Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Lobbyists need not apply

When Goochland County’s current Board of Supervisors took office in early 2012, it took a scalpel to the county budget. One of the many deleted expenses was membership in the Virginia Association of Counties (VACo) in favor of direct communication with the county’s delegation to the Virginia General Assembly.

On August 5, this year’s annual legislative luncheon was held in the community room of the Goochland campus of Reynolds Community College.

For about two hours, Delegates Lee Ware and Peter Farrell discussed a wide array of issues. Senator Tom Garrett was unable to attend.

Board Chair Manuel Alvarez, Jr., District 2 began the session by thanking Lisa Beczkiewicz, Administrative Assistant / Deputy Clerk, and Paul Drumwright, Senior Management and Projects Analyst, for coordinating the event.

Alvarez commented that “these sessions are very valuable, and very much appreciated. We don’t need lobbyists if we can sit next to you at a table” and discuss our concerns.

Ware explained that the General Assembly is still in session. Medicaid expansion and judicial vacancies still need to be addressed by the legislators. He said that funds for the final phase of expansion of the Department of Corrections water tank was cut out of the budget. State revenues, Ware explained, are far less than anticipated. This is the first time that state income has declined in a non-recession year and the general consensus expects more of the same.

Farrell agreed that state revenues are “way down from expected levels” and anticipates more budget cuts and an increase in capital gains tax. He said that the General Assembly tapped its rainy day fund to minimize fiscal harm to local government. He said that the General Assembly will work on a “caboose bill” to investigate what actually happened with state expenditures and adjust accordingly. That could result in a new second year budget.

“Goochland,” observed Farrell “Is a well-run county whose citizens are very in tune with what’s going on locally.”
GOMM was the only media equivalent in attendance at the session.

Ware said that the opportunity to hear a variety of perspectives is very helpful. The meeting was attended by most elected and appointed officials, department heads and others.

Both Delegates concurred that Goochland is not shy about communicating with its representatives to state government in a timely and constructive manner.

County Attorney Norman Sales, the “keeper” of the county’s legislative agenda, guided the discussion to specific topics.
Sludge was at the top of the list. Sales pointed out that application of both sewage and industrial sludge on land in Goochland has been on the news. The county and citizens, he said, are greatly concerned about the long term effects of this practice on surface water, ground water, and aquifers. Sales contended that there is no indication that regulations currently in place are sufficient to protect the health, safety, and welfare of citizens. He expressed the need for the State Water Control Board to conduct a study on the storage and application of sewage and industrial sludge.

District 3 Supervisor Ned Creasey said that sludge application should be reflected in documentation of all land sales, so people know what they’re buying. He asked why, if sludge is so benign, it is spread so far away from its source.

Alvarez mentioned a television news report touting the safety of sludge while showing people applying it to fields wearing protective clothing.

Ken Peterson, District 5, said the state mandate on localities to impose expensive storm water regulations while at the same time it permits spreading sludge on farmland is a bewildering contradiction.

Bob Minnick, District 4, suggested that sludge be spread only on state land to eliminate exposure to the public.
Board vice Chair, Susan Lascolette, District 1, observed that if the state will not approve the option to ban sludge application, short of suing the EPA, giving localities the power to regulate its application would slow it down without legislation.
Farrell said that a “study would be prudent.”

The discussion turned next to transportation, which in Virginia means VDOT—the state agency whose motto is “Oops!”—and its reform. As VDOT has “huge interaction” with localities, eliminating waste would be a good first step.

Ware and Farrell said that past attempts to fix the massive state agency have met with limited success. Peterson wondered if you started from scratch to craft a road agency what would it look like versus what VDOT has become.

Ware offered to carry bills addressing specific elements of VDOT operations. He also explained that transportation revenue streams are not drying up as much as those that are income tax based.

Farrell said that some localities are willing to try taking over their own road maintenance, while others, like Goochland, would be overwhelmed by the task. Currently, Goochland is totally dependent on VDOT for road construction and maintenance.

The big item in this category is a less than half mile bridge over Tuckahoe Creek connecting Ridgefield Parkway in Henrico with Rt. 288. Goochland believes this bridge would reduce congestion on Broad Street Road, which will only get worse as the homes and businesses planned for the area come online. It would also spur construction of a hospital on the West Creek Emergency Center site.
Henrico contends that the bridge would raise traffic in residential areas to unacceptable levels. There are suspicions that Henrico’s refusal to even sanction a traffic study for the bridge is a “sour grapes” reaction to the location of Rt. 288 in Goochland instead on its turf.

Farrell, who represents both sides, said he will not put in legislation to force or oppose the bridge. “It’s wrong for me to take a position. I have a problem with a delegate stepping in to solve an inter county dispute.”

Peterson said the issue is a “monument to lack of regional cooperation” and that he would be happy to abide by the results of a comprehensive analysis of the issue by an impartial third party.

Alvarez, Peterson, and Minnick, who serve on regional boards, pointed out that Henrico has the power to table any discussion of the bridge regardless of Goochland’s objections.

“Goochland has no ability to tell Henrico not to develop land without adequate roads, but Henrico will not let us put in a safety valve to protect our citizens,” said Alvarez.

Ware volunteered to sponsor legislation allowing motorists to cross double yellow lines to pass bicycles without penalty.
Electoral Board secretary Robin Lind, who characterized the bridge discussion as a “gentle mugging,” thanked Ware for unsuccessfully sponsoring legislation concerning state funding of local registrars and elections and making political parties pick up the tab for primaries. (Democrats in the Petersburg area are to be congratulated for holding a “fire house primary” to select a candidate to replace Sen. Henry Marsh without government funding.)

The School Board thanked the delegates for their support in past years. A complete list of the schools’ legislative agenda is in the School Board agenda for July 22, 2014, which can be found under the School Board tab on the school website: www.glnd.k12.va.us. (A visit to this site is always a treat.)

In general, our educators want more local control. They also want the freedom to lease rather than purchase technology, which is not permitted under current laws.

School leaders contended that timing of tests; methods of rewarding excellence in teaching; and even the freedom to determine the number of hours needed for completion of classes and the opening day of school, should be established at the local level.

School Board Member John Lumpkins, Jr., District 3, said many arcane policies that have never been changed represent an old way of thinking about education. Virtual classes now allow students to progress at their own pace. Once a student has demonstrated mastery of say, Algebra I, they should be able, and encouraged, to move on to the next level.Ware, a retired teacher, and Farrell seemed to favor the intent of these initiatives.

These legislative meetings demonstrate the effectiveness of our local government. When everyone--elected officials, county and school staffs and state representatives—collaborate, good things happen.

If we could just lease a giant 3D printer to make a bridge…


Michael M. McDermott / "Uptown" Maidens, Virginia said...

Well done "media equivalent," Sandy! I thought our 2011 elections rid Goochland of sludge?

John D. Wright said...

Excellent write up as usual. I do feel the need to clarify a detail that got mired in the acronyms of education. The law allows schools to lease equipment (computers) as it sees fit, but the state's technology grants through the VA Public School Authority do not allow leasing of technology equipment. The VPSA provides schools with $130,000 of funding that must be used in very specific ways that no longer mimic common business practices. This request of the delegates would allow for more practical use of these funds.

S. E. Warwick said...

Thanks for the correction on the school matter. Thanks too for always seeking innovative and cost effective ways to pursue excellence.