Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Citizen conversation

Goochland is in the midst of the fall town hall meeting season. These informal sessions, hosted by the supervisor and school board member for each District, provide an opportunity for citizens to learn about what going on in the county and ask questions.
The District 4 meeting, held on October 17 at the Grace Chinese Baptist Church, which is also the District’s new polling place, drew a pretty good crowd. It was hosted by supervisor Bob Minnick and Beth Hardy of the school board. Those in attendance seemed to be mostly residents of the east end who live in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District. These folks, relative newcomers to the county, worked hard to elect Minnick and District 5 supervisor Ken Peterson, current board chair.

(Other meetings will be held as follows: District 5 at the Manakin Fire-Rescue Station on October 24; District 1 at Byrd Elementary School on October 28 and District 2 at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College on October 30. All begin at 7 p.m. All are welcome at all meetings.)

In a departure from past town hall meetings, this go ‘round eschewed power point and choreographed presentations in favor of topics solicited from the audience.

As Goochland is not a one-size-fits-all kind of place, those topics will vary from district to district, though core interests like schools, roads, taxes and services will be discussed.

Unlike our neighbor to the east, which is threatening a real estate tax increase unless its voters approve a meals tax, Goochland is holding its own money wise.

As homeowners in the TCSD pay an ad valorem tax of 32 cents per $100 of assessed valuation on top of the 53 cents that the rest of the county pays, they are very interested in the TCSD because most of them live there.

Development activity in the TCSD is picking up.

According to County Administrator Rebecca Dickson, all permitting had been completed and approved for the McDonalds, which will be corporately owned, but a franchisee is still being sought. (According to the McDonald’s website, http://www.aboutmcdonalds.com/mcd/franchising/us_franchising.html you need at least $750,000 in non-borrowed cash to be considered.  A 25 percent cash down payment is required for existing restaurants, 40 for new sites, like Centerville. The remainder may be financed over seven years. The website gives no particulars about the actual cost of a franchise, which probably varies by location. Franchisees pay monthly service fees of about four percent of sales and rent, which is also a percentage of sales.)
On the residential front, apartments and medical office buildings are under construction in West Creek opposite the Wawa. Several subdivisions have either been recently approved or are in the pipeline. The next phase of Kinloch is also ready to go.

Development of the Broad Street Road corridor between Ashland and Manakin Roads is a delicate task. Care must be taken because a misstep there could take more than a decade to fix, said Minnick.. Identifying the kind of enterprises best suited to this location, who decides that, and how to lure them, has generated endless discussion and no conclusions.

Minnick explained that good economic development results in balance between rooftops and business. He seemed to indicate that building a critical mass of upscale residents in close proximity to Centerville could attract businesses to serve them.

Could all of this activity, which will increase TCSD assessed valuations, lower the ad valorem tax, which services bond debt?

The not so short answer, said Dickson, is “not yet and maybe not for a good while.” While last year’s bond restructuring changed a graphed representation of debt from a steep mountain to an anvil, we have yet to navigate a significant bump in the repayment curve. Right now, with things picking up on the economic development front, the county is confident that all obligations will be met.

Peterson, whose financial acumen played a big part in taming the TCSD debt, explained that the initial repayment schedule was based on the assumption that TCSD land valuation would increase by about 11 percent annually, pretty much forever. That didn’t pan out. Under the new arrangement, a three percent growth rate, which is conservatively realistic, should handle the debt.

The county’s fiscal health was discussed. Minnick, Dickson, and Peterson contended that Goochland is in good shape financially. The tax rates are on target to remain unchanged in 2014. Dickson said that preliminary estimates seem to indicate a slight increase in assessed valuations, while the county is assuming flat values going forward. Peterson pointed out that the county’s maximum total tax rate that in the TCSD including the ad valorem tax is 85 cents, the lowest in the region.

Goochland, Dickson said, hopes to obtain its own bond rating in the next few years. To ensure that is as high as possible the county will use very conservative assumptions and retain careful fiscal control of all operations.

Several people wanted to know why the supervisors were approving new subdivisions--to the tune of several hundred new homes--without significant road improvements.

Dickson explained that Goochland neither builds nor maintains roads, but is dependent on VDOT—the state agency whose motto is “oops!”—for transportation projects.  The county must go through a cumbersome process for VDOT to even consider a locally initiated project. A traffic signal at the corner of Broad and Hockett/St. Matthew’s Lane, for instance, has not been built because traffic there does not cross the traffic threshold to justify its existence.
Several developers have put up significant amounts of cash to fund that traffic signal when, and if, VDOT approves it.

A VDOT study seeking ways to improve the Rt. 288/Broad Street Road intersection is in the works. Suggestions that a stoplight there would be a quick and dirty, if temporary, way to mitigate the danger there are rebuffed by VDOT.

Hardy and School Superintendent Dr. James Lane gave a brief overview of the good things happening in our education system. He announced that a Marine junior ROTC program will begin next fall; explained the formula for calculating graduation rates; and, perhaps most important of all, that Goochland schools are at or near the top of most metrics that measure school success.
(Visit the school system’s website http://www.glnd.k12.va.us/ for a glimpse of all the good things going on there. If you are able, tune in via live stream to the October 22 school board meeting starting at 6:30 p.m. to see our great school board in action.)

The current Board of Supervisors, in office since January, 2012, spent a good part of the past 18 months putting out fires large and small that they inherited. Now that is has reached cruising speed, the board is looking ahead.
Minnick and Dickson explained that several planning initiatives are in the works. Currently, a consultant is gathering input for a short term (two to three years) strategic plan. This is intended to help the supervisors focus on items important to citizens.

A utilities master plan is on the near term agenda as is a strategic plan for fire-rescue. Next year the county will review and revise its comprehensive land use plan.

All of the supervisors; School Board Chair John Wright, District 5; District 4 Planning Commissioner Joe Andrews; Treasurer Pamela Cooke Johnson; and many county department heads also attended the meeting.
Johnson announced that everyone should receive tax bills by Thanksgiving and should call her office if the bills have not arrived. She also said that the bills will contain new information and encouraged everyone to read them.

These meetings provide a low key way to interact with the officials that spend our tax dollars. They are ready, willing, and able to explain what’s going on in local government. This is yet another indication that all boards are working together to craft solutions to benefit the county as a whole.

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