Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Weed whacking

Soon after taking office two years ago, the current Goochland Board of Supervisors used the budget process to get a detailed understanding of government functions.

Although they get out of the way and let county employees do their jobs, the supervisors’ annual incursion into “the weeds” of county operations reveals a great deal of interesting information about what Goochland government does, and the people that make things happen.

Before approving the county budget for fiscal year 2015, which being July 1, 2014, in April, the supervisors wade through a lot of numbers. Several budget workshops have been scheduled for the next few months during which department heads make presentations that include achievements, challenges, and proposed budget requests.

The county real estate tax rate has held steady at 53 cents per $100 of valuation for several years in spite of a steep decline in property assessments. Thanks to resourceful use of limited funds, including some deep cuts in past years, Goochland is living within its means.

Thanks to the close relationship between the supervisors and school board, even our education system is moving forward while keeping a close eye on the public purse.

This year, there seems to be a glimmer of light at the end of the bare bones budget tunnel. Property assessments are up just over three percent from last year, instead of declining more. However, the budget for FY2015 is based on revenue in hand, not on the way.

The January 30 workshop included presentations from Animal Control; Community Development; Commissioner of the Revenue; Pamunkey Regional Library; Registrar and Electoral Board; Treasurer; and Parks, Recreation and Facilities Management. (The informational packet, dated January 22, is available on the county website www.co.goochland.va.us under the supervisors’ tab.)

Common themes appeared in each narrative. The county is growing and the economy is picking up. Residential and commercial development is gearing up after years of stagnation. As more people move to Goochland, the demand for services grows. Agencies, which have worked hard to “do more with less”, are nearing their productivity thresholds.

The picture was by no means bleak. Each department discussed ongoing goals, interim achievements and future challenges. The accomplishments were impressive.

Tim Clough, Animal Control Director, explained the addition of a shelter attendant and increased county support, including the efforts of Lisa Beczkiewicz, Administrative Assistant / Deputy Clerk to increase awareness of the animal shelter (located at the entrance to Hidden Rock Park, just off Fairgrounds Road) resulted in a drastic rise in the number of cats and dogs returned to their owners, adopted, or transferred to animal rescue groups until they find their “forever home.” (See packet for happy rise in bar graph statistics.)
No animals at the Goochland Shelter were euthanized for space limitations, Clough said.
Clough said that the increase in population will require a larger shelter. He said that other counties have built larger animal shelters funded by private donations and believes that there is sufficient support for a similar initiative in Goochland.
County Administrator Rebecca Dickson explained that the improvements in shelter conditions and operations were spurred by citizens who brought their concerns to the supervisors, who supported the changes.

The Department of Community Development oversees planning and zoning; civil and environmental engineering; unities, building permits and inspections; and convenience centers. As utilities has its own stalk on the organization chart, it will be discussed at a later date.

Dan Schardein explained that Community Development wants feedback on its performance from its customers—those who interact with the DCD—to gauge its performance and learn what it needs to do better. A stamped, self-addressed survey card is given to all customers to ensure anonymity of respondents. The return rate, said Schardein, is fairly low. All comments, good, bad, or indifferent are reviewed.

A major challenge of DCD is finding ways to support economic development while enforcing regulations that ensure quality development and protect the character of the county.

Gary Fisher, county building official, reported that increasing complexity of new construction requires more skill and takes longer to complete inspections in a timely manner. He explained that construction of 554 single family homes, in addition to those in the works, will tax county staff in the near future. Fisher said that some of the more complicated inspection work could be outsourced, but characterized hiring another staff member as a good long term investment and best use of county funds.
Fisher also said that the county’s reputation among developers as being easy to work with is very important.

Improvements to the central convenience center are coming along. Schardein reported that paving must wait for warmer weather. The big news here is that there was discussion about reopening the central convenience center on Thursday. Ned Creasey, District 3, supported investigating the Thursday reopening, which might be achieved by reducing hours on other days.

County conveniences centers experienced a 13.2 percent increase in the amount of trash received. This is believed to be the result of more households disposing of their own trash and fewer burning garbage at home. Commercial trash goes elsewhere.
The good news is that the cost of processing solid waste dropped by an average of $20 per ton. Dickson explained that this cost per ton will be used as a baseline measurement going forward, in the hopes of realizing additional economies.

The Electoral Board and Registrar explained that the state has mandated replacement of the county’s electronic voting machines with equipment that produces a paper ballot. Details about the cost to the county are still vague
Herb Griffith, who served as chair of the Electoral Board, retired at the end of 2013. Another Republican will be appointed by the Circuit Court to fill out the remaining year of his term.

County Treasurer Pamela Cooke Johnson reported that her department is meeting or exceeding its goals with regard to financial operations and employee training. Tax collection rates for 2013 exceeded certification thresholds.

Johnson said that her department is actively pursuing delinquent taxes. There are 181 parcels of land in the county on which taxes were not collected between 1993 and 2009, just written off. Johnson said that she is working to collect back taxes by searching for owners to make them aware of their obligations and give them an opportunity to pay. Otherwise, the land will be sold to get it back on the tax rolls. Johnson said that she will work with people living on delinquent property to establish a payment plan to bring in some revenue. Employment liens will be placed on those who owe back taxes where appropriate.

Parks, recreation and facilities management, a department created a few years back to reduce duplication of efforts and maximize personnel utilization, is busier than ever. This department organizes burgeoning enrollment in recreational activities; cuts grass; plows snow; and maintains all county buildings.

Derek Stamey, PRFM Director, also expressed a need for additional staff to keep up with increased demand for services. Programs offered by the department are self-sustaining. To cover the cost of distributing the thrice annual program guide, the department sells advertising and sponsorships. This is a great way to support public recreation in Goochland and get the word out about a business or organization. Visit the department’s tab on the county website for more information.

Our supervisors will need to decide in the coming weeks exactly how tax dollars will be allocated in the next fiscal year, and beyond. Most departments are nearing a threshold where additional employees are needed to ensure acceptable levels of service. People are vital, yet expensive, to the success of any organization. They must find the sweet spot of adequate staffing supported by available funding.

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