. The supervisors seem inclined to address this matter also.

In addition to juggling the aforementioned issues, the supervisors must address the utilities situation. A budget workshop on utilities, which will explore water and sewer rates and ad valorem taxes for the Tuckahoe Creek Service District on Monday, February 25 at 7 p.m.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tip of the iceberg

The 2012 State Champion Bulldogs Footall team are recognized by the Board of Supervisors. Board Chair Ken Peterson and School Board Chair John Wright (center wearing ties) pose with team members.


The Goochland Board of Supervisors paused at the start of a February 11 budget meeting to recognize our Goochland Bulldogs, the 2012 Virginia High School League Group A Division 2 State Football Champions.

Players, proud parents and coaches filled the board room as Board Chair Ken Peterson, District 5, and School Board Chair John Wright, District 5, congratulated the players, coaches and parents for this fine accomplishment.  Several team members were participating in a concurrent basketball game and missed the event.

Peterson commended the team for its hard work throughout the season. He observed that the lessons these fine young men learned on the playing field will stand them in good stead throughout their lives.

Talent, luck, hard work, good chemistry among players, a bit of luck, and excellent coaching came together to create this championship season. As the players filled the front of the board room, head coach Joe Fowler was urged to stand in the front of the group for a photo. Fowler declined and said “boys in the front, coaches in the back.”  He did step forward a bit later to accept a framed resolution from Peterson and Wright on behalf of the team.

The supervisors also adopted a resolution to recognize other county teams who are James River District champions. These are: Varsity and Junior Varsity high school football; JV and Varsity volleyball; cheerleading and girls and boys cross country.

Excellence is contagious in county schools. Though most visible, our victorious football team is but the tip of the iceberg. Kudos to students, teachers, coaches and parents who create an environment that encourages achievement.



Thursday, February 7, 2013

The people's business

At its regular monthly meeting on February 5, the Goochland Board of Supervisors: held budget a budget workshop for human services agencies; granted a ten year conditional use permit to Portico Restaurant on River Road; heard about plans to create a second voting precinct in District 4; authorized County Administrator Rebecca Dickson to execute memoranda of understanding for the benefit of county parks; and announced the schedule for spring town hall meetings.


In her comments, Dickson recognized Lisa Beczkiewicz, administrative assistant and deputy clerk, for her outstanding work preparing the minutes of the January 2 meeting, which included approximately five hours of public hearings. Ms. Beczkiewicz does an outstanding job each and every day to serve the citizens of Goochland.
Unless it’s holding a leprechaun and his pot of gold captive, the board will be faced with tough decisions when crafting the FY ’14 budget.
Many residents of River Road took time from their busy schedules to attend the public hearing on the CUP for Portico Restaurant. Indeed, speakers tried to outdo each other as they heaped praise on their neighborhood upscale eatery. The supervisors voted to grant a CUP for ten years after addressing concerns about noise generated by putting trash into a dumpster raised at the planning commission hearing.
Goochlanders like to vote. For the second presidential election in a row, we led the Commonwealth as 13,441 of 15,482 registered voters cast ballots. County Electoral Board Chair Herb Griffith commended Frances C. Ragland, the best registrar in Virginia, and all Goochland election officials for their fine work.
District 4, as those who waited in line, albeit not all that long, to vote last November can attest, has far too many people for one precinct. Griffith said that the new facility built by Grace Chinese Baptist Church on Broad Street Road just west of Three Chopt Road, has been identified as the probable location of a second precinct for District 4. A public hearing on the matter will be scheduled later in the year. The electoral board must also obtain approval for creation of the new precinct from the U. S. Department of Justice. If all goes well, the new precinct should be in operation for the November election.
Beth Moore, President of Friends of Goochland Parks, updated the Board on developments at Tucker Park at Maidens Crossing. A CarMax Foundation grant to build a performance stage is the latest in efforts to improve the 36 acre park, located on the banks of the James River adjacent to the Rt. 522 bridge. Moore also announced that the Friends of Goochland Parks—she stressed the plural because the intent of the organization is to support all county parks—is a 501(c)(3) non-profit entity.
Keep an eye out for more information about this innovative organization, which is using a public-private model to leverage resources for the benefit of the community.
The Board authorized Dickson to execute memoranda of understanding concerning the parks. (For full details, see the February 5 Board packet on the county website
In March, a town hall meeting will be held in each District. Supervisors and School Board members will be on hand to discuss the upcoming budget and any other matters of interest to citizens. The schedule is: District 2, March 13, Goochland Library; District 1, March 14, Byrd Elementary School; District 3, March 18, Company 5; District 4, March 25, Company 3; District 5, March 28, Company 1. All meetings will begin at 7 p.m.