Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The bottom of the hill

Goochland County leaders have worked hard during difficult economic times to make sure that our local government lives within its means. They’ve held the tax rate steady, which, thanks to modest increases in assessed valuations, translates into a slight tax hike.

Thanks to careful budgeting and an efficient work force, the past few years have also resulted in budget surpluses. Some of the “leftovers” are tucked away for unforeseen expenses. The rest is used to fund items that didn’t make the budget.

The specter of “black swans” and unfunded mandates could change all that.

A “black swan” is a hard to predict event with widespread consequences, like the 2011 earthquake. Goochland suffered relatively little damage from that temblor. Had one of our schools been destroyed, as happened in Louisa County, the story could have been different.
Unfunded mandates, however, are more predictable and insidious. They follow the strategy for cooking a frog. (Put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly raise the heat. By the time the water is boiling, the frog will be trapped.)

Unfunded mandates roll down hill from at the state and federal level with the best of intentions, and we all know where that road leads.
The latest well-intended program rolling onto Goochland government from our dear friends at the General Assembly is the Virginia storm water management program. This seems to be the latest step in trying to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

No one is in favor of dirty water or polluted streams and rivers, but it is unclear if the new regulations will actually do much to improve water quality. What is quite evident is that the new rules will make development more expensive. They also require periodic inspection in perpetuity.
(A related initiative implemented by the state and administered by the Monacan Soil and Water Conservation District to build fencing to keep cattle out of streams. Funding assistance, up to 100 percent of the cost is available to eligible land owners. This program expires on June 30, 2015, so if you are interested, call 556-4936 now.)

Virginia implemented the storm water policy in 2014. As the initial details were murky, Goochland supervisors opted out of administering the program at the local level. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) handled the permitting process since then.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly clarified things somewhat and Goochland supervisors reluctantly decided to take local control of the program. Board Chair Susan Lascolette, District 1, and Ken Peterson, District 5 voted against the measure in April.

Various developers have asked the county to assume the burden of administering the program, because working through the DEQ was cumbersome and time consuming.
The supervisors learned about this first hand. It seems that at least a portion of the additional cost—up to $200,000--of the new Hadensville fire-rescue station is directly attributable to delays caused by working through DEQ for storm water permits.
At their June meeting, the supervisors adopted a storm water management fee schedule, which is the same as that used by DEQ. The net cost of administering the program to issue permits associated with new construction activity will be greater than the fees Goochland collects. As the number of sites that need monitoring increases over time, the cost will escalate, as will the number of county employees needed to do the work. No fees will be levied for maintenance.

Peterson, who abstained on the vote adopting the fee schedule, said he remained “unconvinced that this is in the long term interest of Goochland County.”

Lascolette said she “does not like the program and don’t like us doing it, but we’ve got to pay for it. Ned Creasey, District 3, also expressed reservations about taking over local control of the program, but joined Lascolette, Bob Minnick, District 4, and Manuel Alvarez, Jr., District 2 in voting to adopt the fee schedule.

Monacan Soil and Water District Commissioner Jonathan Lyle dubbed the storm water issue a “poster child” for smaller government.

At the same time that the state is imposing these new rules to control runoff, it is issuing permits for application of bio solids on farmland. While that practice is supposedly monitored carefully, there have been no definitive studies to determine if substances like heavy metals, which may be present in sewage and industrial sludge accumulate over time.

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