The Warren County Board of Supervisors met for a work session on February 23, 2021, to review and discuss ongoing work by county departments to forecast funding needs and scheduled projects in the offing in an uncertain funding climate. Newly appointed Fire Chief James Bonzano and Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico provided the supervisors with a FEMA grant program the department has been using called Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER. According to FEMA, SAFER grants fund fire departments and volunteer firefighter interest organizations directly to help them increase capacity in their communities. The 2020 request will close March 12 and will require the Supervisors to decide before then how to allocate between $965,000 and nearly $2 million among the fire stations should the grant at the maximum level be approved. The 2020-21 budget for the entire Fire & rescue department is $3.1 million.
Ed Carter of VDOT provided an update of the Happy Creek Phase IV improvement project that was originally planned to require a road closure from June 14 to July 30 to coincide with school summer break. He explained that this project is intended to improve the roadway by eliminating some curves, hills, and blind spots.
The project has already been bid, and the bid was substantially lower than originally estimated, based on the projected closure of Happy Creek Road, giving the contractor unobstructed access to the site without having to maintain public access to the road during construction, which is planned to be completed in December.
The road closure will extend from Leach Run Parkway to Dismal Hollow Road. The reason for the possible extension is that since the project requires temporary relocation of utility lines and the Norfolk Southern Railroad must issue permits for that to happen on their right-of-way, Rural Electric Cooperative and Comcast must submit requests for the permits.
The permits were not requested as soon as they should have been, and it may not be possible to have those permits in hand prior to the scheduled construction start. In that event, Mr. Carter indicated that there may be a necessity for a two-week extension of the temporary closure. VDOT and the Town will coordinate with the school district to develop a plan if the extension of the road closure becomes necessary. Access to both Shenandoah Shores Road and Loop Road will be continued during the closure, and provision will be made for emergency vehicles.
The School District representative, Aaron Mitchell, indicated it was a challenge to plan a reroute to accommodate the closure, then revert to a normal route within two weeks. It would be particularly hard on parents.
The closure extension may not be necessary, but if it is not possible to work out a plan for the closure, Mr. Carter indicated that the project could be pushed to next year.
VDOT will undertake to have a discussion with the school superintendent this week.
Residents of Happy Creek Road will be vitally interested in progress towards a solution as the start of this improvement project nears.
Rezoning requests and conditional use permits top County Planning Commission agenda
The Warren County Planning Commission met Wednesday April 14th, still one commissioner shy of a full board since the resignation of Crystal Beall of the South River Magisterial District. Social distancing requirements still in effect mean that both commissioners and audience are somewhat spread out, but what they lacked in density, they made up for in activity. Chairman Robert Myers dispensed quickly with agenda approval and minutes before the work of public hearings began. There were twelve public hearings in a row for citizen input on pending business before the commission.
Michael and Barbara Olsen have requested a rezoning of a property off High Top Road in the Shenandoah Magisterial District from Residential (R-1) to Agricultural. The property is in a conservation easement created in 2012. Planning Director and Deputy County Administrator Taryn Logan provided an overview of the application. The applicants have stated their intent is to erect a structure and a residence, then to grow and sell trees on the property. There were no citizen comments, so the Commission unanimously approved the motion to recommend approval by the Board of Supervisors. As always, a County Supervisors action includes an additional public hearing.
Kevin and Shauneen Melton have made a request for a conditional use permit for a short-term tourist rental for their residential property at 186 Reid Drive in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. The Meltons live in Washington D.C., and are experienced hosts for tourist rentals. They have submitted a property management plan and identified a local manager who lives 3 minutes away from the property. There were no citizen comments about the application and the Commission voted unanimously to forward it to the Board of Supervisors with a recommendation of approval.
Raymond Ditto has requested a conditional use permit for a short-term tourist rental for his residential property at 461 Thunderbird Road in the South River Magisterial District.
Due to the age of the property, The Department of Health has not yet determined the allowable occupancy for the use, so a final determination or recommendation cannot be made until next month. One citizen, Edwin Wright, addressed the commission regarding this request, and he outlined the benefits of allowing short-term tourist rentals for the community. In his experience, property values are improved rather than degraded because the rentals must be strictly controlled and maintained to attract business and the standards for that category of lodging are extremely high.
The planning staff recommended tabling the application until the occupancy determination has been made. The commission then unanimously agreed to table it.
John and Anna Carpenter have Requested a conditional use permit for short-term tourist rental for their residential property at 703 Kildare Drive in the Shenandoah magisterial district. The Carpenters reside in Williamsburg, Virginia, and purchased the property as a second home in 2018. The property is in the Sligo Estates subdivision. The Sligo Estates Citizen’s Association submitted a letter to the commission opposing the application and citing safety and security concerns. The letter asserted that there had been problems in the past with noise, safety, fires, and trespassing, but no specifics were cited, and the complaints were not related to this property. A citizen letter alleged that the use of the property as a tourist rental was prohibited by the protective covenants. The chairman pointed out that subdivision covenants are not enforceable by the county but must be civilly litigated by the association. The public hearing was opened and the reason for the larger-than-usual attendance became clear. Seven residents had signed up to address the commission on this application. All of those opposed had related complaints – concerns for strangers in the neighborhood, safety on the roads, the possibility of noisy activities such as bonfires, shooting, or fireworks, and general disturbance of an established neighborhood.
Once the public hearing was closed, the chairman reminded the attendees that The Virginia Legislature has explicitly stated that short-term tourist rental is not a commercial activity. Vice Chairman Hugh Henry also stated that activity is much more restrictive than longer-term rental, which is a use by right for residential property owners. Should a property owner decide to rent their residence long-term and the renters turn out to be problematic, it is a much greater problem than weekend visitors. There are no other permitted short-term tourist rentals in the Sligo Estates Subdivision, so approval of one could create a precedent. After some discussion, the Commission unanimously approved forwarding the request to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.
Two conditional use permit requests from Front Royal Self Storage, LLC were presented for a facility at 8897 Winchester Road in the North River Magisterial District for the construction of a climate controlled 39,000 sq Ft building and 38,000 Sq ft of drive-up storage, as well as a car, boat, and RV storage area at the back of that lot. Representative for the applicant Ed Murphy provided a brief overview of the project, which would proceed in phases, depending on the business. Future expansion could eventually increase the total square footage of storage to 125,000. The property is zoned commercial and lies within the 340/522 overlay district which has architectural, landscape, and overall appearance requirements that must be met. There were no citizen speakers regarding the project and the commissioners unanimously approved forwarding the requests to the Board of Supervisors with a recommendation for final approval.
Jacob Foltz has requested a conditional use permit for a commercial repair garage on his property at 288 Durham Drive in the Fork Magisterial District. The applicant runs a mobile forklift repair business, and occasionally projects need to be brought back to the shop for additional work. The planning department has outlined the requirements for the facility, and the repair shop is a permitted use in an Agricultural District. The shop will permit inside storage of materials and vehicles, help with the appearance of the area, and there will be no customer hours.
One adjacent resident spoke to the commission, not so much asking for outright denial of the request, but asking for conditions for its approval. He indicated that debris from the site could blow over onto his property, and the noise and visual appearance could be improved by the applicant by using a screening tree line, as well as fencing.
Another citizen, Leonard Cameron, briefly addressed the commission by urging approval of the request by commending the applicant as “good people”.
The commission then unanimously approved a motion to recommend approval by the Board of Supervisors.
The commission then reviewed a series of four applications by Frank O’Reilly for short-term tourist rentals for residential properties in the Shenandoah Magisterial district, at 187, 261, and 315 Old Barn Lane, and 2973 Shenandoah Shores Road. There was no public comment on any of them, so the commission unanimously voted to approve the applications to be forwarded to the Board of Supervisors.
Finally, George Lombardi has applied for a conditional use permit for private camping on a residential lot he owns on Harris Drive in the Shenandoah Magisterial District. He intends to use it for fishing and tent camping and to place a shed on the lot for storage of tools and equipment. The shed will require a building permit and flood venting if the conditional use permit is approved. Since the property is in Flood Zone AE and the floodway, an emergency egress plan must also be in place. The commission voted unanimously to forward the permit request to the Board of Supervisors with a recommendation for approval.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:45 p.m.
Council work session proceeds thru credit card fee debate, Spelunkers rezoning, facilitating property cleanups & water-sewer line repairs
As the Front Royal Town Council came out of its work session-opening closed session shortly after 8 p.m. Monday night, those of us following virtually online were met by silence over what appeared to be the next three agenda items. A quick call to Town IT and Communications Director Todd Jones led to an eventual re-booting of the SWAGIT recording/streaming system, restoring sound just in time to hear discussion of agenda item “5” – the Spelunkers rezoning request to facilitate turning two lots of just under half an acre across Pine Street into staff parking and restaurant cold storage space.
While there were questions about delivery trucks and lighting, the Spelunkers/116 South Street LLC representative present appeared to satisfy council concerns. William Antonelli said deliveries would be made in the existing restaurant lot and run physically across the street to cold storage and meat processing stations placed in the two involved lots. Lighting would be facilitated according to code requirements, he added. A follow-up question by Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell on impacts on residential neighbors led to a response they would be “very minimal” – “There’s not going to be a lot of noise, not a lot of traffic,” it was asserted. The council consensus was positive, and it was agreed do move the request, which the town planning commission recommended approval of, to public hearing.
Next was Town Police Chief Kahle Magalis’s annual report on departmental functions, staffing, crime and response trends, and community relations. The latter included the chief noting an absence in recent years of neighborhood initiatives toward “Neighborhood Watch” programs, which he explained must be initiated from within neighborhoods, rather than by the police department.
Following the FRPD and crime update, the evening’s most debated topic was reached.
About those credit card fees
That topic was exploration of removing the fees the Town charges for processing of credit card payments on utility or other bills.
The staff summary presented by Finance Director B. J. Wilson noted that eliminating the fees would require the town government to absorb an approximate $140,000-plus annual expense on credit card payment processing in the coming Fiscal Year-2022 budget. One way put forward to accomplish that brought up in Monday’s discussion was tacking a $1.77 monthly fee on to all utility payments regardless of how they are paid, including cash and checks.
That plan did not sit well with the vice mayor. Cockrell said she would not support such a charge, forcing citizens who do not incur credit card fees to support those who do incur the fees with credit card use.
However, Letasha Thompson presented the counter-side’s argument that waiving the fees would stimulate more town citizens without the cash on hand to pay their bills to pay them on time with credit cards if the fee were waived. Other positives cited in a staff summary included facilitating the Town achieving lower “merchant services” fees; a $12,000 reduction in associate annual software expenses; making future software conversions easier and more accessible to citizens and vendors, among other tech and perception issues.
The Finance Department staff summary noted that approximately 26% of the Town’s utility payments and only 3% of tax payments are made with credit cards. Over the course of calendar year 2020 that equated to 22,349 credit card utility payments out of a total of 86,338 utility payments made, or the 26% figure.
The proposed $1.77 per monthly utility account surcharge was explained as covering projected credit card processing costs in FY-22 if the 30% increase seen last year continued in the coming year, leading to a jump in the Town’s annual processing fees from $130,000 to $180,000. At $1.77 monthly, for the year all utility customers would be paying $21.24 to cover the waived fees if council chooses to move in that direction.
Councilman Scott Lloyd observed that the 25% who use credit cards are likely to think it’s a good idea, while the 75% who don’t, won’t see it that way. “Why fix something when it’s not broken,” Lloyd asked his colleagues. But as Thompson verbalized earlier, the rationale for waiving the fees is envisioned as an incentive to encourage more citizens short of cash when their utility or other Town bills are due to utilize credit to keep those bills current and avoid penalties and interest accumulations.
“It’s under two dollars a month,” Thompson pointed out, and she could have added “under $22 a year” to try and reduce the number of delinquent utility accounts through credit card use. Of course, there was no comment indicating any research on how many citizens whose utility accounts went significantly delinquent last year, may have access to credit cards.
However, the variables of lowering vendor fees and software upgrade costs appeared a more stable projection in the staff summary. That summary also observed that the Town currently has 8,481 active utility accounts and $30,814,005 in utility sales are projected in the FY-22 Proposed Budget.
Despite the wide gap in varying council perspectives, it was agreed to move the proposal to a future agenda. Gary Gillespie drew some laughter when he observed that it would not be part of the Consent Agenda for routine business. Rather, it will move to what may be a somewhat contentious public hearing in front of a divided council on the issue.
As for those earlier agenda items we could see being discussed but not hear, with the help of Deputy Council Clerk Mary Ellen Lynn we were able to ascertain that council agreed to move forward toward facilitating a Water/Sewer Line Replacement Program that would assist property owners in replacing “old galvanized water lines” running from the Town utility system onto private property, though not internal to a structure’s plumbing, that could present a public health problem if the lines were allowed to fail and lead into the ground. Payback plans would be a part of the program designed to get needed repairs done in a timely manner in situations where the property owner could not afford the upfront costs.
Council got an update from Finance Director Wilson on moving forward with the Happy Creek Sanitary Sewer Replacement Project that has been mandated by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Project cost is estimated at $1 million. The possibility of piggy-backing that cost into an Inflow & Infiltration Abatement Loan expected to close later this year or early in 2022 is under consideration. It was noted that pending that loan closing, the Town would have to amendment its current FY-21 Budget to allow funding of the work through Sewer Reserve Funds. That is necessary because of the timeframe mandated by the DEQ Consent Order on the work. A public hearing would be required because the budget amendment would exceed one-percent of the adopted FY-21 Budget.
Council also quickly moved another item to the April 26 meeting agenda. That item was approval of a resolution initiating amendments to two code chapters, 148 and 175. According to the staff summary Chapter 148 applies to “regulations of the Town’s Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance” and Chapter 175 to the “Town Subdivision Ordinance Pertaining to the Permitting and Approval Authority of the Planning Commission”. Following an April 7 work session, the plan is to approve the resolution and send it to the town planning commission “for recommendation of Chapter 149 and Chapter 175 ordinance amendments, then returned to council for final approval. The amendments appear to relate to council’s recent request the planning commission recommend approval of an easing of some codes as they apply to apartment development in the Historic Downtown Business District.
After hearing from Deputy Zoning Administrator/Code Enforcement Officer Chris Brock, council also agreed to move to public hearing on a code amendment regarding allowing the town manager to have a “designee” authorized to move a 10-day notice process forward regarding compliance with Town Code 170-3 mandates on cleaning up “trash, garbage, refuse, litter, debris (including weeds, bushes) and other substances” from properties as a public health and safety measure. Failure to correct such situations within the prescribed timeframe upon notice can result in liens on properties and civil fines of $50 for first offenses, and $100 for subsequent offenses up to $3,000 in a 12-month period.
It would seem the Town is finally prepared to move forward on forcing property owners hands in cleaning the town up in some regards – now, about those dilapidated structures and deteriorating rental properties…
Council quickly approves VDOT road maintenance funding resolution before adjourning to work session and closed session
A Special Meeting of the Front Royal Town Council to approve a Resolution requesting that Leach Run Parkway be added to the list of Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) roads eligible for “street maintenance payments” was convened and adjourned within three minutes of its 7 p.m. start Monday evening, April 12. The motion to approve the Resolution by Vice-Mayor Lori Cockrell, seconded by Gary Gillespie, passed by a 5-0 voice vote, with Letasha Thompson absent.
The staff summary noted the signed resolution needed to be submitted by April 26 to qualify for the State street repair payments this year. – “Once this has been submitted and accepted by the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Town will receive this funding each year,” the agenda packet item cover sheet stated. A figure of $68,000 was mentioned, leading once councilman to comment of the ensuing silence, “Should we hold out for more?” leading to some laughter.
That business taken care of and the Special Meeting adjourned, council convened its scheduled 12-item work session which quickly adjourned to closed session to discuss four items, including a “specific” personnel matter and a “specific” legal matter, neither of which were specified, respectively, as to department or general topic of legal consideration. Somewhat more detail was specified in the final two closed session items.
The first of those related to “investment of public funds where competition or bargaining is involved” was specified to “a medical practice located in Town (capitalization in context), under subsection A. 6.”
The second regarding legal advice, “… specifically, the legalities and potential legal liability exposures of the Town regarding its Town-owned (Town Commons) pursuant to Va. Code Section 2.2-3711. A. 8.”
There was no action taken on any of those matters out of closed session, specified or unspecified, as the Special Meeting had been adjourned and action cannot be taken at a work session.
See a report on the subsequent open work session in a related story “Council work session proceeds thru credit card fee debate, Spelunkers rezoning, facilitating property cleanups & water-sewer line repairs”
Zoning Ordinance Changes and Comprehensive Plan rewrite considered at Town Planning Commission Work Session
The Front Royal Planning Commission met April 7 for a work session to discuss several items left over from their March 17th meeting. Town Manager Steven Hicks was asked to take the opportunity to brief the commissioners on the strategy for the rewrite of the Town’s Comprehensive plan, which is badly outdated, having been last written and adopted in 1988. The Code of Virginia requires every governing body to develop a comprehensive plan and to review it for potential amendments every 5 years.
Now former Planning Director Tim Wilson had recommended to the commission that it ask the Town Council to fund the plan rewrite in its 2022 Budget, which it has now done. Town Manager Hicks provided a background briefing on the purposes of the Comprehensive Plan and a proposed timeline with milestones for completion. There will be several opportunities to provide public input to the plan during the preparation and drafting during late 2021 and early 2022, and the commissioners were united in their desire to see as much public input as possible. Under the proposed timeline, public input will begin with a Joint Town Council/Planning Commission meeting to adopt vision, goals, and objectives in December 2021, and continue through December 2022 with Public Forums, Hearings, and final adoption. The Comprehensive Plan’s companion document is the Zoning Ordinance and Map, which will be jointly developed with the plan.
The Chairman then turned to the first left-over item from its March 17 meeting. Council has asked the Planning Commission to weigh in on proposed ordinance changes to the Front Royal Town Code covering Abatement of Blighted buildings. It is not difficult to find buildings in the town that have been allowed to fall into disrepair, and the means to mitigate the situation has historically been a balancing act for town officials as they attempt to induce property owners to keep their buildings safe and attractive. Virginia law grants municipalities the authority to declare properties as blighted and to take action to remove the blight, but it is a complex process and time consuming.
Many properties that could be cited under the Blighted Buildings ordinance are on nonconforming lots, so owners are restricted from improving the building so long as it violates current zoning restrictions. In some cases, the current ordinance restricts the cost of repairs to the property, which acts as a disincentive to owners to improve them legally. The Town Council wants to make it as easy as possible to bring properties into compliance with the law. The commission requested that the planning staff provide a redline version of the proposed ordinance to reflect changes since the last review for the next regular commission meeting.
A text amendment to the Planning section of the Front Royal Town Code was tabled by the Commission at the last meeting to allow for discussion at a work session. The genesis of the proposed amendment was a resolution from the town council in February that directed the planning department to prepare an ordinance amendment for a public hearing and a Planning Commission recommendation for approval by the Town Council. The amended ordinance mainly rescinds or loosens some restrictions on developing apartments in the Downtown Commercial District (C-2). The commissioners agreed that the proposed amendment might have unintended consequences by applying exemptions too broadly, and agreed to strike – temporarily, at least – a provision that created an exception to the supplementary regulations in section 175-113 related to lot sizes, building height, and parking, for apartment development in that entire district, which runs from Jackson Street on the south, to E. 4th St on the north. Commissioners felt that a future, smaller exemption covering East Main Street and Chester Streets might be more appropriate. The amended proposal can now be acted on by the Commission at its next meeting.
The remaining changes include:
- adding text to the ordinance section 175-47(A) that limits conversion of existing residential and/or commercial structures to a maximum of eight total dwelling units.
- Removing text in section 175-48(A) that permits conversions only in buildings constructed after January 1, 1999.
- Removing text in Section 175-49(A) that imposes a requirement for an additional 1,000 square feet of lot area for each dwelling unit in excess of 1.
After history lessons – Ouch, that must have hurt! – supervisors scrutinize budget details
After getting a couple of history lessons, first from Richard Hoover on the breadth and depth of Warren County’s place front and center of American History from the Revolutionary War for independence from the British Empire, on through the Civil War that asserted federal authority to end states’ rights to continue the institution of slavery, to the mid-20th century-to-present-day fight for civil rights and racial equality; and then from David Downes on the 2005 Congressional declaration of April 6th as “National Tartan Day” in honor of the Scot and Scot-Irish immigrant contributions to American culture, the Warren County Board of Supervisors got down to business as a public hearing on the Fiscal Year-2022 Budget approaches.
That FY-22 Budget Public Hearing was set for Thursday, April 15, at 7 p.m. A special meeting to vote on approval of the FY-22 county budget, as promised without any tax increases, was set for Tuesday, April 27, also at 7 p.m.
But one other agenda item addition also prefaced that budget process scrutiny. That was Warren County Department of Social Services Director Jon Martz introduction of his staff as part of a request the County acknowledge by proclamation April as Child Abuse Prevention Month. For it is that DSS staff that works to, among other duties, identify and stop child abuse in our community.
Referencing her work in nursing, County Board Chair Cheryl Cullers commented on the emotionally taxing job of dealing with child abuse: “I just want to thank you all, you guys have a horribly difficult job – I don’t know how you do it, to go out and see the things you see. I remember when I first got out of nursing school and was working, I had two children under the age of 12 months (abused) … It broke my heart. I don’t know anybody can harm any child, any child but especially babies. You have a horribly hard job and I appreciate every one of you … Thank you all very much,” Cullers concluded leading to applause from those present for the emotionally draining, sometimes life-and-death work they do for the community and its children.
After other reports it was down to budget business. Among that business was authorization to advertise for Public Hearing an FY-22 Warren County budget of $124,614,829 – there must have been some late cuts to the $126,592,012 work session total presented March 20, further assuring there will be no tax increases tied to this budget. But if no tax hikes were a sure thing, not so on some departmental and school board requests.
About those Ford Explorer SUVs
First under the microscope was County Building Official David Beahm’s departmental vehicle request for a 2021 Ford Explorer through a State Purchase Contract at a price of $30,320.82. The agenda packet staff summary noted “the vehicle will be used by the office to perform daily job assignments which include site inspections, emergency calls, site investigations, meeting and other duties.”
Questioned about the type of vehicle, Beahm traced the department’s history with a pickup trucks, including extended cab models, which ultimately proved counterproductive to the type of space suited to departmental needs and protection of code books and other materials carried to jobs.
Responding to a price comparison question from Chairman Cullers, Beahm acknowledged a $2,000 cheaper price for a “Colorado” model SUV. However, Beahm pointed to 3 miles less per gallon that the Colorado gets compared to the Explorer. It had been calculated with the average annual mileage racked up by the department that equated to a loss of $500 per year in fuel expenses, which Beahm pointed out made the additional $2,000 spent to purchase the Explorer a moot point after 4 years.
While money could be saved buying used vehicles, depending on how used that would take some years off the length of service to the department. Interim County Administrator Ed Daley pointed out that the quoted price for a new model SUV of Explorer quality through the State contract was a good price. Daley also noted that various dealerships periodically offered “significant savings” incentives to switch to their models, making brand variables vary from year to year. Questioned about the dominant make of County-purchased vehicles, including the sheriff’s office, Daley said he believed it was Dodge.
After 21 minutes of grilling, on a motion by Delores Oates, seconded by Archie Fox, the purchase request was approved unanimously.
Next up was the same vehicle purchase request at the same price by the Planning Department, also through the State purchase contract. With the logistical questions around why this model at this price having been answered over the previous 21 minutes, Deputy County Administrator/Planning Director Taryn Logan saw the planning department’s request approved after a five minute Q&A.
School Surplus funding request
Also in the board’s budget cross hairs Tuesday was Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Chris Ballenger. Ballenger was present to answer questions about the schools budget, particularly the recent request that $2.38 million in FY-20 school system surplus funding be appropriated to the public schools FY-22 budget on three fronts. As the staff agenda summary noted, those fronts are the School Capital Improvement Fund ($1 million); the School Transportation Fund ($1 million); and the School Textbook Fund ($380,365).
Discussion by North River Supervisor Oates and Chairman Cullers indicated a desire to keep the surplus funding under direct control of the supervisors until specific requests for portions of it to specific uses as cited in the budget request were made by the school board. Acknowledging the board’s desire to dole out money for specific capital improvements and school bus purchases, Interim County Administrator Ed Daley expressed some confusion on the intent with the School Book Fund disbursement.
“You don’t want them to say, ‘We want to purchase this book or this book’?” Daley asked of board oversight of specific textbook purchases.
“No, we’re not getting into the selection of curriculum – we’re just making sure the funds are available when needed,” Cullers replied.
“Because they had requested the $380k to go to the School Textbook Fund directly for the textbooks, we’re kind of duplicating on that part if we set up a County Textbook Fund … if all you want to know is that it goes to textbooks because they can’t use it for anything other than textbooks,” Daley said of the process as applied to textbook purchases versus transportation or capital improvement funds that have myriad aspects to them.
“Basically what we’re doing is setting up a savings account for you – the money’s going to be there, and it’s assured to be there. I would think it’s kind of a win-win because you know you’ve got this, set off to the side and it’s not inadvertently on your side to be a temptation to pull from,” Cullers told the schools superintendent in his first year on the job here.
After another approximate 20-minute conversation on the appropriation dynamics of the surplus funding transfer, on a motion by Oates, seconded by Walt Mabe, the board unanimously approved the use of the $2.38 million by the school system as represented, without yet appropriating the money to the direct control of the school board.
That there were questions about past school budget appropriations and expenditures was illustrated in one page of the budget packet containing an April 5 email from Ballenger responding to a question raised by Chairman Cullers, apparently at a joint supervisors-school board budget work session. That question revolved around a current FY-21 appropriation to hike staff salary scales for teachers, Instructional Assistants and Nurses that did not reach the “IA’s or nurses. It might be noted that Cullers is a retired school system nurse.
After prefacing his explanation by welcoming the supervisors support and due diligence in exploring submitted budgets, Ballenger wrote, “Mrs. Cullers was correct in stating that the Board of Supervisors (BOS) gave Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) funds this year to help correct the IA and Nurse salary scales, as well as the teacher scale. The reason WCPS did not address the IA and Nurses scales this year was that WCPS was projected to receive a reduction in state funding.”
Ballenger continued to explain that after the FY-21 budget was approved the school board had received the news of “a hold back on state sales tax and to expect a reduction in overall state funding.” While not specified, that reduction was likely related to projected declines in state sales tax revenues related to the COVID-19 pandemic emergency responses limiting business activities due to social distancing parameters and executive orders in that regard.
“Since the majority of projected new revenue were state funds, we were not able to address all three salary scales,” Ballenger continued, adding, “Therefore, when going into this school year with the expectation of a revenue loss, WCPS decided to hold back the other adjustments to ensure that funding was available to make it through the school year.” Ballenger added that “In hindsight” the held salary scale funds had not been necessary to balance the budget but had been considered a necessary precaution to avoid a repeat of shortfalls experienced in 2009.
And so the Fiscal Year-2022 Warren County Budget process proceeds towards its April conclusion – without any tax increases, if with some pointed scrutiny of its own departments’ and the School Board’s shares of that $124.6 million dollar budget.
Judge rules Town Charter Section 47 does not prohibit council appointments for one year
It appears that Jacob Meza will be allowed to retain his appointed seat on the Front Royal Town Council following a Wednesday morning, April 7, ruling by Warren County Circuit Court Judge William Sharp. Following 40 minutes of oral arguments in support of and opposition to the defense filing Sharp granted defendant Meza and the Town’s Demurrer motion for dismissal of plaintiff Paul Aldrich’s Complaint for Declaratory Judgement against Meza’s appointment.
That complaint was based on the contention that Town Charter Section 47 prohibits “appointment” or “election” of members of council for one year after their term in office expires. However, the court ruled Section 47 applied only to paid staff appointments, not council member appointments.
The plaintiff was given five days to file a motion for reconsideration of the court’s ruling, the defense seven days to respond to that filing.
During oral arguments by plaintiff counsel David Downes and defense attorney Heather Bardot, Judge Sharpe raised the issue of Section 47 wording that would seem to raise the issue of council members not being able to run for reelection for a year after their four-year term expired. Sharpe said it seemed clear that the Town Charter’s intent, dating to its 1937 adoption, was not to prevent council members from running for re-election for a year. So, the court sided with Bardot’s stance for the defense that Sections 6 and 9 of the Charter were the applicable sections on council appointments, rather than Section 47.
“No member of the council of the Town of Front Royal shall be appointed or elected to any office under the jurisdiction of the council while he is a member of the council, or for one year thereafter,” the relevant Section 47 passage reads, continuing to note for an unexplained reason an exception for the position of Town Treasurer.
In her Demurrer filing for dismissal, Bardot pointed to Section 6D and related wording on filling council vacancies, such as the one created by Councilman Chris Holloway’s November 2020 election to mayor. “The council may fill any vacancy that occurs within the membership of council for the unexpired term, provided that such vacancy is taken within 45 days of the office becoming vacant,” Section 6D states. No reference to a one-year hiatus per appointment is made here, Bardot noted.
Only the court’s authority to make the appointment were council to deadlock and be unable to fill the seat within the prescribed 45 days, is acknowledged. Meza’s appointment was made January 4, four days after Holloway relinquished his council seat to become mayor and four days after Meza, who did not run for re-election after a controversial final year in office related to his Valley Health employment, vacated his seat.
During the 40-minutes of oral arguments in support of their written filings on the defense Demurrer, Bardot had also argued for dismissal on jurisdictional and constitutional grounds. Jurisdictionally, she cited undue court influence on legislative matters already accomplished.
“In the context of a declaratory judgment, that means there must be specific adverse claims, based on present rather than future or speculative facts … When there is no actual controversy courts do not have jurisdiction to issue declaratory judgments because ‘the rendering of advisory opinions is not part of the function of the judiciary’,” Bardot wrote in her Demurrer filing. She asserted the plaintiff’s claims of potential damages as a town citizen from an allegedly illegally appointed Meza’s votes on budgetary or other matters, as well as his application among five others for Holloway’s vacant seat did not reach the necessary specificity to involve the court.
“What other remedy is available if not the court to rule that the Town has not upheld its own rules,” Downes asked the court of the jurisdictional issue. While the defense took the day, as explained below it appeared Downes won on this one.
On the Constitutionality issue, Bardot asserted that the above-referenced exception to a council member’s appointment as Treasurer in Charter Section 47 has been illustrated by other case histories to violate the Virginia Constitution. So, she reasoned as a legally challengeable Charter Section it should not be the one to hold sway in this case.
Following a 20-minute adjournment to consider the arguments in support of the plaintiff and defense filings on the defense Demurrer motion for dismissal, Judge Sharpe reentered the court at 10 a.m. to make his ruling. He began by noting that while court authority regarding the legislative branch should be viewed in the “narrowest possible grounds” that he believed in this case he could “provide some guidance on actions and the legitimacy of those actions” by the town’s elected officials.
That said, he sustained the defense motion on the grounds that Town Charter Sections 6 and 9 controlled the appointment issue “without resort to Section 47” as noted above. Of the 1937 Town Charter and Section 47 specifically, Judge Sharp observed, “It predates all of us, it’s been there a long time … it has never been understood to interpret that councilmen can’t run again for re-election” which he observed were it to be applied to council member appointments, it “could be interpreted that way”.
One successive term limit – now there’s an interesting municipal concept had Section 47’s somewhat jangled wording been taken literally over the past 84 years.