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County declares ‘Local Emergency’ as State ramps up pandemic response

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Keeping their distance – the County had every other row in the WCGC meeting room cordoned off from seating, and people were generating their own distance in those rows. Royal Examiner Photos/Roger Bianchini

On the heels of its Tuesday afternoon informational and procedural press release on dealing with the health threat posed by the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak, the Warren County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday evening, March 17, to declare a “Local Emergency”.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day to you too.

However, rather than reflect an actual state of emergency since there have yet to be any reported cases here, the declaration appears to be preparatory in nature, setting procedures in place should the now-declared worldwide pandemic reach Front Royal and Warren County.

Instructions on limiting interpersonal public contacts, staying home if ill, and procedures to seek medical testing if feeling cold, flu or respiratory symptoms associated with the COVID-19 virus have been an important part of the local, state and national response. COVID-19 is the acronym for “Corona Virus Disease-2019” – 2019 being the year the strain was first identified in the Wuhan Province of China this past December.

The nasty little bugger – CDC website representation of a COVID-19 Coronavirus. It’s name generated from its spiked ‘corona’.

At Tuesday’s county board meeting’s outset, County Administrator Doug Stanley introduced item M-1 on the Local Emergency Declaration to be added to the agenda. And during his administrative report, Stanley read from the County Press Release on guidance to citizens should they exhibit symptoms and ways to minimize the risk of becoming infected.

The agenda explanation sheet referenced Virginia Department of Health (VDH) statistics indicating that as of noon, Tuesday, there were 67 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 strain of Coronavirus in the Commonwealth of Virginia. By Wednesday around noon, that number had risen to 77. The VDH also reported as of Wednesday, that 1,278 people had been tested in the state in determining those 77 verified cases.

The lack of availability of testing kits to medical professionals has been an ongoing problem nationwide as localities, states and the country attempts to stem the spread of the disease here.

While not included in the county summary, on Monday, March 16 the second COVID-19 death in Virginia was reported by the state health department. Both deaths have been in the Peninsula Health District in the eastern, south-central part of the state. The Peninsula District with 15 reported cases, along with Fairfax and Arlington at 14 each, have been the most heavily hit COVID-19 areas in Virginia. Both of the state’s fatalities were men in their 70’s, reported to have died of respiratory failure. The Peninsula Health District reported that both men were infected by “unknown sources”.

A Wednesday screenshot of a Va. Health Department map of the contamination in the Old Dominion.

As for the Local Emergency declaration approved Tuesday, it was noted that in reaction to federal and state declarations by President Trump and Governor Northam county officials including Board Chairman Mabe, County Administrator Stanley, Fire & Emergency service Chief Mabie and Deputy Emergency Manager Rick Farrall met and decided, “that the County of Warren should be on the forefront of this epidemic (not sure about that wording, guys) in order to provide the best possible preparations and care for the citizens, as well as ensure the potential for cost savings once this epidemic has passed.”

County Deputy Emergency Manager Rick Farrall addresses the rationale behind the Local Emergency Declaration at this point in the COVID-19 outbreak situation. Behind him, you can see how the public has, with the County’s help portioned itself from each other for the most part.

Farrall briefed the board on the declaration he prepared. Mabe then read the Declaration of Local Emergency into the board record for a vote of approval. After the board responded to a question from a citizen present about the logistics of bypassing normal funding authorization procedures, Supervisor Fox’s motion, seconded by Cheryl Cullers, passed by a unanimous roll-call vote.

Also on Tuesday, releases went out from county court clerk’s offices acknowledging a state order suspending all non-essential court functions, civilly and criminally, into early to mid-April.

Not really, not yet at least – this file photo of an ambulance called to the Warren County Courthouse dates to last September, prior to the COVID-19 virus outbreak in China.

In response to the governor’s order limiting public gatherings of more than 10 people, a number of local restaurants have announced closings or suspensions of in-house eating, some continuing to operate pick-ups under precautionary steps and/or deliveries.

Local store shelves continue to be left empty by hoard buying, somewhat inexplicably of toilet paper and other paper products, as well as canned and frozen foods.

However, this is real and recent – empty shelves in the Royal Plaza Martin’s were taken on St. Patrick’s Day, Tuesday, March 17. It was a St. Patrick’s Day dampened by parade cancellations and pub closings around the country.

As Lord Fairfax Health District Director Colin Greene told the county supervisors on March 3, the Coronavirus “is a problem, it is not a catastrophe”. The above-described personal behavioral measures, precautions and cancellations of public gatherings of people are designed to keep the situation that way as the nation moves into a crucial period in determining whether the U.S. outbreak will be contained, or spread as it has throughout some European nations, China and other Asian nations.

Tuesday’s County Supervisors meeting breaks up under its ‘In God We Trust’ declaration – but just to be sure they added a human-fueled County Emergency Declaration to the COVID-19 response mix.

See the Emergency Declaration discussion, vote and other county business in this Royal Examiner video:

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County debates level of caution necessary as pandemic relief requests come

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Following the failure of a majority of the Warren County Board of Supervisors to move a Chamber of Commerce request for “immediate” financial assistance from both the county and town governments to remain solvent through the end of the year in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter told Chamber President Niki Foster, “I’m sorry.”

Cheryl Cullers motion to postpone action pending discussion at a coming work session, seconded by Archie Fox, passed 3-2 with Carter and Board Chairman Walt Mabe dissenting.

Carter told his colleagues that their agreement would be contingent on the Town’s agreeing to fund its half of the Chamber request of $5,000 a month from each municipality from the July 1 start of the fiscal year through December.

Carter worried that with the Town apparently waiting to see if the County would respond favorably to the request before proceeding toward a decision, the supervisor’s delay on the front end of the request could set the timetable on the approval process of both municipalities back beyond the immediacy of that requested July start of assistance.

The county supervisors seem divided on how much caution is necessary to balance immediate community funding needs versus commitment of at least partially reimbursable pandemic relief funding. Above, Tony Carter, far right, was apologetic to Chamber Director Niki Foster, below, for the delay in a decision on relief funding of Chamber of Commerce. Royal Examiner Photos taken from video footage.

Again, as the previous night the potential of utilizing federal “CARES” (Coronavirus Aid Relief & Economic Securities) pandemic relief funding coming to the County, and indirectly to the Town through the County, at a total of $3.5 million seemed to confuse, rather than alleviate concerns about a financial commitment to the Chamber.

As was explained to the town council the previous evening, the Chamber has seen its largest annual fundraising event, the Wine & Crafts Festival, canceled along with other normally-revenue producing events. A May 22 letter from Foster and Chamber Board President Ray Bramble said the organization has seen a drop in membership renewals due to COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic restrictions on many small business operations.

And the letter observed that the Chamber as a 501-C 6 organization does not qualify for Payroll Protection Program (PPP) federal assistance. The combination of these variables has left the Chamber, which it was noted has served the community for 80 years, like many of its members or former members, in dire financial straits.

The discussion leading to the vote to postpone a decision on appropriating the necessary $30,000 began about an hour and 50 minutes into Tuesday’s meeting.

Emergency Management variables
Also, on the supervisors Tuesday agenda was an added item, an update from County Deputy Emergency Services Director Rick Farrall on the county and region’s COVID-19 statistics and expectations moving toward the governor’s Phase 2 reopening plan. That report came just over an hour into the meeting. Responding to questions, Farrall said details on moving into the governor’s Phase Two of reopening remained somewhat sketchy.

However, at a suggestion the County considers lifting its Emergency Declaration, Farrall urged caution, noting that could jeopardize emergency relief funding now scheduled to come the County’s way.

With County Attorney Jason Ham, left, and County Administrator Doug Stanley at the staff-requisitioned for social distancing press table in the background, County Deputy Emergency Management Director Rick Farrall reviews logistics, known and unknown, as the county moves toward Phase 2 reopening.

The board later heard from COVID-19 pandemic response critic Gary Kushner, whose lengthy letter stating the County should end its emergency declaration and go toward full reopening under voluntary decisions on mask-wearing and social distancing was read into the meeting record by Clerk Emily Ciarrocchi; as was a much briefer submission from Kristie Atwood belaboring the County’s expenditure on EDA civil case attorney legal fees.

Other business
In varying amounts of detail, the board also discussed four items removed from a seven-item Consent Agenda normally seen as routine business. Those included:

– A proposed hike in hangar rental rates at the Front Royal Airport, a request complicated by the Airport Commission not having met recently due to the COVID-19 restrictions, commission member Archie Fox told the board – action tabled to June 16;

Sue Ann Fox, Food Service Director for Warren County Public Schools explains the meal distribution program to our publisher Mike McCool on the 8th Annual School Lunch Hero Day May 1, 2020.

– A request for $17,472 in funding to continue the Warren County Public Schools student meal distribution program through July and August. It was noted that the system has delivered 48,000 meals during the two months of pandemic emergency school closings, with even more meals being picked up. When Vice-Chair Cullers hedged at the financial commitment with unanswered questions on future revenue consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic closings, Chairman Mabe and Supervisor Carter noted that the County would be reimbursed between 75% and 100% of that money through FEMA or CARES relief funding. County Administrator Stanley also noted that without the commitment to run the program the additional months, the system faced the loss of bus drivers to other jurisdictions where jobs were assured. Consequently, Carter’s motion, seconded by Fox, was approved by a unanimous roll call vote;

– After a lengthy discussion about the third annual renewal of four in a contract for environmental and engineering services with LaBella Associates (formerly known as Joyce Engineering) at the closed county landfill, that contract was finally approved by a unanimous roll call vote on a motion by Delores Oates, seconded by Cullers. However, in the climate of social media and new board member distrust of staff, it was far from routine business. Perhaps responding to a posted chat room suggestion from blogger Kristie Atwood that the contract renewals be removed from the consent agenda and put out to bid; Cullers suggested that might be in the county’s best interest to re-establish a competitive bidding process. However, it was explained that the price of the contract had not changed since it was originally agreed to in 2017, and with a limited number of companies performing such work in the state, going out to bid now could see significantly higher bids, including from LaBella, come in. That dose of fiscal dynamics, coupled with a positive report on LaBella’s work throughout the contract moved the board toward approval of the one-year renewal;

– However, with much less discussion a decision on a similar third of four annual contract renewals with H&W Construction was postponed to the June 16 meeting to accumulate additional information. That contract is for “all labor and equipment necessary on an as-needed basis, for general construction, athletic field construction, road maintenance, repair, stormwater management, perimeter erosion and sediment controls, drainage improvement work and utilities for County Departments, Public Schools and Sanitary Districts in Warren County”

Closed Session
And two hours and fifteen minutes into the 9 a.m. meeting, an adjournment to closed session to discuss several items, including EDA litigation, as well as prospective business or industry relocation here, was unanimously approved on a motion by Oates, seconded by Fox. An hour and a half later the board left the closed session to a work session to discuss the acquisition, legal responsibilities, and distribution of federal CARES Coronavirus pandemic relief funding. See a report on that interesting discussion that might be considered “Part 2” of the report on last night’s town council discussion of the same topic, in an upcoming Royal Examiner story.

For now, listen to and watch the above-described County business in this recording courtesy of Warren County Board of Supervisors:

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Money, money, money, EDAs and ongoing weekend downtown walking mall

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At a Monday night, June 1st work session the Front Royal Town Council wrestled with the legal and financial dynamics of a number of matters, several related to COVID-19 federal and local relief packages, as well as a Chamber of Commerce request that the Town partner with the County in keeping the Chamber financially solvent through the end of the calendar year. That request for $5,000 per month from both the Town and County ($10,000 total) beginning “immediately” is also COVID-19 pandemic-related, as the Chamber noted cancellation of its biggest annual fundraiser, the Wine & Crafts Festival among others, as well as a drop in membership renewals believed related to pandemic restrictions on business operations.

The Town Gazebo and Village Commons area has become an increasing weekend destination as local businesses begin reopening from pandemic closures – but it wasn’t in time for the Chamber’s BIG fundraising Wine & Crafts Festival. Royal Examiner File Photos/Roger Bianchini

Also, on a busy agenda, the council discussed having its own Economic Development Authority created and a board and staff in place by the July 1 start or close to it, of Fiscal Year 2021. That should answer any county board questions about the status of the Town’s request to become the first Virginia municipality to be authorized to be part of two EDA’s simultaneously, as it was noted the governor had finally signed the request approved earlier by the General Assembly, into law.

The belligerent town elected official stance toward the re-tooled and recovering from financial scandal EDA noted by the Warren County Board of Supervisors on May 4 (see related story: ‘Cancer’ gone from EDA, will Town belligerence follow suit in November?) was on full display Monday night, beginning just over an hour into the work session.

“The Front Royal-Warren County EDA brand is hugely damaged right now – beyond repair. They’ll have a really hard time going forward attracting businesses to our area,” Councilman Gary Gillespie said in support of the rapid movement to creation of the Town’s own, unilateral EDA.

Gillespie said he has championed the distancing of the Town from the EDA, if not it’s total withdrawal apparently hoping for some property to fall the Town’s way along with virtually all the money the EDA is seeking to recover from alleged co-conspirators with former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.

“The EDA mostly works for the County – and it’s been that way for the last 15 years or better,” Gillespie asserted despite the Town’s current civil legal claim of over $20 million in allegedly lost Town assets from the EDA financial scandal centered on the past four to five years of Town business with the EDA. The EDA’s civil action against multiple defendants stands at $21.3 million in allegedly misdirected assets.

The town council remains committed to its train, or car, wreck theory of EDA indebtedness to it – to the tune of over $20 million of the EDA’s cited misdirected assets of $21.3 million; despite council assertions the EDA mostly worked on behalf of the County the past decade-plus.


“We need this for the Town of Front Royal for economic development; and more so now with this COVID-19, just for redevelopment. Nobody knows where the chips are going to fall after all this is said and done,” Gillespie said of the chaotic pandemic economy. “And this (new) EDA would go a long way in helping us. You know, I’ve been told by several people, you know, that if the Town wants a say-so in the EDA that we need to pony up. And it makes it really difficult to do that now, because the EDA possibly owes the Town of Front Royal $20-million dollars, you know. So, we need to bring this in house to bring economic development to our town in a major way and in a hurry.”

Jacob Meza concurred with Gillespie’s assessment, saying “the pros far outweigh the cons” in the Town going solo on economic development in the future.

COVID-19 relief impasse

Monday’s work session began with council complaining about a County proposal brought to them by Mayor Gene Tewalt and Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock concerning the distribution of COVID-19 federal grant funds distributed through the state government to counties and cities based on population sizes.

The staff summary noted the Town anticipated a mandated distribution of between $1 million and $1.5 million – approximately $1.3 million was settled on in estimating the Town’s approximate 14,000 (around 38%) of the County’s total population of 40,000 – of the total of $3.5 million the County would receive in CARES (Coronavirus Aid Relief & Economic Security) funding.

Mayor Tewalt explained the County wanted Town agreement on the distribution of approximately $1.7 million for a jointly administered relief program targeting all county businesses, in and outside the town limits.

“They want to take the $3.5 million and use half of it for economic recovery and then take the population and split it whatever that ratio would be with the other $1.7 million, and then they propose that (unintelligible) we want to utilize that amount of money, whether you pay the water bill, the electric bill, whatever. But they just want to know if we’d be agreeable tonight to just split the money and use half of it for recovery and half of it to do the other as far as the government’s concerned. So, we can pay whatever we have to pay, and they can pay what they want to pay,” Mayor Tewalt told the council.

However, a lack of detail or a county official to explain such detail and the lack of a 50/50 split of the funding allowing the Town to manage its half without County involvement seemed to annoy several council members.

“They’re going to get the big chunk of it, and we’re going to get the crumbs,” Gillespie complained.

The mayor reiterated the population-based nature of the general distribution to try and re-explain why it would not be a straight 50/50 split.

I can’t explain anything to them, Mayor Tewalt may have been thinking as he tried to head off Town-EDA litigation last December.

Meza noted the Town had a local relief plan in place and suggested the County just hand the Town its share and let town officials work unilaterally to distribute their portion as they saw fit. However, when Interim Town Manager Tederick referenced page 18 of the agenda packet summary of how the CARES money could be utilized, it appeared a big chunk of the Town’s local relief plan – to allow businesses or citizens to pay back town taxes and utility bills – ran afoul of the CARES program guidelines.

Those limitations noted that “Fund payments may not be used for government revenue replacement, including the provision of assistance to meet tax obligations.”

As for utility bill payments, there was a mixed message.

“Fund payments may not be used for government revenue replacement, including the replacement of unpaid utility fees,” the second graph on page 18 of the agenda item summary began, adding however that, “Fund payments may be used for subsidy payments to electricity account holders to the extent that the subsidy payments are deemed by the recipient to be necessary expenditures incurred due to the COVID-19 public health emergency … For example, if determined to be a necessary expenditure, a government could provide grants to individuals facing economic hardship to allow them to pay their utility fees and thereby continue to receive essential services.

In the end, council agreed to table a decision pending further elaboration and documentation of the County proposal.

Weekend downtown street closure thru fall

Prior to adjourning to what ended up being a five-minute closed session “to discuss or consider a bond repayment resolution regarding recent large scale construction the Town has been involved in,” council instructed Interim Town Manager Tederick to make the necessary moves to implement the continued closing of portions of East Main and Chester Streets from 4:30 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Monday to vehicular traffic to continue the walking mall COVID-19 business reopening initiative likely through the fall.

A portion of Front Royal’s Historic Downtown will remain closed to vehicular traffic from Friday’s at 4:30 p.m. to Mondays at 7 a.m. thru the fall.

As part of that initiative, the council agreed to close Town Hall’s drive-thru Finance Department window on Saturdays.

There was no post-closed session announcement, so which “large scale construction” bond repayment was discussed remains a mystery.

Listen to council’s far-ranging work session discussion in this Royal Examiner recording:

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County prepares for next phase of reopenings, explains mask enforcement

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After a one week break, the eighth weekly Warren County Joint COVID-19 Emergency Management Team briefing of May 28th featured another appearance by Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell. Bell joined County Board and Emergency Management Team Chairman Walter Mabe and County Deputy Emergency Services Manager Rick Farrall at the not-quite roundtable report and Q&A with media.

Mabe gave Farrall the floor to begin the briefing with an update on Warren County and Lord Fairfax Health District (LFHD) COVID-19 statistics and reopening plans. Farrall reported a total of 1,279 reported cases in the health district. That is up 182 from the 1,097 cases confirmed on May 24.

From left, Rick Farrall, Walter Mabe, and John Bell prepare to open Thursday afternoon’s County Emergency Management briefing on coming dynamics, including mandated mask-wearing and exceptions. Royal Examiner Photos/Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Video-Audio/Mark Williams, Mike McCool

Of that 1279 number, 24 were in Clarke County; 319 in Frederick, 213 in Page, 414 in Shenandoah, 168 in Winchester City, and 141 in Warren County. Farrall noted the Warren number indicated a jump of 12 from the previous day. He continued to explain that county increase was due in large part to the fact that inmates at RSW Jail who have tested positive are classified as cases in this county, while employees are categorized in their home county of residence.

Farrall stated that the RSW Jail Administration and staff were being joined in closely monitoring the jail’s pandemic outbreak by the Virginia Department of Health, the LFHD, private regional medical provider Valley Health, Warren County Emergency Management and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

Farrall then said that tomorrow, on May 29, several more-heavily pandemic-struck regions, including all of Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., the City of Richmond, and Accomack County on the Eastern Shore would begin moving to Phase One of reopening a week behind the LFHD and other parts of Virginia. He then cited anticipated reopening dates for nearby states, including
Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order expected to be lifted on June 5.

Farrall then noted the mask requirement tied to Governor Northam’s Executive Order 63 and handed the floor over to Commonwealth’s Attorney Bell. Bell expanded on local plans in compliance with Governor Ralph Northam’s anticipated Executive Order 63 that will mandate mask-wearing in reopened public and business buildings. Bell assured the public it would not be a strong-armed, law enforcement reaction.

The WCGC is now open, just not at the main entrance as you will be directed to the building’s central door for entry.

Rather, the Department of Health would be generally in charge of handling violations, which could negatively affect businesses in which people were determined to be ignoring the mask order.

Noting the hardship such local small businesses have endured, Bell suggested those choosing to be customers of reopened business not risk putting their owners in further jeopardy by ignoring the face mask rules.

See Bell’s explanation of those rules, their potential for being cited for a Class 1 misdemeanor violation and other briefing highlights of the 21-minute meeting, including Chairman Mabe’s ideas for increased community interactions and individual involvement in our recovery in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:

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Council approves FY21 budget appropriations – conditionally

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At its May 26th meeting the Front Royal Town Council approved an appropriation of just over $48.6 million to fund its Fiscal Year 2021 budget. The first of two required votes was 5-1, Letasha Thompson dissenting as she has through the budget process due to ongoing concerns on portions of the proposed budget, specifically unanswered questions about how Tourism marketing and the Visitors Center operations will be funded.

The second, binding vote will come at the council’s next meeting on June 8.

The appropriation of $48,604,340 is projected to balance the Town’s anticipated expenditures and revenues as sub-categorized by departmental and General Fund uses. However, in the current uncertain COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic financial landscape such predictions can be very tenuous as municipalities wait to see the impact of mandated business closings and travel restrictions on their normal tax revenue intake in coming months.

Unfamiliar financial landscape

As was later explained, that is why the appropriation is being passed with a contingency qualification that it will be reviewed on a monthly basis to assure the revenue to support the FY-21 budget is, in fact, available in the coming fiscal year beginning July 1.

Town Halls are a familiar site, but it is an unfamiliar financial landscape being traversed by municipalities around the country. Royal Examiner File Photos/Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Video/Mike McCool

The Public Hearing drew the evening’s only two pre-submitted citizen comments to be read into the record of the still virtually conducted pandemic lockdown meetings. Those comments were from 2020 Council candidate and Fussell Florists proprietor Betty Showers and long-time council watchdog Linda Allen.

While those detailed questions weren’t immediately addressed, as below council and interim town manager comments indicate, the plan is to present answers to those two citizens and council prior to the second vote of approval on June 8 – within 48 hours was cited as likely response time.

“You know, right now we all know with the COVID-19 it’s a guessing game right now. And I just want to assure the folks that we’re going to keep a very close eye on any shortfalls and make the appropriate adjustments when needed,” Gary Gillespie observed after, like others, thanking the Town’s financial and administrative staffs for their budget preparation work under trying and unusual circumstances.

The financial landscape is unfamiliar because we, the nation and the world are traversing an unfamiliar public health crisis landscape – prudent caution or government overreaction is the ongoing debate, though not for 100,000 Americans now listed as casualties of the COVID-19 Coronavirus’s 4-month ‘march’ across the nation.

Gillespie then asked Interim Town Manager Tederick to work with staff to put together answers to the citizen questions submitted prior to the second vote of approval.
“That’s not a problem at all – Mr. Wilson (Finance Director) and I have already looked at those questions. We were prepared to answer them tonight if need be. It’s not going to take much time; we should be able to get that out in the next 24 to 48 hours to those individuals, and we’ll copy council on our responses. They are easy answers,” Tederick told the council and the mayor, adding that they were “good” and “understandable questions”.

Unanswered questions

As read into the record by Acting Council Clerk Tina Pressley, Showers opened her letter by observing that some of her questions have been previously asked, though not publicly answered by the town’s elected officials.

“We provide the money for you to spend and therefore expect full transparency. Therefore, I am raising the questions again,” Showers wrote in opening. Her questions were, as presented in ALL CAPS writing to council:

Even if we can no longer see them meet, the council must remain transparent on their actions in the public interest, with public money, council candidate Betty Showers told the council by emailed comment.

1. THE REVENUE PAGE HAS MANY INCREASES YET IN AN EARLIER WORK SESSION YOUR DISCUSSION INDICATED THAT THERE WOULD BE A DOWNTURN IN MANY REVENUE ITEMS. WHY IS THERE AN UPTICK IN EXPECTED FUNDING?

2. WHY IS THERE A $10,000 INCREASE FOR TOWN COUNCIL PROFESSIONAL SERVICES?

3. UNDER THE TOWN MANAGER, WHO HAS USE OF A TOWN CAR AND THERE IS NO MONEY LISTED FOR MAINTENANCE PROPOSED FOR 2021. AS THERE WAS NONE LISTED FOR 2020.

4. UNDER REVENUE, THE RENT FOR THE ADELPHIA BLDG IS $12,045 FOR 2021. ACTUALLY, IT SHOULD BE COMCAST WHO WILL NO LONGER HAVE A SPACE IN FRONT ROYAL AFTER JUNE. WHY IS THAT MONEY SHOWN FOR SOMETHING THAT WON’T EXIST?

5. WITHOUT A TOWN ENGINEER, THE PROFESSIONAL SERVICES BUDGET SAYS $50,000. IT SEEMS TO ME THAT WE ARE GOING TO BE SPENDING A LOT MORE.

One question posed on budget appropriations by Showers was why the Town Trolley, below, is listed as a ‘Tourism’ expense, along with blighted building enforcement to the tune of almost $94,000?

Yea, let’s fix it up and put it on the Historic Downtown Front Royal Trolley route. – BUT the devil is in the detail …

6. UNDER TOURISM, YOU HAVE LISTED BLIGHTED BLDGS AND TROLLEY SERVICE OF $93,860. THESE ARE NOT TOURISM BUDGET ITEMS. THEY NEED TO BE PLACED MORE ACCURATELY.

7. FOR POLICING EXPENSES, WHY WAS THE REQUEST FOR 4 PATROLMEN AND 4 VEHICLES TURNED DOWN????

Those were followed by Allen’s questions, again prefaced by noting they had been previously posed and left unanswered to the writer’s knowledge.

“I have asked questions about the proposed 2021 budget before without hearing any answers. Some questions will be repeated below with hopes that the next meeting, a work session, will provide those answers,” Allen began. And as again presented in ALL CAPS writing, those questions were:

1. UNDER PLANNING, WHAT IS THE $40,000 LISTED FOR PROFESSIONAL SERVICES TO BE SPENT ON?

2. WHY UNDER PLANNING IS THERE NO FUNDING FOR THE COMPREHENSIVE LAND USE PLAN? IT IS REQUIRED BY VA LAW EVERY 5 YEARS.

3. WITH BOARDS AND COMMISSIONS THE EXPENSE IS DOWN BY $5,000. WHAT CHANGES CAUSED A REDUCTION OF THESE CITIZEN BOARDS?

4. UNDER HORTICULTURE, WAS A HORTICULTURIST HIRED? ALSO, YOU HAVE INCREASED PROFESSIONAL SERVICES BY $20,000. FOR WHAT REASON?

Linda Allen asked council exactly what a $515,000 line item under ‘Police Facility’ would be spent on, as the council continues to refuse to make good on its $8.4-million-plus debt to the EDA on the construction of that facility.

5. UNDER COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT, THERE IS A LINE OF POLICE FACILITY OF $515,000 AS THE EXPENSE. WITH A LAWSUIT AGAINST EDA AND THE TOWN’S REFUSAL TO PAY THE INTEREST OR PRINCIPAL FOR THE POLICE STATION, IT SEEMS DOUBTFUL THAT THIS MONEY WILL BE USED FOR THIS PURPOSE. WHAT EXACTLY ARE THESE FUNDS BEING USED FOR?

Contacted early Thursday afternoon, neither Showers nor Allen had yet received those written answers promised within 48 hours. Tick, tick, tick ………

The approximate 12-minute appropriations public hearing and discussion beginning about 40 minutes into Tuesday’s council meeting is available, along with the entirety of that 55-minute meeting in the linked Royal Examiner recordings tied to our series of three stories on that meeting:

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Mayor, council debate rationale for lower water-sewer tap fees to developers

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As noted in our lead story on the Front Royal Town Council’s Tuesday, May 26 meeting, public hearings on two ordinance amendment proposals drew some discussion prior to a vote.

The first of those two was an altered motion on water and sewer rates and lowering tap fees for new development into the Town’s central water-sewer utilities. Mayor Eugene Tewalt temporarily gave up the meeting’s presiding officer role to Vice-Mayor William Sealock so that he could add comments into the public hearing record.

The mayor then explained his understanding of development of the tap fee and water-sewer rate discussion in recent months leading up to the night’s vote.

Vice-Mayor Sealock took over the meeting gavel, so Mayor Tewalt could express his concerns during the public hearing on the evolution of the recommendation on new water-sewer rates and tap fees. Royal Examiner File Photos

“Six months ago or thereabouts, we decided that the Town would install the water and sewer taps at the Town’s expense, which when we found out in talking to the person who had been doing that, it was about an $8,000 cost that the contractor or developer was paying to that individual that was doing that,” Tewalt recounted, observing, “So when we took this over, that’s $4,000 dollars for water and $4,000 for sewer to that developer,” that the Town would appear to be absorbing facing the proposed tap fee decreases on the table.

Tewalt continued to cite numbers indicating that lost revenue it appeared to him Town citizens would eventually be absorbing in higher water-sewer rates to meet an apparent revenue shortfall.

“That would equal to $12,127 that the town taxpayers are going to have to absorb somewhere … in order to cover these costs,” Tewalt told council.

A check of the 34 pages of related ordinance material in the agenda indicated large, across the board reductions to the “system development fees” (formerly known as connection or “tap” fees) ranging from $21,938 down to $12,217 to connect a sewer line to a 1-inch water meter; and from $1,464,450 down to $1,294,967 to connect a sewer line to 12-inch water meter.

Also indicated was a slight monthly increase in the base residential sewer rate for under 3,000 gallons usage per month from $16.17 to $16.74 and above 3,000 gallons usage from $13.91 to $14.40 monthly. That increase apparently holds to the water-sewer rate study consultant Stantec’s recommendation of a 3.5% sewer rate hike to cover system costs. Tewalt also noted that council had decided to defer the recommended 2% water rate increase to the next fiscal year cycle (FY-2022).

That led the mayor to predict a likely 4% increase for citizen water rates next year, or more if the “tap fee” reductions were included with the Town’s continued responsibility to make those connections for developers.

Over six months of evolving discussion of the water-sewer rate study, initially face to face in Town Hall and eventually largely by remote hook up, some confusion has developed about how recommended new water-sewer rates and connection fees were arrived upon.

“And this just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at this point,” the mayor concluded of having the Town perform the connections for developers at reduced rates to be absorbed by taxpayers. However, it would take a while to determine exactly what was on the table and how it was arrived at.

As Tewalt concluded, Vice-Mayor Sealock asked Acting Council Clerk Tina Pressley if any public comments had been submitted for the public hearing. There were none, Pressley responded. So, Sealock then closed the public hearing and handed the presiding officer’s gavel back to the mayor.

Tewalt then asked for a motion. Meza responded by reading the motion originally printed for the agenda. “I move that Council affirm on its first readying an ordinance amendment to Town Code Chapter 134 pertaining to the increase of sewer service rates and the decrease of water service rates and system development charges for both sanitary sewer service and water service, as presented.” It would later be necessary to re-read the motion, deleting the reference to a reduction in “the water service rates”.

Following Chris Holloway’s second and the mayor’s call for any further discussion, Meza said, “I have a couple clarifying comments that I’d like to try to understand.” He then referenced the several months of conversation about the tap fee rates, observing that eventually, “council started moving in a rapid direction, a rapid pace to reducing those fees …”

Meza indicated it was his understanding council was moving in the direction of consultant Stantec’s recommendations.

“So Mr. Tederick, did Stantec take into account the fact that we would be doing our own installation on the tap fees?” Meza queried the interim town manager.

That led to Tederick’s introduction by remote connection of Stantec representative Andrew Burnham. In introducing Burnham to the virtually-conducted meeting conversation, Tederick noted, “I would be very delicate in how I address your question,” perhaps addressing Meza, “because it might be best to have the answer in a closed session due to potential legal matters.”

However, the conversation and Burnham’s input continued in open session.

Tederick prefaced Burnham’s entrance to the conversation with some topic history: “In 2010 when the study was last done and the rates were set … the Town was conducting the connections. Since that time the Town stopped conducting the connections but continued to keep the rate at that higher rate. The rate that is being assessed today does not include the cost of material or labor, or the fact that the developer or the builder will have the ability to go out and put the connection in himself. So, in our opinion it’s very as Stantec presented it; it was just a very fair and transparent way of conducting business.”

Did it seem to be easier for council to communicate when they were all in a room together?

Meza said he respected the mayor’s concerns, but remained confused as to how council developed varying opinions on where the new rates should be set, adding, “And now it seems there’s concerns that its actually fallen short and we won’t be able to cover (our costs) and that will fall on our taxpayers. So, I guess my question to Stantec would be did we evaluate this appropriately to take into consideration all the additional costs, so that two years out we’re not going to have to artificially inflate our rates in order to be able to sustain the program?”

Enter the consultant

“The short and the quick answer to that is, it was taken into account,” Stantec’s Burnham said to enter the conversation. He then elaborated.

“Specifically, when we went through a presentation … it was a summary of our analysis that was done using the history of accepted methodologies in allocating costs. So, we wanted to make sure that your rates or the base charges and amounts of water used would cover your ongoing costs of operations and maintenance, renewal and replacement expenses.

“And that the system development charges (formerly known as connection/tap fees) would cover the initial cost of system capacity proportionally from all new connections; and that the cost of actually making the connection, the installation and the taps – those would be done separately based on actual costs for labor, materials to make the connection.”

Following some additional input by council, Tederick told Mayor Tewalt, “The Town under the new ordinance, will not be paying for the actual labor or materials. So, the labor and materials are being passed on to the builder, or the builder could decide to go out and provide his own connections. So, in no way is the town taxpayer paying for that.”

Tewalt responded that if that was the case, “I have no problems with this,” adding he thought Stantec had “done a great job”. However, the mayor re-expressed his concern that at some point in the evolution of the ordinance amendment discussion council had agreed that Town crews would be involved in future new development connections.

“My understanding was that council said we’d be doing the installation free of charge, without any cost to the contractor. If I’m wrong, then accept my apologies,” the mayor said after nearly 15 minutes of discussion with several expressions of confusion over how what was on the table had been arrived at.

Is it just me, or were meetings and work sessions more fun prior to the pandemic restrictions on social distancing? – Perhaps again soon, to some extent.

Vice-Mayor Sealock observed that he believed that a past failure by council to adjust the utility rates as costs to provide the service increased had created ongoing issues the Town as now trying to catch up with as the tap fee discussion continued.

“The rates not being changed over an extended period of time had a definite effect on the sewer charges. So, I want to bring that up – they’ve been running in a deficit for a long period of time,” Sealock noted.

After the clerk pointed out the motion wording change regarding removal of a reference to “decreased water service rates” Meza read the corrected motion, again seconded by Holloway. The motion then passed by a unanimous roll call vote.

The second and binding reading will occur at council’s next meeting in two weeks.

Hear the whole discussion, along with council’s other business conducted, in the linked Royal Examiner recording of Tuesday’s remotely conducted meeting:

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Mayor, Meza spar over committee appointment powers – Mayor by legal TKO

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Gene Tewalt, left, and Jake Meza in file photo when both were councilmen prior to the special election that elevated Tewalt to another term as mayor. Apparently between those mayoral terms Tewalt did not forget the committee appointment power that comes to the council’s presiding officer. Royal Examiner File Photos/Roger Bianchini

A decision on a one-on-one verbal confrontation between Mayor Eugene Tewalt and Councilman Jacob Meza on who had the authority to make committee appointments, the mayor or a council majority, was rendered by a referee, we mean Town Attorney Doug Napier about 52 minutes into Thursday night’s Front Royal Town Council work session.

However, the sometimes contentious debate over who should serve from the council on a new County-requested committee to jointly discuss a path forward on Tourism promotion in the wake of separately heard, identical presentations by Joint Town-County Tourism Advisory Committee Vice-Chair Kerry Barnhart earlier in the week, began about a half-hour earlier, some 20 minutes into the May 21st work session. The half-hour delay on a decision was due to the necessity of the town attorney’s legal research on mayoral authority.

The dispute arose over Mayor Tewalt giving one of the Town’s two appointments to the new committee to Councilwoman Letasha Thompson.

Thompson has been the council’s most proactive member in getting direct input from involved Town Tourism staff and tourism advisory committee members in the wake of the late January decision to reduce the Town Tourism function and personnel. At last night’s work session Thompson was first to volunteer to serve for the Town on that County-requested four-member supervisor-council committee. Following Thompson to also volunteer their service were Gary Gillespie and Lori Athey Cockrell.

Jacob Meza followed by expressing interest but saying he would defer to the service of others. Meza then weighed in against Thompson’s appointment citing a supposed lack of neutrality in having expressed past concern at the council majority and interim town manager’s preemptive Tourism cutbacks without what she believed was adequate research into how the existing Tourism apparatus was functioning or a plan to replace what was being cut.

So, rather than the councilperson who has been most proactive in researching that function with both existing town staff and joint tourism committee members, Meza threw his support to Gillespie and Cockrell.

Thompson responded aggressively, disputing Meza’s contention that her proactive work with tourism operatives somehow disqualified her from an objective analysis of how best to proceed with the County in a coordinated and effective manner on tourism marketing.

Letasha Thompson and Chris Holloway flank Jacob Meza from different angles in file photo as Meza responded to public criticism of the council.

“I think we’re all on the same page – we all think tourism is important; it’s how we’re going to get back on our feet. I think it’s rather odd that you take out the person who’s actually fought for the joint tourism meetings,” Thompson told Meza.

She noted that she had met with Barnhart “for hours” after her presentation on options moving forward “to get her perspective” and to get additional information on the research Barnhart and the Advisory Committee did to assemble the Advisory Committee PowerPoint presentation.

“Yes, I’m very passionate about us having strong tourism – and it is what it is,” Thompson told Meza and his colleagues.

But apparently taking the time to do background research involving those on the ground of Tourism marketing in this community, in support of one’s decision-making process is viewed as a negative by Thompson’s colleagues.

Vice-Mayor William Sealock joined in suggesting Thompson not serve as one of the two Town representatives, like Meza, citing Thompson’s immersing herself in the Tourism issue.

Meza then cited Mayor Tewalt’s insistence that he would appoint Thompson to the committee as a challenge to the will of the council majority. None of Meza’s apparent “gang of four” council allies indicated any disagreement with his stance either against Thompson’s appointment or council’s authority to decide who among them should be appointed.

However, the mayor was unmoved.

“I feel that Letasha has been involved with this, and Gary has too. So, tonight I’m going to make the appointment personally and give it to Letasha and Gary – so I hope that you all can do a good job and represent the Town very well,” Tewalt said, asserting his mayoral authority and drawing a “thank you” from Thompson.

That did not sit well with Meza, who challenged the mayor for not bending to the will of the council.

“This is a decision made by the council, not selected by the mayor, correct?” Meza replied.

“No, I disagree. I think I have the opportunity and the power to appoint two members and I’ve appointed the members,” the two-time mayor and long-time councilman responded.

It is not the first time the mayor has been at odds with a council majority – Mayor Tewalt at a December EDA Board meeting to express his personal desire to negotiate rather than litigate with the EDA. Council chose a different path.

“I think that you have the obligation to follow the direction of the council. And if the council is saying that we want to pick two members to represent the voice of council, you have an obligation to uphold that vote, do you not?” Meza pressed the mayor.

“No, I feel that I have the obligation right now,” Tewalt responded as Vice-Mayor Sealock injected that he did not support the mayor in this case. However, Sealock sent a mixed message, noting the mayor did have some committee-appointment authority, though he did not believe so in this case.

“This is not a board that you have appointed for action. In that case you do have that capability when you do appoint a board to look into the issue or whatever,” Sealock said, citing the joint County-Town nature of this particular committee that he told the mayor “takes you out of the picture” of mayoral committee appointment authority.

Thompson told her colleagues that if they shut her out of the committee appointment, she would continue to talk to those County and Town sources with whom she seemed to be the lone council member to establish an ongoing relationship with regarding tourism.

But Tewalt held his ground, telling her she remained appointed. The mayor added that he believed the council did not have the authority to overturn his committee appointment authority.

Again, Meza disputed that, asserting council authority over the mayor on committee appointments. The raising of the town attorney’s name and the necessity of a legal ruling at this point led to the discovery that Napier, was in fact, present with Tederick, apparently at Town Hall, despite not showing up on the virtual name list of work session attendees. Napier told council he was looking for the applicable statutes as they spoke.

Twenty minutes later a decision was ready to be rendered just as Councilman Holloway joined the meeting.

Napier then told the full council and mayor, “I’ve looked at everything we can look at, and this is Town Code 4.8 and I can’t find anything anywhere to contradict this: ‘4.8, the mayor is the presiding officer. The mayor as the presiding officer of the council, dot, dot, dot, shall appoint all committees.’

“So, the mayor appoints who he wants for the Tourism Committee,” Napier said.

“Thank you, Doug. Again, I appoint Letasha and Gary,” Mayor Tewalt reminded council.

Though defeated by Town Code, Meza wasn’t finished.

“I respect that appointment, Mr. Mayor. But I did want to make a note that you had a majority of council recommending different appointments (one actually) that you went against,” Meza stated for the meeting record.

“So noted,” the mayor responded

A definite divide surfaced on the virtual council-mayor dais at the May 21 work session, with a partially silent majority siding with Councilman Meza against Mayor Tewalt and one of his two joint County-Town Tourism committee appointees, Letasha Thompson. However, the minority held sway as Town Code supported the mayor’s committee appointment authority.

“Not surprising,” Councilman Holloway commented, throwing in with the Meza-Sealock led otherwise silent council majority despite having missed the lengthy debate on the Thompson appointment.
And then council moved on to other business, that business being the downtown street closures discussed in our companion story on the Thursday, May 21, work session.

See both discussions, and consideration of the redundant North Corridor water line project that opened Thursday’s work session; and the status of the Town Manager interview process being spearheaded by the contracted executive search firm of Baker Tilly that has narrowed 47 applicants down to 9, going on 5 candidates under council’s consideration, in the linked Royal Examiner recording:


Holiday weekend downtown walking mall closures okayed by council

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