FRONT ROYAL — After a discussion on the merits of using staff versus an executive “headhunting” firm in the search for a new town manager, the Front Royal Town Council reached a 3-2 majority consensus at Tuesday evening’s work session to use a familiar consultant, Springsted, Inc., for the task.
Jacob Meza, John Connolly and Bébhinn Egger favored taking the consultant path, with Eugene Tewalt and Bill Sealock preferring an internally-directed search through the Human Resources Department.
Front Royal Director of Human Resources Julie Bush was at the meeting and said she would be happy to perform the task of advertising for applicants, and following through on the steps needed to provide the council with a strong pool of candidates from which to pick.
Interim Town Manager Joe Waltz stressed that while his staff was capable and competent of conducting the search, he cited the timeliness factor, as compared to having a dedicated search performed by a contracted firm.
Councilman Jacob Meza, who has hiring duties as part of his job, said he supported a professional firm doing the search because it was a “high-profile deal” and would remove any bias that might exist if the hiring were to be done from within. He explained that having an outside professional who places candidates would have a “clearer lens” through which to view each candidate.
Bébhinn Egger also supported having the executive search firm involved in the hiring process, saying that there was already a perceived bias regarding who would be appointed to fill the vacant seat on the panel.
Waltz said a contract with Springsted would not take effect before mid-February and it would likely be 90-120 days beyond that date before the position would be filled.
Supervisors approve flurry of CUP requests, okay Marlow-Silek proffer amendments, and acknowledge new planning director
Despite five public hearings and two “unfinished business” matters, the latter requiring staff reports and board decisions on previously tabled items, a lack of public comment or opposition to those seven agenda items and minimal board discussion led to adjournment of the 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 20, Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting after less than an hour-and-a-quarter.
“Did we just hit a world’s record on that?” Board Chair Cheryl Cullers asked Board Clerk Emily Ciarrocchi of the 8:13 p.m. approval of Walt Mabe’s motion for adjournment.
And while the clerk’s immediate and perhaps grateful “Yes” may have been an exaggeration, the meeting certainly deserved recognition as a contender for efficient brevity on the world stage of 12-item municipal business agendas, plus staff and board reports. Included in those board and staff reports was acknowledgment of Zoning Administrator Joe Petty’s elevation to Planning Director in the wake of Taryn Logan’s recent promotion to Deputy County Administrator. Logan had been serving in both roles pending the decision on her replacement as planning director. See related County press release for additional information on Petty’s appointment.
But back on the “world record” effort of the four supervisors present, minus Happy Creek’s Tony Carter, were post public hearing approvals of four Conditional Use Permit (CUP) requests for Short-Term Rentals by Frank O’Reilly; approval of a CUP for Private Use Camping by George Lombardi to round out the five public hearings; approval of a three-item Consent Agenda with one item removed by Interim County Administrator Ed Daley for public informational purposes; approval of that removed item notifying the public of an upcoming public hearing on approval of an ordinance “Delaying Penalties and Interest on Certain Local Taxes” to June 22 due to the I.T. issues the County has encountered in the wake of the software “intrusion” discovered in early March; approval of financial accounts; hearing of two public comments; and a presentation on a recommended change to the County’s Health and Dental coverage to United Enrollment from Anthem/Blue Cross Blue Shield forecast to save the County a little over $346,000.
The first of the previously tabled matters was a revisiting of the Marlow-Silek Proffer Amendments on a commercial property in the Route 340/522 North Corridor to facilitate a storage unit business to the rear of the property. After assurances that future road improvement plans would not be negatively impacted, the board approved the proffer amendment request by a 4-0 vote, on a motion by Mabe, seconded by Archie Fox.
The second “Unfinished Business” was consideration of a CUP request for a Short-Term Tourist Rental by Justin and Felicia Katzovitz on Liberty Hollow Road in the South River District. That request drew the only non-unanimous vote as Board Chair Cullers, the South River District’s supervisor, dissented on the 3-1 vote on Delores Oates motion, seconded by Archie Fox, for approval. Cullers did not appear satisfied with staff assurances that were all conditions attached to the permitting approval not met, particularly as they apply to access and egress to the property from Liberty Hollow Road, the Short-Term Rentals could not be initiated because the permitting would not be issued by the County to conduct the operation.
With the Katzovitz public hearing previously adjourned, one of two Public Comments speakers, James Pritchard, spoke against the CUP for the Liberty Hollow Road Short-Term Rental due to traffic and speed concerns on that road. Planning Department staff noted that the applicant had agreed to the mandated accessway alternations and would alert all guests once the business was up and running to “take extra caution while using Liberty Hollow Road and should drive no faster than 15 mph”. The staff summary noted a “statutory” speed limit of 35 mph on the road, which did not qualify for VDOT Rural Rustic Improvements because it did not meet the average minimum trips per day requirement of 50. Liberty Hollow Road’s average daily trip count is 40.
The other public speaker, Tom Wallenius, expressed concerns related to vehicular travel in and out of the county due to the designation of a Spotted Lanternfly-infested community. While he said he was not against efforts to control the infestation that is seen as a major threat to a variety of agricultural endeavors, he worried that some rules on having vehicles inspected or certified for travel in and out of the county could be somewhat “Draconian”.
“Frankly, that creeps me out – you’re going to have to have an authorization statement to drive out of here,” Wallenius said of his reading of implemented regulations. He wondered how it could impact, not only commuters, but tourists and the county as a tourist destination.
Chairman Cullers called Wallenius’s concerns “valid” and suggested a future board work session to address exactly what the Spotted Lanternfly quarantine rules are and how they will be implemented on non-commercial, as well as commercial vehicles.
The board clerk read a third message into the meeting record commending the board for its denial of the Sheetz proposal at the foot of Apple Mountain in Linden. That message was signed by five citizens, Sara Sullivan, Stephanie Manuel, Deanne DePyper, Jackie Miller and Margaret Melberg.
See the linked County video of the meeting, which was live-streamed for the first time since the post-intrusion shutdown of much of the County’s software in early-mid March, for details on all these agenda actions, reports and concerns.
County announces Zoning Administrator Joe Petty as new Planning Director
Warren County is announcing the appointment of Joseph W. Petty as the new Planning Director for Warren County. Mr. Petty has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from George Mason University and 10+ years of experience in community development. Mr. Petty’s new position with the County became effective April 15, 2021. He will fill the vacancy created by the promotion of former Planning Director, Taryn Logan, to Deputy County Administrator effective February 1, 2021.
Mr. Petty began working for the Warren County Department of Planning and Zoning in January 2018 when he was hired as Zoning Officer. In July 2019, he was promoted to the position of Zoning Administrator. Prior to becoming a full-time County employee in 2018, Mr. Petty worked with the Warren County Parks and Recreation Department from 2000 to 2005 before leaving to attend college. Following graduation, Mr. Petty worked for a Business Improvement District that was integral in revitalizing a commercial and residential community. Mr. Petty will continue to serve as the County’s Zoning Administrator and assume the role of Subdivision Administrator. He will be the lead staff support for the Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, Well and Septic Appeals Board, Development Review Committee, and Agricultural and Forestal District Committee.
Taryn Logan, Deputy County Administrator and former Planning Director, stated, “Mr. Petty will move seamlessly into the position of Planning Director. He has the knowledge, enthusiasm, and care for the Warren County community that makes him the right candidate for this position. Mr. Petty will continue to guide the Department forward in a positive manner.”
Delores Oates, North River Supervisor, was part of the interview and selection panel for the Planning Director position. Mrs. Oates stated, “The announcement that Joe Petty has been chosen for the position of Planning Director is another example of the County’s commitment to excellence. Joe’s enthusiasm for our community and its future is obvious in one conversation. I wish him all the best as he takes on this new challenge!”
Regarding his appointment as Planning Director, Mr. Petty said, “I am truly thankful for this exciting opportunity. I look forward to continuing to serve the citizens of the community, and to uphold the integrity and professionalism that Mrs. Logan has brought to this position.”
The Warren County Department of Planning and Zoning is in Suite 400 of the Warren County Government Center, located at 220 N Commerce Avenue, telephone (540) 636-3354. Office hours are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday.
Plaintiff in Meza appointment challenge files for reconsideration of decision
In a motion for “Reconsideration” of the court’s April 7 decision that Town Charter Section 47’s one-year prohibition on “appointment or election” of former town councilmen applied only to paid staff positions and not reappointment to council, Plaintiff Paul Aldrich’s counsel David Downes challenges Judge William Sharp’s interpretation of inclusion of the word “election” in that charter section.
As previously reported, Judge Sharp pointed to the relevant wording: “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” as possibly being interpreted to prevent a councilman from running for re-election for a year following the end of their existing term on council. Noting that a one-year separation from council has not been seen as a requirement to run for re-election in general elections since the Town Charter’s 1937 adoption, Sharp ruled Section 47 did not apply to council appointments to fill a council vacancy, as occurred with the January 4 appointment of Jacob Meza to fill now Mayor Chris Holloway’s vacant council seat.
However, Downes counters that the words “appointed” and “elected” were seen by Charter framers as interchangeable references to council appointments with no intended application to General Elections by the public. Rather, the prohibition was intended to prevent the appearance or fact of cronyism within council, and not solely regarding paid staff positions, Downes argues.
“And the corruption Section 47 attempts to preclude also includes the appointment of a councilman who would have been unable to win a public election but could win an election of a majority of councilman and then be appointed a councilman,” Downes reasons in explaining the plaintiff’s Charter interpretation as the basis for challenging Meza’s January 4, 2021 appointment after choosing not to run for re-election in the November 2020 General Election. It was a decision made after a year in which Meza faced mounting public criticism due to a key vote reversal of previous recusals from votes concerning his employer Valley Health’s plans for a new hospital without a Maternity Unit and other patient amenities not seen as providing patient numbers necessary to support those units financially.
Downes points to past state level interpretations to uphold his argument for reconsideration: “… the Virginia Constitution and General Assembly have consistently used the phrase “appointed or elected” to NOT reference a public election but rather, like here, an election of the individual legislators prior to appointing an officer under their jurisdiction.
“… the Court’s conclusion is based on an erroneous interpretation of the phrase ‘or elected’ in Section 47. By using the context which it is found and the historical context from how the phrase ‘appointed or elected’ has been used in the Virginia Constitution and Virginia Code, this Court should apply a plain contextual meaning of Section 47 to read as follows: Because Defendant Meza was a member of counsel within one year of his appointment, he was prohibited from being appointed by the Town Council to the office of council, which is under the jurisdiction of the council. Moreover, the specific members of town council were prohibited from electing Defendant Meza to the office of council before attempting to appoint him.
“This ruling harmonizes Section 47 with Sections 6(D) and 9 along with the historical interpretation of the phrase ‘appointed or elected’ as used by the Virginia Constitution.”
In responding to the plaintiff’s Motion for Reconsideration, Defense counsel Heather Bardot stands by her original arguments that it is primarily Charter Section 6D with support from Section 9 that should hold sway, as it did in the court’s initial ruling in support of dismissal of the challenge of Meza’s appointment four days after his term’s end to fill Mayor Holloway’s vacant council seat.
Section 9 notes that the seat of a council member who is elected mayor will become vacant with their elevation to the mayor’s chair. And as previously reported, with no reference to a one-year hiatus, Section 6D states that, “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.” As for time constraints, 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.
Of the plaintiff motion for reconsideration, Bardot argues it, “… does nothing more than reargue points already raised on brief and argued at the Demurrer (defense motion to dismiss) hearing. Plaintiff presents no new arguments, no new authority and no reason why the court should reconsider its decision to sustain the Demurrer and dismiss this case with prejudice.”
And there you have dueling legal perspectives on the court’s original ruling on the Meza appointment, and why it should or should not be reconsidered by the judge who made that ruling.
Public Hearing on County FY-22 Budget doesn’t draw a crowd, but hears plea for more Little League playing fields
With no tax hikes involved and a public schools budget in place regardless of who controls certain parts of it related to surplus spending, the Thursday evening, April 15 Fiscal Year-2022 Budget Public Hearing of the Warren County Board of Supervisors was a brief affair. Only one person spoke, Girls Little League President Robert Look, and after discussion of Look’s request that the supervisors explore resurrecting development of youth ballfields as part of a Rockland Park development plan now on hold, the 7 p.m. meeting was adjourned after half an hour.
As Tony Carter explained in making the motion for adjournment, by law the board must wait seven days following the public hearing before voting on approval of the fiscal year budget. That vote is slated for a Special Meeting at 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 27, a week after the board’s next regular meeting, five days after last night’s public hearing on April 20, again at 7 p.m.
Prior to the vote to adjourn, Carter led discussion of what the supervisors had heard from Girl’s Little League President Look. What they heard was a plea to head off an approaching crisis that could force the league to turn away players due to a lack of available playing fields. Look noted that due to the lack of available fields to accommodate all Little League play, the girls league already faces tournament qualifying issues revolving around the minimum number of league games required to qualify for post-season, regional play.
Carter observed that final decisions on capital improvement projects (CIPs) were always dependent on the revenue being available to accomplish them versus other financial obligations of the county government. And with an already tight budget in place with the decision not to impose any revenue-generating tax hikes this year, whether the revenue might be available to accomplish long-planned Rockland Park upgrades on ballfield development is problematic.
One factor limiting General Fund usage was pointed out in Interim County Administrator Ed Daley’s budget summary power point presentation. That factor is that the County has dropped significantly below its self-mandated General Fund Balance number remaining at 15% of annual budget levels. In addition to providing revenue for administrative and unexpected expenses, that number is maintained to help the County achieve a top tier bond rating, and consequent lower interest rates when seeking CIP loans on expensive infrastructure improvements. The projected General Fund Balance after approval of the coming fiscal year budget is $12.87 million.
As noted in Daley’s budget summary power point presentation that took up about two-thirds of the half-hour meeting, the FY-22 Budget is $124.61 million, or $124,614,829 to be precise. That represents an increase of just over 5% ($6,003,691) above the current FY-21 county budget of $118,611,309. With a $124.61 million budget, a 15% General Fund Balance would equate to $17.79 million, $4.92 million more than the projected balance of $12.87 million.
But if no promises were forthcoming on Rockland Park upgrades and ballfield development in the current budget, at least the supervisors and staff are now aware of the pending youth sports crisis reflecting the number of teams and leagues utilizing a limited number of available playing fields. During subsequent discussion with Look, he noted the girls league had been included in Little League Opening Day ceremonies inside Bing Crosby Stadium this year. Standing on that college level, Valley League, Major League Baseball Developmental League field for the first time had been quite the experience for the girls, Look said. It would certainly seem a shame to close some of those now wide-open, ballplaying eyes in coming seasons for a lack of available Little League fields.
Other budget details
Daley’s breakdown of the budget proposal noted inclusion of just over $3.19 million in funding of the County’s now unilaterally overseen Economic Development Authority (EDA). That unilateral oversight of the half-century-plus old County-Town EDA is due to the Town of Front Royal’s withdrawal as it litigates against and is counter-litigated by the EDA over financial obligations related to the previous EDA administration’s financial scandal.
The County’s biggest single funding item is the county public school system’s budget. Of the total requested public school budget of $63.94 million, required County revenue will be $27.72 million. Schools, state and federal funding streams will account for the balance of $36.22 million. The current FY-21 public school budget of $62.24 million required $26.95 million in County funding. School funding included a 2% STEP salary increase and adjustments per years of experience.
The County’s total non-schools budget request is $60.67 million, compared to this year’s number of $56.36 million, a $4.31 million increase. Of that total increase, Daley pointed to specific increases of $2.55 million for Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District Road Projects; $646,000 for Public Assistance; $780,000 for Fire & Rescue Services; and $670,000 for the Sheriff’s Office and E-911 emergency phone line, though some state funding assistance may have been involved in some of those increases.
Also noted was funding to accomplish scheduled salary increases, including $300,000 to implement Phase 3 of the Compensation and Classification Study designed to help bring County salaries in line with surrounding jurisdiction to prevent undue staff turnover; a 2% Cost of Living (COLA) adjustment for County employees; and a 5% increase for State-supported positions like Constitutional Officers.
A 3.13% ($10,000) increase in the County’s contribution to the Humane Society of Warren County per the existing contract to manage the county’s lone animal shelter, the Julia Wagner Shelter.
The full Warren County FY-22 Budget proposal is posted on the County website in informational boxes on both the Board of Supervisors and Finance Department pages.
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…