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EDA Board Meeting update: Several motions passed

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The EDA met for their regular February board meeting Friday morning, February 28. The Board of Directors passed several motions to further define operational efficiency, including in-house accounting procedures and signature authority on contracts to add transparency and accountability to EDA decision-making.

Small Business Loan Collection. The Pond Law group will represent the EDA in legal collections of small business loan debts. The EDA has two loan programs to support entrepreneurs and small businesses in the Front Royal Warren County area. The EDA will work with the Pond Law group to contact delinquent borrowers to resolve unpaid loans.

514 East Main Street Contract. The EDA announced that a contract had been approved for the sale of 514 E. Main St., also known as the Main Street Market apartments. Selling this property helps improve the quality of the EDA’s property portfolio for business, manufacturing, and industry.

Royal Lane Workforce Housing Contract. The Board also approved a sales agreement with Cornerstone Group to repurchase a property known as the Royal Lane Workforce Housing project. The negotiations between Cornerstone’s principals and the EDA represent a spirit of reconciliation and is a welcomed resolution for all. The EDA will plan a disposition of the property in the near future.

Afton Inn: The Board authorized a FOIA request to the Town requesting all documents and emails pertaining to the Afton Inn’s historic preservation designation as referenced in a Virginia Department of Historic Resources letter to the Town. The EDA again expressed the hope that the Town would be responsible for the maintenance and preservation of the Afton Inn, per the Memorandum of Understanding between it and the EDA.

Property Improvements: The roofing repairs at 1325 Baugh Drive are nearly complete. Also, quotes are being obtained to make roofing repairs at the Kendrick Drive facility once the solar panels are removed.

Site Characterization Improvement: Estimates of the cost to make improvements to targeted EDA sites are being requested. The closer commercial sites are to being “shovel ready” the higher the rating and the more desirable they become to businesses and industries.

The next regular EDA board meeting will be Friday, March 27, 2020.

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County: Town’s ‘half’ equals 27% if council wants to move alone with relief funds

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If the Town wants to play its own “I, Me, Mine” (with a songwriting nod to late Beatle George Harrison) economic recovery game with its “equitable” share of federal Coronavirus Relief money, it is likely to find it is playing with less than the $1 million to $1.5 million town staff said it is anticipating of the $3.5 million in CARES (Coronavirus Aid Relief & Economic Securities) money Warren County received on June 1.

That is because in a population-based model upon which the CARES money is to be distributed to smaller municipalities within qualifying county’s, an 8-3 “unit” split, or 73% to 27% distribution of those funds has been estimated by county staff. Those numbers are based on the county population of about 40,000 and the town’s 15,000, that latter number who are also county residents, as Mayor Gene Tewalt explained to council on June 1st.

Some people just have a hard time learning to play well with others – is that a current trend among some elected officials inside Front Royal’s Town Hall? Some on the County side are beginning to wonder. Royal Examiner File Photos/Roger Bianchini

Those numbers equate to $946,000 the Town would get, with the County retaining roughly $2.5 million according to the government formula on “equitable” distribution of the CARES relief funds. The process and numbers were explained to county supervisors following Tuesday’s morning meeting, at an early Tuesday afternoon, June 2nd work session.

The topic was broached on the County side during a presentation by County Deputy Emergency Services Director Rick Farrall on the County’s receipt of the $3.5 million CARES money the previous day. As Front Royal Mayor Tewalt noted during council work session discussion of the same topic the previous evening, he and Vice-Mayor Bill Sealock met with county officials Monday afternoon to discuss a mutually acceptable distribution and relief plan.

However, as reported in our story “Money, money, money, EDAs and ongoing weekend downtown walking mall” council collectively did not appear initially receptive to the two-pronged plan Tewalt and Sealock brought them from the afternoon meeting with county officials. Contacted later, Farrall said in addition to him, Front Royal Mayor Tewalt and Vice-Mayor Sealock, present were County Board Chair Walt Mabe and County Administrator Doug Stanley. Farrall also later verified that the County received the CARES funding the day of that meeting, Monday, June 1. He noted it was applied for on May 20.

As summarized by the mayor Monday night, the County proposal was to divide the $3.5 million in half; have the County and Town jointly administer a relief package to qualifying businesses and/or citizens inside and outside the town limits with $1.75 million; and let each municipality use their share of the remaining $1.75 million, based on the 73% – 27% County-Town “equitable” population formula split, as they saw fit.

“I don’t think it went too well,” Farrall told the supervisors of the mayor’s presentation to council the previous night.

“According to the formula they’re going to get the big cut of it and we’re going to get the crumbs,” as we reported of Councilman Gary Gillespie’s reaction Monday night.

Pre-pandemic file photo of council and then Interim Mayor Tederick and Councilman Tewalt. Gary Gillespie, gray sportscoat left, led the negative response, joined by Chris Holloway, near right, and Vice-Mayor Sealock, far right, to a County-conceived, partial joint pandemic relief proposal at a still-virtually conducted June 1 town work session.

Even Sealock, who was involved in the meeting with county officials the day the money was received; and who told his colleagues the County as recipient of the grant was “100% responsible” for documentation and accounting that all the money was used as federally prescribed, seemed perturbed that the County had developed a plan without the involvement of Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick.

“I’m just wondering why we weren’t consulted other than today of all days,” a frustrated Sealock said.

Despite the presence of county board Chair Mabe at the Monday meeting with the mayor and vice mayor, Chris Holloway wondered if the plan was formulated by the county administrator without county board authorization or approval.

Mayor Tewalt tried to derail the “we are being taken advantage of” train that was gathering momentum. “They want to take the $3.5 million and use half of it for economic recovery; and then take the populations and split it whatever that ratio would be of the other $1.7 million and use that the way we want to utilize that amount of money …

“But they just want to know if we would be agreeable tonight – just split the money, and use half of it for recovery and half of it to do the other (things) as far as the government’s concerned. So, we can pay whatever we have to pay and they can pay whatever they want to pay,” the mayor told council.

In response to Gillespie’s “They’re going to get the big cut … and we’re going to get the crumbs” remark, the mayor readdressed the population-based formula. “Yea, but … there’s 40,000 people in the county and we’re only 15,000. So, they should get the most of it,” Mayor Tewalt reasoned.

Vice-Mayor Sealock then explained the above-referenced “unit” split as based on a count of 5,000, with 5,000 divided into the town population three times and the county’s eight. Hence, the 8-3 “unit” or 73%-27% population-based divide of the money.

“Well, Mr. Mayor you asked us if we wanted yes or no on it – and my answer’s no,” Gillespie responded, unmoved by the numbers or the population-based distribution formula originating at the federal level with the CARES grant program.

Tederick said he believed the County had received the funding within the previous two weeks, but that Tewalt and Sealock’s presentation was the first he had heard of a distribution proposal developed on the County side.

“Well, I think they just put it together today,” the mayor replied.

As the “our money, our plan, our rules” momentum built on council, Lori Cockrell did voice a word of caution Monday night, telling her council colleagues, “I don’t want to say, no, we don’t want any money.”

Not so fast, cowboys – council’s newest member, appointed Lori Athey Cockrell who filled Tewalt’s seat after his election to mayor, urged caution against a blanket rejection of the County’s Coronavirus federal relief proposal.

“I understand the ask, I’m not offended by it; it makes sense why they’re asking. Maybe even the dollars could end up making sense when we see it spelled out,” Jacob Meza added. One repeated complaint voiced was the absence of more written documentation to accompany the mayor and vice-mayor’s explanation of the proposal, as well as the absence of a county official to answer questions.

Cutting nose off to spite …

Discussing the County proposal and an initially suspicious and negative reaction from several councilmen with Farrall later Tuesday afternoon, he reiterated a point to this reporter he made earlier to the county supervisors. That point was that the joint relief aspect of the County proposal could actually see an additional benefit to in-town businesses and/or citizens as recipients from both governments to whom they pay taxes as dual town-county citizens or commercial entities.

“You’ve got a 50/50 (split) with $1.75 million. I assume that could be more spent in-town,” Supervisor Tony Carter observed of the joint aspect of the county proposal.

A little quick calculating indicated that if the Town and its recipients were the potential beneficiaries of half of the jointly administered money ($870,000) and the Town got a flat 27% or three “units” of the other $1.75 million ($473,000) to do with as it pleased within documented CARES guidelines, their total take would be $1.34 million, some $400,000 more than taking their 27% share of the entire $3.5 million ($946,000).

Could a council rejection of the County’s CARES Coronavirus pandemic relief proposal actually cost town recipients as much as $400,000? It seems a possibility, several on the County side have stated.

“Logically, if the Town would think about it, town business might benefit better from this model … they may get more money for town business in a joint pot, than saying ‘give me my little slice and I’ll see you’,” Farrall replied to Carter’s observation.

Fifteen minutes into the work session that led to a discussion of the anticipated third party roles of the EDA (County) and Chamber of Commerce (Town) acting as distributors of funds to accommodate state prohibitions on charitable giving by municipal governments. That discussion included difficulties created by the Town’s choice of hostile, shoot-for-the-moon civil litigation, rather than good faith negotiations with the EDA.

‘Equitable’ – dueling perspectives

County Board Chairman Mabe also observed that while town officials might consider “equitable” a 50/50 down the middle split, giving each municipality roughly $1,752,000 million of the $3,504,164 federal CARES funding to the County, it wouldn’t be based in the reality of the program guidelines.

“That could be what they want,” Mabe warned his colleagues.

Who are those masked men & women? – County Board and Joint Coronavirus Emergency Management Team Chair Walt Mabe, hands extended bottom right, told his colleagues several councilmen’s complaints about a County relief distribution proposal appear based solely on a desire for unilateral control of a larger piece of the federal financial pie.

Farrall responded by noting such a perspective did not fit the definition of “equitable” as it applied to the County.

“I would dismiss any talk of saying 50% down the middle. Because that is in no way equitable to the County; nor is it how the funds were generated in the first place,” Farrall said drawing immediate agreement from Mabe and Supervisor Delores Oates.

Farrall continued to note that in counties with smaller town municipalities that rely on their county governments for essential services like schools, parks and recreation, and emergency services, the CARES “equitable” formula of sharing can go beyond population considerations alone.

“In a county that has these smaller towns, it’s not just a straight population (equation) because those smaller towns are dependent on the county for many things they don’t have to pay for. So, back to Jason’s point, this is where in the language of the CARES Act we have to determine an equitable distribution where it is not 100% population.”

“Jason’s point” was County Attorney Jason Ham’s earlier observation, “It depends on how you define the word ‘equitable’.”

Ham continued, “Warren County has agreed to equitably share with the Town, and so you could determine equitability to be based on population. But then you also have to consider that, you know, Rick here is going to save somebody’s life if they’re in a burning house in the Town of Front Royal,” Ham said of Farrall’s employer, the County Fire & Rescue Department that serves county residents both inside and out of the town limits (and a HEART-felt God Bless Them for that, seven-plus years down the road from one in-town medical emergency survivor).

“And his salary is paid by people who live in the Town of Front Royal, as well as those in Warren County. It’s however you define equitable, and that’s one way to do it,” Ham concluded of a population-and-services formula tied to the federal CARES Act money.

Not on immediate call to run into a burning building to save anyone, the County’s Deputy Emergency Manager continued, “So somewhere between the pure population split and (the cost of shared services) you could negotiate if you will. But at the end of the day it’s up to the County to determine that split. We’re just trying to be nice …”

At Tuesday work session, County Deputy Emergency Management Director Rick Farrall, standing to left, explained procedural aspects and financial responsibilities of the County’s receipt the previous day of $3.5 million in federal ‘CARES’ Coronavirus relief funding.

“At the end of the day we’re all at the benefit of something we didn’t have,” board Vice-Chair Cheryl Cullers injected, adding, “I mean to fight over it at this point – you’ve got to do this a way it makes sense.”

“Well, the County’s not fighting it. The decision just has to be made between the Town and County. And what it amounts to now is just the split. We’ll work out the details, we’ll have to,” Mabe observed.

Noting the earlier observation that the mayor’s presentation of the county proposal to council “didn’t go well” Oates asked, “What were the objections, I’d like to understand that.”

“Just, they want more money. It’s as simple as that. They don’t agree,” Mabe replied, as Oates finished his sentence, “With the equitable solution we’ve come to.

“Okay,” Oates added of her developing understanding of the situation.

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

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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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Local Government

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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