At the September 1 County Supervisors meeting, Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Chris Ballenger gave a detailed summary of the planning process to assure maximum safety for students and staff as the county’s public schools move toward their September 8th opening in the continuing COVID-2019 Coronavirus pandemic emergency response situation.
As of September 2, Warren County continued to be on the lower end of pandemic cases statewide, with 394 cases reported, 22 hospitalizations while holding at six deaths attributed to the 2019 strain of Coronavirus. Virginia as a whole has reported 122,542 cases with 2,641 deaths and 9,678 hospitalizations attributed to COVID-19 out of the nation’s 6.04 million cases and 184,083 deaths.
Ballenger cited social distancing plans for in-school aspects of the reopening and school bus transportation, along with virtual learning programs that will continue to be utilized in coming semester through a rotating school attendance system.
“I don’t think there was a school in the commonwealth that was ready for March 13th,” Ballenger said of the statewide Phase One Emergency Management restrictions leading to early school closings last semester. However, he assured county officials that will not be the case in the coming semester in which students will be required to produce results to achieve desired grading as everyone copes with an altered educational environment perhaps unprecedented in our lifetimes.
Interim County Social Services Director Beth Reavis presented a “Big Picture” overview of the county’s social assistance programs and situation, as well as notice that her successor as Social Services Director, Jon Martz, had been hired and this would likely be her final report as interim director.
Reavis made an impassioned plea that the County’s social services staff be included in future upward salary scale adjustments. She noted an overall trend of what she said was underpayment by as much as $20,000 less than comparable employees regionally, and even when compared in county to school system social workers. She presented numbers indicating Warren at the bottom of five neighboring counties in average employee salaries, from $20,000 and $17,000 less than Winchester City and Frederick County to $10,000 less than Shenandoah County and $4,000 less than Page County.
“These women and men face challenges and situations that most people can’t even imagine,” Reavis wrote in her report. It was a report noting a 10% rate of poverty among county residents, with 14% of the community’s children living in poverty.
Reavis reported that a bulk of county social services funding of $55.6 million for three essential programs serving 8500 “unduplicated residents” Medicaid, SNAP, and TANF came from the state or federal level, with a local match of $82,000 or .01%. Another $1 million was generated into other energy assistance, child care subsidies, foster care and adoption costs, with $3 million in administrative costs, including salaries, taking up the bulk of local funding expenses.
And speaking of salary scale adjustments, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office got a mixed result in its request for an upward salary scale adjustment for its 911 dispatcher staff budget with two new positions to be added this year.
On a motion by Cheryl Cullers, seconded by Delores Oates, the board unanimously approved two new positions in the current budget at a cost not to exceed $100,000, while delaying implementation of a requested salary scale adjustment from step 5 to 7 at a cost not to exceed $30,000. The board indicated a desire to identify revenue streams from which to hike the pay scales in the coming budget year, if not sooner, before committing to the pay scale increase.
“At least they’ll know its coming,” Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter said of the board’s desire to fund the pay scale hike.
The board did unanimously authorize the expenditure of an additional $200,000 in COVID-19 related emergency response staff expenditures, raising the authorized total pandemic related funding for county governmental emergency response to $500,000 from $300,000.
See these reports and discussions among other business conducted September 1st in the supervisor’s first meeting of the month in this Royal Examiner video:
Acting EDA Chairman reflects on today’s legal action against Town
Following Thursday morning’s announcement of the filing of civil litigation against the Town of Front Royal to recover nearly $9-million dollars spent to construct the new town police headquarters, Acting Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne told Royal Examiner that United Bank officials, holders of the EDA’s FRPD loan, were aware of the developing situation that could see those debt service payments stop next month.
As reported in our lead story, September’s payment will be the last made by either the EDA or Warren County in support of the EDA debt service on the police station project. Town officials have been informed of this situation, Browne told us. So, as noted in our companion story unless the Front Royal Town Council authorizes assumption of that United Bank debt service, payments on the new town police station will go into default by mid-October. Those payments come due 10 days after receipt of monthly payment-due notices at the beginning of the month.
Of the Town’s stance in previous direct negotiations on the matter, Browne said, “The only thing that they consistently said is that ‘we believe you guaranteed us a one-and-a-half percent interest rate.’ Okay, you can state that, and we can get to deciding that. But that would mean that you would go ahead and pay the principal off; you pay the one-and-a-half percent – none of which is there is any question about.
“The new wrinkle was this week when the argument was made that the loan, I’m not sure what, is fraudulent. Therefore the Town doesn’t need to pay it,” Browne said again referencing Councilman Chris Holloway’s September 14 reading of a contract attorney-prepared statement into the council meeting record about why the Town has no obligation to pay for its police station. – Though it sure makes it easier to accomplish capital improvements while promising to never raise taxes, as Holloway did during the recent County Republican Committee Candidates Forum.
“But again, disingenuous that your police force is sitting in a building that’s been approved, and they approved it,” Browne observed.
Queried about that approval, Browne continued, “They actually have several resolutions, in the lawsuit you’ll see we hung our hat on the last one, which increased the amount to $12 million dollars. And again a resolution, no indication of what the interest rate was or anything regarding it.”
He added that the EDA was in possession of correspondences from the town finance department acknowledging approval of various aspects of the construction project and payment of those aspects.
“The lawsuit is very clearly written – it isn’t 500 different contentions. It’s just a simple story and then alternate legal theories as to why we ought to get it,” Browne said, revisiting a perceived difference in the new EDA litigation and the Town’s now amended litigation that has grown from an initial estimated $2 million amount to “over $20 million” at this point.
As our post-meeting conversation was winding down, Browne said, “What I would leave you with, is when you direct someone to build something for you; you approve all the construction invoices; and then you occupy the place, to have an argument for any real reason that you don’t owe that sum of money seems to me to be disingenuous. And it’s time that the Town pay its bill,” Browne said.
“We’re sad that it’s come to this – but we had no choice. I didn’t get into the EDA to fight with the Town,” Browne said in wrapping up. “I loathe that we have to be doing this when we should be concentrating on economic development. If the Town wanted to help resolve all this they would help work on our lawsuit (against McDonald and her co-defendants).
“I hope they come to their senses, get financing and we can begin all working together. We are one community,” Browne concluded.
Whether it is one community on the up or down side of future economic development will apparently be decided over the next 23 days or so as the deadline on payment of the October FRPD debt service, the final interest only payment of $21,000-plus to United Bank, approaches.
The ball, to use a sports metaphor, has landed with a thud on the Town side of this legal and financial court (pun intended).
No more Mr. Nice Guy – EDA files suit to recover FRPD costs from Town
Following a 50-minute Special Meeting closed session on Thursday morning, September 17, the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors unanimously authorized attorney Rosalie Fessier of the Timberlake-Smith law firm to file suit against the Town of Front Royal to recover the current approximate $9-million cost of construction of the new Front Royal Police headquarters.
Fessier is Staunton-based Timberlake-Smith’s lead counsel representing the EDA in the Town of Front Royal’s $20-million-plus civil litigation against the half-century-old Town-County EDA.
The motion, made by Tom Pattison, seconded by Greg Harold, passed by a 6-0 vote with all board members virtually present. Chairman Ed Daley’s seat remains vacant in the wake of his appointment as Warren County’s interim county administrator. The plan is for him to return to his EDA board seat following the hiring of a permanent successor to Doug Stanley.
In Daley’s absence, Vice-Chairman Jeff Browne chaired the virtually conducted ZOOM meeting from the EDA’s Kendrick Lane headquarters. In the wake of the 8:55 a.m. adjournment of the special meeting this reporter met Browne at the EDA office complex about a half block from the police station.
When we arrived, Browne was still going over paperwork on the civil litigation with Fessier. Following her departure, Browne said the attorney was going to the Warren County Courthouse to file the lawsuit, after which copies would be made available to the media.
Browne explained that the suit is for principal and interest at the rate of the actual United Bank loan, initially 4% then adjusted to the current 3% rate, for a total of just under $9 million dollars. He elaborated that the suit is for money due to the EDA that is in no way impacted by the alleged embezzlements, misdirection of assets or other financial misdeeds attributed to former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald.
“There isn’t any question about that,” Browne said flatly. “And I’ll say this, on anything that we’re asking the Town payment for, we would not ever include anything that was not a legitimate bill. We’re not trying to get them to pay for illegal activities we believe other people did, it’s not going to happen.”
We asked the acting EDA chairman what led to this decision.
“Well, I think the EDA and the County have paid on the Town’s obligation for over a year. And the goal there was to give the Town time to get the financing that it needed and to do the right thing. And they kept promising this in meetings that we had with them.
“So, in good faith we went ahead and did that even though there’s no obligations to pay anything on the police station. So, between just the lack of forward progress on the negotiations, and more recently what came out of town council this week suggested that the timing was something that we had to do to get them to focus on this,” Browne said.
His “this week” reference was to the Town’s EDA civil litigation contract attorney-prepared statement on the Town’s legal stance on the FRPD financial situation read into the record by Councilman and mayoral candidate Chris Holloway on Monday, September 14.
As previously reported, as of November 1 debt service payments on the FRPD project go from interest only in the $21,000 range to principal and interest to around $50,000 monthly.
“And we’re not going to be paying October either, neither is the County,” Browne said of the FRPD debt service coming due in two weeks that the EDA is no longer in a position to cover financially. “The County informed us, we’ve informed the Town that we’re not going to be paying any more on the police station.”
Truth or dare?
As to a timeline other than the litigation being immediately filed at the courthouse, Browne said, “We waived a jury trial, jury trials are going to take a long time given the COVID circumstances.” As a note, the Town is seeking a civil jury trial in its suit against the EDA.
“It’s a very clean case, when you read it, it describes: here’s the facts; they’re all very well documented; and here’s our arguments about why we should get the money,” Browne said of what was on its way to the Warren County Courthouse as we spoke.
Browne elaborated that the EDA case documentation is based in real documents, signed by town officials among others, as opposed to revolving around alleged verbal promises of the former EDA executive director that contradicted known, verified facts about FRPD project financing options. It was a none-to-subtle poke at the foundation of the Town civil action against the EDA.
“And to call them verbal promises even, is perhaps too much,” Browne said of the Town litigation, litigation justified in the above-mentioned attorney-prepared three-page statement read into the Front Royal Town Council meeting record four days earlier by Councilman Holloway.
“When you say you anticipate one-and-a-half percent (interest), it’s like me going fishing and saying I anticipate I’ll catch fish – I sure hope to. But in this case the Town bet and lost. It thought it could get the one-and-a-half percent, was hoping it would get it but knew full well it wasn’t a guaranteed thing. And it turned out it wasn’t,” Browne commented of the underlying Town litigation logic.
Clean or not, the odds are short in “Vegas” that the EDA civil litigation against the Town will be heard within the next month when payments on the police station will stop being made if the Town does not pick them up.
And if they don’t, the Front Royal Town Council is perhaps staking an entire community’s ability to finance future projects on a new “gamble”. That gamble is that it will be judged legally and financially immune from the consequences of its own lack of due diligence, oversight or verification that the 30-year, 1.5% interest rate it hoped for based on verbal “promises” of a now-discredited EDA executive director was even available to it, much less a done deal.
It seems a steep gamble in that those verbal promises flew in the face of what Browne says are signed documents, as well as information from the New Market Tax Credit program administrator, and information and recommendations from its own administrative and financial staff at the time.
If you want to see the consequence of those kinds of gambles, I have been told an exploration of the experience of the Virginia community of Buena Vista, also known colloquially as “Una-Vista”, went some 10 years ago when it declined to meet a financial moral obligation debt service. Spoiler alert – they have not been able to acquire public or private financing for anything since.
Now officials in two municipalities here are left to ponder whether that is a gamble worth taking on the strength their relative civil legal filings, directly or indirectly through their half-century old joint EDA.
Town Planning Commission approves EDA rezoning request
The Front Royal Planning Commission held its regular meeting September 16th at the Warren County Government Center. There were no public presentations, and the commission had only one item to consider and solicit public input for. The commission reviewed a proposed rezoning of approximately 62.7 acres at the end of Progress Drive, adjacent to the Happy Creek Technology Park. The proposed rezoning, from Residential (R-1) to Industrial Employment (I-2) is a preliminary step to potential future development. Any development would require permits and approvals separately from the rezoning request. The purpose of the EDA action is to improve the site status from Tier 1 to Tier 2 of the Virginia Business Ready Sites Program and possible future expansion of the adjacent Technology Park.
The proposal contained several proffers, or terms and conditions, that enhance the proposal’s value to the town. The proffers are:
- A 25-foot landscaping buffer for visual screening, to preserve existing woodland and add trees and shrubs along the border of the non-wooded areas.
- A By-Right land use will not be restricted, but business and professional offices, technology businesses including data centers, veterinary hospitals, pharmaceutical and/or medical schools, public facilities and special childcare services will be preferred.
- A dedicated Right-of-way of 60 ft for the continuation of Progress Drive will be provided to meet all town and Virginia Dept of transportation standards when a final site plan is developed for future use.
- A Traffic Impact analysis was estimated at a peak hourly rate of 124 trips, but a new analysis will be provided upon any development in the future.
Chairman Douglas Jones opened the floor for public comment, but there was none.
A motion to approve the proposal was made by Commissioner Merchant, Seconded by Vice Chairman McFadden. Brief discussion ensued regarding whether the acceptance of the proffers should be made part of the motion to approve. An Amended motion including the proffers was unanimously approved.
The Planning Department Staff announced the new Director of Community Development and Planning, Timothy Wilson. Commissioner Merchant asked if there was progress on recruiting new planning commission members. Director Wilson indicated that action was underway by Town Council.
There being no other business, the commission adjourned at 7:15.
EDA releases statement on litigation over police station debt
At a Special Board meeting this morning, the EDA Board of Directors unanimously approved a resolution to sue the Town of Front Royal for the recovery of $8,946,742 in principal and interest on the loans the EDA obtained on behalf of the Town to build the new Front Royal Police Station. Rosalie Fessier with the firm of Timberlake Smith was retained to represent the EDA in this matter.
The EDA initiated negotiations multiple times over the last year to get the Town Council to honor its obligations to pay for the Town’s Police Station. Despite promises to secure financing, the Town Council has not paid any principal or interest on the loan.
As a result of the Town’s failure to pay for its own building, the EDA and Warren County have been paying monthly construction loans to build the Police Station to give the Town Council time to secure its own loan. That will no longer continue. The Town Council needs to find its own funding on its Police Station.
We urge the Town Council to take immediate action to secure a loan to cover the costs it has incurred on the Police Station and other projects it has run through EDA. While litigation appears to be the only recourse for the EDA, litigation will only hurt Town taxpayers who must fund those costs.
EDA authorizes litigation against Town of Front Royal
The EDA Board of Directors met today for a Special board meeting. Following a 1-hour Closed meeting, the Directors passed a resolution approving a settlement with Crystel Smith and Sheri Yoder of Optimum Impact, LLC for a delinquent Rural Business Enterprise Loan (RBEL). The resolution also approved payment of fees to Daniel Pond of Pond Law Group, PC for assistance in negotiations and collection of funds.
The board also passed a resolution engaging Rosalie Pemberton Fessier of Timberlake Smith Attorneys at Law, and authorizing her to take legal action to collect monies due the EDA from the Town of Front Royal. The Directors issued a separate statement to address this decision:
Rockland neighborhood shooting ban denied after storm of accusations, counter-accusations
The final public hearing on a lengthy Tuesday, September 15th county supervisors meeting agenda was by far the most contentious and occasionally LOUD – if not “POP, POP, POP” gunshot loud – of the evening. At issue was a request that the Clear Back Subdivision in the Rockland area near the Shenandoah Valley Golf Club be added to the list of county subdivisions where shooting firearms is illegal due to public safety and intrusive noise concerns.
Following 10 public hearing speakers, some who visited the podium more than once to contest or re-hurl personal accusations over the veracity or motivation of opposition speakers during a sometimes contentious 45-minute public hearing, the Warren County Board of Supervisors sided with a 7-3 pro-recreational shooting majority to deny the request.
Actually the public speaker breakdown was 7-4, but one supporter of the request, former law enforcement, and military firearms trainer Dale Orlowski, spoke to the matter during the general Public Concerns comment period near the meeting’s 7 p.m. outset. By the time the Clear Back firearms public hearing was reached at 9:35 p.m., Orlowski was long gone. During his earlier comment, Orlowski echoed previous meeting comments, calling the Clear Back shooting ban request a public safety issue, rather than a 2nd Amendment or personal freedom concern.
The vote to deny the request, on a motion by Cheryl Cullers, seconded by Delores Oates, was 4-0 with Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter absent.
At issue was what has been described at previous meetings as a belligerent attitude by subdivision recreational shooters, who have been alleged by gun-ban petition circulator James Harper to have refused several personal or business requests to suspend obtrusive gunfire during events like golf course-hosted weddings or a child’s birthday party at a nearby private residence.
In making his case for the shooting ban, Malcolm Barr Sr. said of the desired outcome limiting the amount of noise and potential accompanying danger in their neighborhood, “My wife and I wish it would be so in the absence of any law, but we fear not.”
Barr called the level of “gunfire” prior to the current lull after media publicity about the shooting ban request “seemingly incessant” close to his Rockland Road home not far from the Shenandoah Valley Golf Course Clubhouse. He noted his wife, Carol, underwent scheduled, daily home medical treatments for cancer that he believes have helped her beat Stage 4 cancer for 10 years. Quiet, he noted, is the desired atmosphere for those one to two-hour daily treatments.
As Royal Examiner previously reported, during August 4th public concerns comments to the supervisors, shooting ban petition circulator James Harper said, “Several weeks ago on a Saturday we all heard automatic gunfire for over 5-1/2 hours. This was non-stop gunfire,” Harper said … Years ago this was farmland, now it’s a neighborhood. Is it fair for two houses to disrupt the neighborhood?” Harper asked the board before presenting a list of signatures in support of the shooting ban for the subdivision area, including from former supervisor Ben Weddle, former town councilman Kermit Nichols, and … SVGC principal Richard Runyon. Harper recounted a story he said Runyon told him when he first moved near the golf course to introduce him to the shooting issue.
“He told me they were hosting a wedding, and they went across the street to ask them to stop shooting while the wedding was going on because it was an outdoor wedding. And they said ‘No’ and kept on shooting. That’s what we’re dealing with,” Harper told the supervisors.
However, the public hearing’s opening speaker, Clear Back area shooter Bryan DeNinno, his son James and others disputed such assertions, saying if asked for good reason to halt their firearms shooting, they would.
Both sides have portrayed the other as selfish in their stances on the shooting issue. Now, with the ban denied by the supervisors, and requests like Barr’s over his wife’s desire for quiet around specifically timed medical treatments at home, we may find out exactly how fruitful Board Chairman Mabe’s plea for direct, neighborly communications between the sides will be in alleviating further conflict over recreational shooting practices in the area.
Several pro-shooting rights advocates noted that Harper had his home up for sale, and asserted he had personal motive to fabricate negative portrayals of them to up the sales value of his home to city folks who might be seeking peace and quiet in a more rural setting. They also contended that Harper misrepresented the nature of his petition to acquire signatures and asserted that some signatures were from bordering areas not included in the Clear Back Subdivision at issue.
Harper countered that he was not a liar, but rather was forwarding what he believes is a majority opinion of the now expanded Clear Back area residential neighborhood. Of the previous level of shooting present prior to what 18-year Rockland resident and shooting-ban supporter Malcolm Barr Sr. called a welcome lull in the recreational shooting since the shooting ban request went public in the media following the August 5 supervisors’ meeting, Harper said, “I don’t think the Clear Back Subdivision needs a militia, unless Joe Biden wins.”
But his expression of conservative Republicanism and support for President Trump didn’t help his cause with perhaps politically like-minded neighbors.
Several speakers addressed a perceived “slippery slope” of governmental overreach in limiting their rights as Americans. “That pop, pop, pop is the sound of freedom,” Bryan DeNinno said in opening the public hearing. Several local shooters also disputed the description of “automatic” weapons fire in the area, denying possession of illegal weapons. One even worried over a potential late-night ATF raid on their home based on those descriptions leading to a potential shootout with federal agents.
The level of animosity between the opposing viewpoints – public safety and nuisance versus 2nd Amendment and property rights – was upped a notch with an appearance at the speaker’s podium by former Board Chairman and North River District supervisor Dan Murray, whose voice rose as he defended the shooting rights of his former constituents, and occasionally directed critical comments at Harper and Board Chairman Walt Mabe.
In fact, Murray asked Mabe to recuse himself from the vote due to Harper’s support of him in the 2018 election. Murray did not seek re-election and Oates won the battle to replace him as North River representative. Mabe was elected chairman after defeating Shenandoah District incumbent Tom Sayre.
Mabe responded to Murray, saying he would not recuse because he made no political promises in exchange for electoral support, and disputed Murray’s contention that Harper had been his “largest” financial supporter.
“I don’t consider this just an attack on the 2nd Amendment, it is also an attack on property rights,” Murray began, questioning where the evidence of danger to neighbors was – “Has there been any property damage? Has anyone been shot? If not, this is personal with an individual that wants to sell a property,” Murray continued setting his sights on Harper. “And he’s violating quite a few people’s rights … This is a travesty,” Murray said, arguing the matter should have never come before the supervisors.
His voice began rising as he said that during his eight years on the board, such an issue had never come before the board “Not once, NOT ONCE,” Murray said, escalating his tone and pitch upward as he cited Harper as forwarding a personal agenda.
See Harper try to respond, and Murray turn and yell, “Sir, I HAVE the FLOOR,” as the battle was joined in the below Royal Examiner video.
After listening to the exchanges and Murray’s dust-up with Harper, a citizen who had not signed up to speak asked to address the board. Susan Bowen is not a newcomer to the neighborhood.
“I guess I’m saddened at what I’m hearing tonight – the disrespect for those of us who live in the country. And I’ve been there for almost 75 years on a family farm, fourth generation. And I love the peace there. And I guess they have no respect for those of us who would like to live in a quiet atmosphere; to completely disregard our wish for a peaceful and quiet community.
‘I’ve lived there for 75 years and I’ve never heard gunshots like I’m hearing now from these people – I’ve never heard it before … and I’m just really saddened by it all … I don’t think you’re going to hurt anybody or kill anybody. It’s just the noise. It’s not the feeling of being safe. And I really appreciate your freedom, but don’t we count too? … Don’t we have rights too, to have a peaceful existence?
“I’m just terribly saddened tonight,” Bowen concluded to a silence she wished more prevalent at her home and neighborhood.
See the Clear Back Subdivision shooting ban public hearing and all the comments from both sides in this first Royal Examiner video: