Thursday, February 25, 2016

Drama free budget

The proposed Goochland County budget for fiscal year 2017, which starts July 1, was presented to the supervisors on February 22.

The budget, based on retention of the 53 cents per $100 of assessed valuation real property tax rate, is essentially flat from last year. Addition of a part-time employee in the Office of the Commissioner of the Revenue to handle DMV transactions, will be funded by DMV fees; a deputy to act as a resource officer for the high school/middle school complex; and several full time fire-rescue providers will be added to the county payroll.
Education is the largest spending category with $21,160,000 the proposed local transfer. This is a 4.4% increase over last year, more than requested in the proposed school budget.

County Administrator Rebecca Dickson explained that the proposed budget does not include funds for well and stream testing. Legislation pending in the General Assembly includes a study to by the United States Geological Service that might accomplish the same goal at the state’s expense. Other actions pending in Richmond, especially those concerning education, could change the budget numbers.

Before you hit the delete key on this post, please go to the county website and take a look at the proposed budget, right there on the left of the home page under “budget and capital improvement.”
The Goochland County budget has been recognized for excellence in past years, and is well worth a look. This well-crafted document contains much interesting information about Goochland County above and beyond the numbers.

The capital improvement plan, which itemizes big ticket spending five years out is there too. Capital improvements are infrastructure that cannot be paid for in an annual budget cycle like schools, fire-rescue apparatus, and public utilities.

The supervisors will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget in early April and vote to set tax and utility rates on April 18. Until the rates are set, adjustments are possible.

Town hall meetings scheduled for March are designed to discuss the budget and gather citizen feedback. All meetings begin at 7 p.m. The schedule is:

Districts 4&5 Wednesday March 9, Hermitage Country Club, 1248 Hermitage Road
Districts 2&3 Thursday March 17, Goochland Library 3075 River Road West, Courthouse Village.
District 1 Monday March 21, Byrd Elementary School, 2704 Hadensville-Fife Road.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Paying for schools

The Goochland School Board presented its proposed budget for fiscal year 2017, which begins on July 1, to the Board of Supervisors on February 22.
School Board Chair W. Kevin Hazzard, District 2, and Superintendent Dr. James Lane were eager to share details about how and why the school division spends its money. Both gentlemen expressed the gratitude of the schools for the fiscal support of the county. They explained that three strategic goals guide education expenditures: maintain or enhance innovative instructional programs; attract and retain quality teachers and staff; and enhance operational efficiency.

Instead of struggling to keep its head above water in a fragile economy, like other jurisdictions, Goochland Schools continue to soar to new heights, reaping accolades for excellence on an almost daily basis (Lane was recently named 2016 superintendent of the year for Region I and is a finalist for Virginia Superintendent of the year.)

(The full budget is posted online at under the school board tab. While you’re there, take a spin around the new website and prepared to be wowed.)

This school board is cognizant of its mandate to be good stewards of tax dollars. Hazzard explained that the school division crafted a strategic plan that guides all of its actions, “not just words on paper.” The school division’s primary goal wants Goochland to be the best school system in the region by 2020. Hazzard contended that excellent schools are a crucial component of a vibrant community and drive economic development.

The proposed school budget is based on a county contribution of $20,710,000, which represents an increase of 2.2 percent over the current fiscal year. This is the amount that County Administrator Rebecca Dickson communicated to school administration last fell. The total proposed budget, which includes state and federal revenues, is $29,960,806.

Hazzard said that the schools are extremely grateful that county school transfer has returned to 2009 levels. Dickson pointed out that although county revenues are increasing, they have not yet recovered to 2009 levels.
To be sure, contemporary public education is an expensive proposition. Transparency lets the supervisors and citizens know how every penny is spent. Hazzard and Lane made it very clear that they welcome questions from the supervisors and citizens about the school budget.

The presentation included some interesting take aways.
Personnel and technology are the two largest spending categories in the school budget.

Our school division is growing, especially in the eastern end of the county. As of December 31, 2015, the average daily membership was 2,501 with additional students added in January. Randolph Elementary School is coping with the most vigorous growth, resulting in the need for additional English as a second language (ESL) teachers. Lane explained that when the RES student body hits 600, state law requires that an assistant principal be added to staff, which translates into at least a six figure bump in the school budget.

Starting salaries are quite competitive, allowing Goochland to attract the brightest and best young teachers. When they have a few years’ experience, however, those teachers tend to leave. Lane said that, while salary is a consideration, exit interviews indicate that housing prices in Goochland are a detriment to retaining teachers for the long haul. He also said that teachers who grew up with technology are more comfortable using it as a teaching tool.

As presented, the proposed budget does not include any salary increases. A three percent salary boost to remain competitive with neighboring jurisdictions is an additional $675,500.
Escalating costs for retirement and health care benefits will continue to be a concern.

The schools are working on a request for proposals(RFP) to extend fiber from the high school to Byrd Elementary School. This activity is eligible for an approximately 80 percent discount through grants. Options to allow users between BES and GHS to connect and offset the remaining cost are being explored.

Perhaps the biggest “ask” of the night was a request made by Hazzard for the supervisors to appropriate the school budget in a lump sum rather than by category.
Hazzard explained that the days of the million dollar turn back at the end of the fiscal year are over. The lump sum appropriation would remove a cumbersome layer of administration.
Under current practice, any changes in the school budget require approval by both the school board and supervisors, which can take up to two months to complete.

For instance, if the school budget uses $2.50 per gallon of fuel and the actual cost turns out to be $1.50, both the school board and supervisors must approve using any excess in the fuel account for other purposes during the year in which it was appropriated.
Should the supervisors agree to the lump sum appropriation—no decisions on the matter were made—funds could be moved from one category to another administratively. Hazzard pointed out that the supervisors have approved every such request in the last four years. He asked that the lump sum method be used for a trial period during which all documentation and information supporting these decisions would be given to the supervisors. “We would like two years to prove we could do a good job,” said Hazzard.

The lump sum appropriation decision would be made at the start of the annual budget process. The amounts in question tend not to be large, explained Hazzard.
Debbie White, Director of Finance for the school division, said that the two month wait to approve fund transfers is an artificial block that prevents efficiency. The school budget, she said, is managed daily by line item. It will be interesting to see if the supervisors cede categorical oversight on the school budget.

The schools face other fiscal challenges from a variety of sources not counting the “elephants in the corner” of funding health and retirement benefits.

The cafeteria fund, which has been self-sustaining, may need supplementation next year. Lane explained that federal school lunches mandates made the food less appealing to students, so fewer participate. Most of the students who do eat at the cafeteria qualify for subsidized lunches, making the program more expensive.

A new bus route, bus, and driver has been added to cope with burgeoning student enrollment.

The budget may need to be revised later in the year when a clearer picture of state and federal funds is available.

The school budget is no longer “a bucket with a hole in the bottom” but instead a clear picture of how tax dollars are used.
An excellent educational system is a crucial part of a vibrant community that must be funded in a prudent and accountable manner. The commitment and collaboration of our school board and supervisors to spend tax dollars wisely and transparently is bearing sweet fruit.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Lending a hand

Goochland’s Board of Supervisors listened attentively to budget requests before their Tuesday, February 2 meeting. Since taking office in 2012, this board has used the budget process understand how tax dollars are spent in its quest for fiscally responsible government. The school division will present its budget request at a session starting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, February 16.

A modest increase in countywide real estate valuations means that the current 53 cent per $100 real estate tax rate will bring in more money than last year.
Funding core services, law enforcement, fire-rescue, schools, and services for those in need, is the focus of the county budget.

Although Goochland County is considered to be a “wealthy” jurisdiction, the numbers presented by the agencies that provide assistance to socially and economically challenged residents are sobering. (The packet is available in the supervisors’’ section of the county website under agendas for February 2, 9 a.m.)

These agencies include the Department of Social Services; Office of Children’s Services; Free Clinic and Family Services; Community Services Board; and the Chickahominy Health District. They deal with a wide array of issues including mental health; poverty; disability; hunger; and child neglect and abuse.

Kimberley Jefferson, Director of Social Services, said that the rising incidence of drug use, especially meth and heroine, is a problem that transcends socioeconomic boundaries. “You could be sitting next to a person using drugs and not know.”

The county is in dire need of local foster parents to shelter children who have been removed from their homes so they can stay in Goochland schools in order to have some continuity in their troubled lives. Foster placements outside the county are more expensive to administer, and more disruptive for children. Babies born to county residents with drugs in their systems also need fostering until a safe place, preferably with relatives, can be found.

Jefferson said that generational poverty and underemployment add to the demand for DSS services. She wants to work with the Chamber of Commerce and other economic development entities to determine what kind of skill sets employers coming to Goochland need. Jefferson said that she has access to funds to train people for specific jobs, but needs to know what skills are needed. “We have a pool of people and money for training, they need employees, let’s put the two together.”

DSS receives funds from many sources, which further complicates their delivery. Jefferson explained that it takes years for employees to learn to effectively navigate the layers of regulations that apply to all forms of public assistance. Dealing with an increasingly state computer system, created by IT people, with no input from those who implement policies is another challenge for DSS.

The Goochland-Powhatan Community Services Board supports people in Goochland and Powhatan Counties experiencing mental health, intellectual disability, and substance abuse problems. (See its website for details.)

As Director Susan Bergquist explained, the CSB tries provides preventative mental health care available to Goochland residents, regardless of their ability to pay, and provide fast referrals “on the front end” of a situation.
Bergquist said that the West Creek Emergency Center now processes psychiatric crisis events. Patients receive simultaneous medical and psychiatric evaluations in a non-threatening environment, which simplifies referral to a long term care facility. Finding beds in psychiatric facilities for those that need them in a timely manner is still a concern.

The Goochland Free Clinic and Family Service provides basic human services to people in need with everything from free dental care to emergency temporary housing. Its clients are those with household incomes well below the poverty level. Visit its website for details.

Although GFCFS is a private organization, the county supports their activities with the in-kind donation of space in the administration building and funding support for items including transportation, home repairs, and, beginning in the current year, a local match for a domestic violence program.

The Goochland Health Department inspects restaurants; issues permits for wells and septic tanks; provides clinical services including family planning, maternity, and communicable disease investigations. Its mission is to prevent, promote, and protect, said Dr. Franks of the Chickahominy Health District, which includes Goochland.

County Administrator Rebecca Dickson asked about bizarrely punitive inspection regulations for farmers markets. Franks said that the state pulled the policy and is redefining the way it views farmers markets. He contended that they are seeking a balance between allowing business to function and protecting the public from things like e coli and norovirus.

When asked about the possible negative health consequences of land application of biosolids, Franks pretty much spouted the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) party line saying that “science tells us it’s pretty much a nuisance factor” because of the odor. He said that the Health Department does not get involved in monitoring wells near the site of biosolids applications. In rare instances, they might suggest mitigation of greater buffers for someone with serious health issues living close to an application site.

These workshops present information about departmental budget requests to the Board of Supervisors. The County Administrator will present FY 2017 budget recommendations on February 22. The Board will vote on a budget and set the tax rates in April.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Mysteries of VDOT

Goochland, like most other jurisdictions in Virginia, relies on VDOT—the state agency whose motto is “Oops!—to build, repair, and maintain its roads. Our supervisors must engage in a complicated and cumbersome game of “Mother may I” to prioritize spending our meager allotment of road funds each year in the hope that something will actually be accomplished.

The bizarre road improvement process that created the Centerville Speedway when Broad Street Road was widened a few years back still boggles the mind.

After about a decade of public meetings, planning, and so on, all of which gobbled up lots of money better spent on bulldozers and asphalt than PR people, the final product included a corner whose turn radius could not accommodate tractor trailers. It also featured the peculiar concrete median that requires westbound travelers to execute a porcupine mating dance to access the Shell station. A VDOT official publicly admitted that engineers designing the southbound turn lanes from Broad Street to Manakin Roads used the wrong template. Aside from the aggravation, the do-over necessitated by the error consumed scarce funds that would have been better spent elsewhere.

Which brings us to a petty rant about an overreach on the part of some VDOT employees. (Yes, VDOT is getting a pass from GOMM on snow removal for January’s storm.)
A VDOT truck traveling on Fairground Road displaying a “lane closed do not pass sign” slowed traffic to an approximately five miles per hour crawl around 11:30 on the morning of Monday, February 8.

VDOT truck RO2745 drove slightly over the double yellow center line from just south of Maidens Road until it pulled off onto the turn lanes at the entrance to Breeze Hill, to ensure that no following vehicles dared peek ahead and pass. Meanwhile, southbound traffic whizzed merrily by the snaillike convoy led by truck RO2745.

There was evidence of any sort of road maintenance or other VDOT activity on the route that needed to be protected from freewheeling motorists. So why was truck RO2745 moving so slowly?
“Lisa” at VDOT customer service was courteous and recorded the relevant information about the incident. She even suggested that GOMM might be called back with an explanation. Three days have elapsed with no communication, so it would seem that VDOT decided that wasting the time of travelers—gas is cheap, after all—is not a big deal.

In all fairness, VDOT makes a valiant effort to plug potholes, cut grass, and pick up trash while essentially dodging traffic. Its employees should be protected from free-wheeling motorists. But, if there was some sort of work going on along Fairground Road, you’d think that the VDOT employees would be able to communicate with each other about when they were done.
However, the incident on Monday was either total lack of courtesy for travelers, or state employees killing time before lunch. Your tax dollars at work!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

February Board Highlights

At its regular monthly meeting on February 2, Goochland’s Board of Supervisors approved a rezoning for 10.75 acres in West Creek, south of Broad Street Road east of the entrance to the Notch from M-1(industrial, limited) to B-1(business, general.)

Construction of a four story hotel and neighborhood businesses, which could include a bank and restaurant, is anticipated. The “brand” of the expected hotel had not been determined said Thomas Pruitt, speaking on behalf of West Creek Associates XC, LLC. The hotel will enable Goochland to reap collateral economic benefits from soccer tournaments and other annual events that now go to Henrico. Pruitt said that a second access point to the Notch will be built before it is required by traffic counts. Timing of additional access roads depends on the rate of development.

Marshal Wynne of VDOT said that the road crews were hampered in their plowing efforts by the high winds and swift accumulations of snow from the January 22 and 23 storm. Ten trucks were stuck on Interstate 64 on Saturday, January 23in drifts up to four feet high and some broke down. Supplemental contractors were hired to complete the process. One thousand tons of salt and 1,500 tons of abrasives were spread on area roads, said Wynn.

D. E. “Eddie” Ferguson, Jr., Goochland Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief for EMS reported that fire and rescue crews worked diligently to respond to calls during the storm. All apparatus dispatched during the storm traveled with a four-wheel drive vehicle to assist with adverse conditions. Ferguson mentioned ingenuity of the responders who sometimes used Stokes Basket stretchers as sleds to transport patients from homes to ambulances waiting on the road.

Stokes Basket stretcher

Let’s hope we’ve had our big snowfall for the year.

County assessor Mary Ann Davis reported that the real estate valuation for calendar year 2015 was $4.53 billion, an increase of 4.3 percent, but still below the 2009 high of $4.72 billion. Statements of the 2015 assessment were mailed on January 15. Fair market values for property in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District (TCSD) rose 15.37 percent to $931 million, which is higher than indicated in third quarter projections. Land use assessments were up by 6.27 percent to $569 million.

The increase in TCSD values sparked a discussion about the use of higher than expected revenues going forward. John Wack, Deputy County Administrator for Finance, presented various options for disbursement of the increased revenues.

At the new values, the revenue generated by one cent of ad valorem tax seems to be $95 thousand dollars. Dropping this tax a penny or two may seem to be a minor adjustment, it has been a sore spot with homeowners in the TCSD. For a while, it seemed like the ad valorem tax was on an ever upward trajectory. After the TCSD debt was restructured the supervisors decided to keep it at the current 32 cent rate for the foreseeable future. The upward spike in revenues, however, reopened the discussion to reduce the tax.

Ken Peterson, District 5, who engineered the debt restructuring that pulled Goochland back from its own fiscal cliff, cautioned against spending what could be a short term windfall. He and Wack pointed out that while this year’s valuations were higher than expected, the TCSD debt service obligation increases 9 to 9.5 per cent per year for the next two years. Just to stay even the TCSD must have new growth of five percent per year.
This county painted itself into a pretty tight corner and we found a way out of it, now we’re looking at going back,” said Peterson. “We need $100 million increase very year to stay even with the growth of the debt obligation.”

Minnick said that there is pressure for the ad valorem tax to decline as commercial growth kicks in contributing to TCSD revenue. He expects pressure from property owners to reduce the ad valorem tax in the face of increased revenues. He advocated “drilling down into the numbers” further to make sure that the county has a good stable outlook to make sure that it makes sense to reduce the ad valorem tax.

Wack pointed out that the Board has time to consider its options, because, on March 2, they will vote to advertise the maximum tax rates, which could be reduced when adopted in April.
(To hear the complete discussion, go to the livestream tab on the county website listen toward the end of parts 2 and 3 for February 2.)