Monday, March 17, 2014

Storage wars

Recent economic development in Goochland County has been a mixed bag. Apartments and medical offices under construction in West Creek opposite the Wawa on Broad Street Road  are setting a high standard for projects that follow.

The McDonald's in Centerville, which may get built if winter ever ends, signifies that a national corporation believes it can make money there.  According to hints offered by Matt Ryan, the county's economic development director, other major companies are starting to show interest in Goochland. Aside from a closed session meeting at a recent supervisors' meeting to discuss a business prospect, little seems to be happening. Given the confidential nature of these negotiations, that could be an erroneous assumption.

At the March 5 planning commission meeting, two applications for large self storage facilities were recommended for approval, signaling some action.

The first, located a stone's throw east of Rt. 288 on the north side of Broad Street Road, was deferred from last month to clarify the height of the proposed building reatlive to Rt. 288.  Tom Kinter, speaking on behalf of the applicant, also contended that the proposed self storage facility would increase the assesed value of the property --characterized as difficult to develop due to its location and narrow configuaration--to more than $4 million.  The proposed structure will be a few feet higher than the roadway, which the commission apparently found acceptable.

Joe Andrews, District 4, cast the sole dissenting vote on that application.

The second case proposes to build a two story, approximately 33,000 square foot self storage facility on the southeast corner of the intersection of Rt. 6 and Blair Road next to Classic Kitchens. According to the staff report, the exterior dimendions of the proposed building  are 100 by 174 feet, with the longer side facing Rt. 6. The front of Classic Kitchens is 100 feet.

The facility will be accessed from Blair Road and Rt. 6 corridor overlay district standards require extensive landscaping to soften the  exterior.

One neighboring property owner spoke against the proposal contending that it would have a negative impact on nearby property and exacerbate exisitng traffic issues. 

Scott Gaeser, speaking on behalf of the applicant, David Milligan, said that other proposals for the subject property, includng a convenience store, were rejected in the past  becasue their uses were deemed to be too intense for the area.  A self storage facility constructed of high quality materials and adhering to the overlay guidelines would increase the value of the parcel on Rt. 6 and add little traffic or noise to the area, he contended. The commission unanimously recommended approval.

Public hearings on both applications are expected to be held at the April 21 supervisors's meeting.

Staff reports for both applications mentioned that self storage facilities generate little traffic. The Rt. 6 facility would seem to be a good compromise for the area, developing it for low key commercial use. Given the location of the proposal in Centerville--behind and opposite VDOT staging area--it's hard to envision what else might work there.

If these applications are approved by the supervisors following an expected public hearing on April 21, Goochland will be overflowing with self storage facilities. The new ones will drastically increase assesed values of their sites. The parcel by Rt. 288 would probably remain low value real estate for the forseeable future, as would the Rt. 6 property.

Classic Kitchens like a diamond in the rough from its neighboring properties, which could use spiffing up, but enjoy grandfatherd exemptions from overlay standards. Another high quality building, regardlessof its use might lead to improvements there.

Rt. 6 does not seem to hold any exciting economic develoment propects. Those hopes were probably irrevocably dashed decades ago when the county rejected overtures to build Johnston Willis Hospital there.

The Broad Street Road corridor in the Centerville Village, which extends from the Henrico line to just west of Manakin Road, is another matter.  The announcement that Cabela's will locate just east of the  Goochland border, coupled with the expected location of a Bon Secours emergency facility in the vicinity of its big, blue sign in the same area, could dramatically alter the land use dynamic for property located between Broad Street Road and Interstate 64. The stub of Three Chopt Road left after  Rt.288 was  built currently provides access for a few homes. There seems to be no reason that, adhering to all legal procedures, the road and all adjoining land could be combined into one large parcel that could be attractively, and profitably for all involved, developed.

Property owners are well within their rights to develop their land as they see fit, within certain perameters.

So, do the supervisors hold tightly to the metaphorical birds in their hands, or hope for something better?  There is real pressure for the supervisors to change the perception left over from the bad old days that Goochland is a difficult place to do business.  If they reject too many proposals, the applications will stop coming.Neighboring jurisdictions are also eager to attract new revenues.

While we all hope for "Better" things than self-storage facilities, specifics have been lacking. 
The question "what would you like to see in Centerville?" Is often answered with "I don't know, but not that."

If the rising tide of the national economy will indeed "lift all boats," it is vital that Goochland's vessel is seaworthy.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Good news and bad news

The good news is that the Goochland County real estate tax rate will not be higher than 53 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The bad news is that rate represents a nine tenths of a cent tax increase. Because revenues expected to be generated by a modest rise in  existing property values over last year—one point seven percent--retaining the 53 cent rate that has been in  place for several years is a tax increase.
Goochland County Administrator Rebecca Dickson explained to the supervisors at their March 4 meeting that state law requires public notification of the tax increase. Due to declining real estate values for the past several years, it’s been a good while since the last time this occurred.
Be that as it may, most real estate tax bills will be smaller than they were five years ago. The machinery and tools tax rate is expected to be reduced to $1 per $100 of valuation from the four dollar rate previously levied.
Given the fragile economic times we are in, the county and schools have done a good job with the extra funds. 
A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held on Monday, April 7 at 7 p.m. The supervisors will hold their April meeting on this day instead of the customary first Tuesday of the month. A vote on the budget is expected to take place at a special meeting on April 21. At this time, the tax rate for calendar 2014 will be set. 
The supervisors presented Mike Cade, VDOT's Ashland Residency agent, who is retiring with a plaque of appreciation for helping Goochland navigate state road procedures.
Dr. James Lane,  Superintendent of Goochland Schools, shared continuing good news about our education system with the supervisors. His report is available in the board packet available on the county website Please follow the links for details about the great work that our schools are doing. Lane's boundless good cheer and contagious enthusiasm for the role of education in our community indicates that our schools are on the right track. 
The board held public hearings on routine matters. One zoning ordinance amendment specifically permits data centers in M-1 and M-2 zoning districts, to smooth the way for possible location of a data center on land designated last year by Virginia Dominion  Power as suitable for these facilities in West Creek.
Another ordinance change imposes penalties for obstructing fire hydrants, fire apparatus, and parking in fire zones. The rules are in place to ensure that firefighters can do their job safely and efficiently. Violators should face consequences. Also, if you see an ambulance or fire truck running with lights and sirens, get out of their way if you can. Every second counts in an emergency and you never know when those fine folks might be headed to your house!
Goochland Fire Marshal Doug Davies explained that dry hydrants--there are blue signs announcing their presence all over the county--are devices that permit fire apparatus quick access to water in ponds, tanks, and streams. A dry hydrant is essentially a straw from the bank of a water source to its deepest part with a fire hose coupling to quickly pump large quantities of water into a truck. As most of Goochland does not have access to public utilities, water to fight fires must be transported to the scene of a blaze. 
A proposed biosolids storage ordnance amendment was referred to the planning commission for review at its April 3 meeting. If sludge is on the agenda, and maybe in the air, can spring be far behind? The April 3 agenda also includes an application to store biosolids on a parcel of land on Chapel Hill Road.
A public hearing on proposed local oversight of storm water runoff regulations was set for April 21.
All current planning commissioners: John Meyers, District1; Matt Brewer District 2; Derek Murray District 3; Joe Andrews District 4; and Tom Rockecharlie District 5 were reappointed for another two year term.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Details, details

Ann James, the unofficial ombudsman of Goochland County, raised some interesting questions about the Goochland Fire-Rescue Emergency Medical Services (EMS) cost recovery program at the March 4 meeting of the Board of Supervisors.

She contended that Goochland residents transported to area hospitals by county EMS received bills above and beyond their insurance coverage. When the cost recovery program was rolled out, there was a great deal of discussion about something called “soft” billing, which many interpreted as the exemption of county residents from payment in excess of insurance reimbursement.
Although told to “tear up” the bills, these citizens were concerned about negative impacts on their credit rating if they ignored the invoices. County Administrator Rebecca Dickson said that, according to county policy, these unpaid amounts will not be referred to a collection agency, and presumably have no impact on their credit rating.

Cost recovery, which went into effect January 1, 2013, is essentially a user fee for EMS. Revenues generated by the program, approximately $1 million gross billing resulting in payments to the county of about $545,000 net for calendar 2013, are used mainly to cover the cost of paid providers. The final total for 2013 may be higher. According to D. E. “Eddie” Ferguson, Jr., Deputy Chief-EMS, some claims are still working their way through payment systems that include Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies.

Charges levied by Goochland EMS are always a flat amount, said Ferguson. Itemized bills, he speculated, may be generated by hospitals that include costs for specific items and care given at the hospital emergency room, which is a separate entity from Goochland EMS.

The amount billed is the sum of the fee for level of care delivered and a mileage fee for the distance between the site of the ambulance pick-up and the destination hospital.

For instance, an advanced life support level 2 EMS call employing sophisticated treatment protocols that could include intubation and other life-sustaining miracles, costs $600. Transport is billed at a flat $8.50 per mile. An ALS 2 call with a 25 mile hospital trip would generate a bill of $812.50.

Basic life support transport for the same distance would be $400 plus mileage $212.50 equaling $612.50.
These charges are sent to the patient’s insurance company, Medicare, or Medicaid, which pays an established amount to the third party biller retained by Goochland to file claims for a six percent fee and bill patients for the remainder.
According to Goochland Fire-Rescue Chief Bill MacKay, bills must be generated for every ambulance transport so the county is eligible for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

Ferguson contended that the use of an impartial third party billing firm that has up-to-date knowledge about regulatory compliance with all insurance programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, is essential to the success of the program.
Fire-rescue also hired a part-time person, Debbie Shaw. She oversees the paperwork involved in revenue recovery and serves as the department’s Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance officer. She troubleshoots billing issues and works out payment plans.

Ferguson explained that while the soft or compassionate billing policy was intended to make sure that no one is ever denied EMS, anyone can tear up their bill without fear of repercussions.

Although there were rumored to be several options for recovering EMS cost in excess of insurance payments--including an annual flat fee per household subscription similar to that in Chesterfield County--on the table when the program was designed, revenue recovery, as presently constituted, was approved by the supervisors with little discussion. Perhaps Goochland’s population is just too small to make the subscription plan economically feasible.

The motives for cost recovery are pure. According to Ferguson, the county experiences NUA (no (EMS) units available) several times each week--sometimes on the same day--even with paid providers. Cost recovery was a way, in times of shrinking county revenues, to fund a vital service.

The methods of communicating the program to the citizens, however, were murky. Goochland needs EMS providers in place 24/7. We have an amazing corps of skilled and committed volunteers, but just not enough to keep up with the burgeoning demand for service.
Also, according to Ferguson, Goochland EMS responds to a significant number of calls on Interstate 64 and Rt. 288, transporting patients who do not live--or pay taxes--in Goochland. Cost recovery provides a mechanism to offset the expense of that service.
MacKay told the supervisors that contributions to fire-rescue increased by more than 40 percent in 2013, allaying fears that cost recovery would have adverse consequences for volunteer fundraising. It remains to be seen if the generosity of citizens will continue as they realize that EMS is no longer free. Will future cost recovery fee increases be necessary if too many citizens decline to pay their bills?

However, the term “soft billing” seems intentionally vague, perhaps to hide in plain sight the fact that no one—regardless of economic status—will be forced to pay more than the amount defrayed by their insurance. The frequently asked questions about cost recovery on the home page of the county website, make no mention of soft billing, but rather encourage the economically challenged to work out payment options with the county.

For the past six months, the supervisors have been working on a strategic plan, which is shaping up to be an attitudinal manifesto touting integrity and excellent customer service. The whys and wherefores of cost recovery have been a little squishy around the corners since the outset. This seems to be a contradiction for an administration that prides itself on transparency and a contradiction to the motivation behind the strategic plan.

After almost 15 months in action, it’s past time for better communication about the program. Ferguson said in recent months that he and MacKay have actively engaged in community outreach to explain the program (did we have to pass it before we could read it?)to church and civic groups. Call the fire-rescue office at 556-5304 for additional information.

Those seeking conspiracies should look elsewhere, but the county needs to be more open and precise about the details of cost recovery.

Also, bring your cost recovery questions to the town hall meetings scheduled for later this month. District 3, March 17, J. Sergeant Reynolds; District 1, March 20, Byrd Elementary School; District 2, March 24 JSRCC; District 5, March 26 at Manakin Company 1 Fire-Rescue Station; and District 4, March 27 at Grace Chinese Episcopal Church. All meetings begin at 7 p.m.