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Front Royal resident questions dual roles of Warren County Public Schools Superintendent

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James Harper questions school board members and Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) Superintendent Greg Drescher regarding the positions he holds for WCPS and as a member of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) Board of Directors. Photo and video by Mark Williams.

James Harper, who lives on Rockland Road in Front Royal, Va., had 3 minutes to speak his peace during the community participation segment of the July 3 Warren County School Board meeting, but he went over that allotted amount of time.

During the regular meeting, Harper had several questions for school board members and for Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) Superintendent Greg Drescher regarding the positions he holds for WCPS and as a member of the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority (EDA) Board of Directors.

Drescher stepped down as EDA chairman in August 2018 but remains a member of the EDA board, which is currently embroiled in a financial scandal in which two former EDA staff — Executive Director Jennifer McDonald and Administrative Assistant Michelle “Missy” Henry — each are in jail on multiple felony counts for their alleged involvement in the misappropriation or embezzlement of some $21 million in EDA assets.

“Mr. Drescher, first, I’m sure you’re a very talented guy, but I do not understand how you have time to be on the EDA board with two failing schools,” Harper said, reading from his prepared statement. “This is your first time as a superintendent and I would have thought maybe your time should have been spent helping the failing schools reach a standard of excellence.”

Town and county residents have been blowing up social media outlets and local government meetings asking for answers about the alleged theft by EDA staff and others of taxpayer dollars, among other suspected improprieties in the ongoing EDA case.

“Did anyone on the school board say anything to you about your desire to be on the EDA board?” asked Harper, looking up from his statement to stare directly at Drescher.

Harper then turned his attention to Warren County School Board Chairwoman Catherine Bower and her colleagues on the school board.

“Next is a question for Miss Bower and the board: Mr. Drescher was under contract from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2019 with a salary of $154,000. Why give him a contract at a high salary — $165,837 —when he was already under contract?” Harper said. “I have been in sales for many years and been under contract. If I’d gone in to my superiors and said ‘How about a raise?’ during the middle of my contract, I would have been laughed out of the building.”

Harper added, “Did Mr. Drescher really deserve a raise because the schools went from two failing schools to one? You have teachers leaving the county because they do not make enough money and Mr. Drescher gets a $12,000 raise.”

Bower already had reminded the audience at the start of the community participation segment of the meeting that while school board members would not respond that evening to presented issues, “please be assured that any concerns will be reviewed.”

Interestingly, however, school board members did indirectly address Harper’s concerns during their individual reports to the board.

For instance, during Drescher’s superintendent report reviewing school year 2018-2019, he said the compensation benefits package presented in February “has ended up being a huge help to our efforts to retain teachers this year.”

“Our goal is to retain more staff,” Drescher said. “We know that any good business does not retain 100 percent of its staff all the time, but they don’t lose the level that we were losing.”

Drescher pointed to data showing that Warren County has had more than 60 staff leave each year for the last six years, an annually rising number that peaked last year with 72 staff leaving.

“But his year we’re at 59,” he said, “so our goal is to get in the 40s. We’re halfway there with one year making a difference in our salary. I’m very proud that that has happened. It’s going to make a difference for our students because more teachers are going to stay and gain those experiences and help our students learn.”

And school board member C. Douglas Rosen, who represents the Shenandoah District, publicly acknowledged those efforts.
“I was in business for 37 years and I know how tough it is fighting for dollars when you aren’t making any and losing employees,” said Rosen, leaning forward in his chair to look over at

Superintendent Drescher, who sat to his right. “One thing I can say about our compensation fund or study, we did the right thing. That will pay off and we all know that. So, I’m very pleased to thank the executive management, management groups, teachers, everybody that runs this system and runs it as smoothly and as well as transparent with everything that’s going on.”

In addition to his concerns about Drescher’s jobs, Harper suggested that school board members institute what he considers to be a few new county-wide educational benefits.

“I’d really like to see a larger, expanded technical school in Warren County teaching young people to be electricians, plumbers, HVAC techs, and so forth,” said Harper, noting that higher education isn’t for everyone.

Harper also said that he’d like to see an ethics class become mandatory for high school graduation in Warren County, Va.

“Growing up, I don’t ever remember my parents cussing and I try not to ever use those words because I believe there are better adjectives,” Harper said. “I’m not saying I never say one, but it’s very rare. An ethics class can cover many things, like being a better classmate, to being honorable in business, and finding better adjectives.”

In closing, Harper also suggested that the school board consider replacing former EDA executive director McDonald on its long-range plan review committee and said, “I hope you will spend the county’s money wisely like it’s coming out of your own wallet.”

The Royal Examiner’s camera was there.

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Warren County Parks and Recreation reopening plans for summer 2020

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This spring, in support of the Governor’s Executive Orders and in compliance with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), the Warren County Parks and Recreation Department closed recreational facilities and canceled activity programs. Recently, the Governor announced that the implementation of Phase Two of Forward Virginia will begin on June 5, 2020, through Executive Order Number 65.

Warren County Parks and Recreation Facilities and Programs Phase Two Reopening Plan:

Shelters

  • Available for rent Thursday, June 11, 2020
  • Capacity is 50 people or 50% of normal capacity per shelter, whichever is fewer.
  • Social distancing guidelines are in effect. For additional details on making a shelter reservation, please call the RES Youth Center at (540) 635-7750.

Playgrounds, Skatepark, Trails, Tennis Courts, Disc Golf, and Open Spaces – OPEN

  • No more than 50 people at once
  • Social distancing guidelines in effect.

Baseball, Softball, and Soccer Fields

  • OPEN Monday, June 8, 2020
  • No more than 50 people per field.
  • Rentals for practices only.
  • Fields will not be lined until Phase Three or later.

Front Royal Golf Club – OPEN

  • Golfing, cart rentals, pro shop, and boat ramp access are available.
  • Clubhouse facility is closed to the public
  • Banquet room reservations are unavailable.

Claude A. Stokes, Jr. Community Swimming Pool

  • CLOSED AT THIS TIME (Opening Date To Be Determined)
  • The pool will be opening soon with limitations in accordance with Executive Order Number 65.

Warren County Splash Pad – CLOSED Not opening during Phase Two.

Public Restrooms – CLOSED (Opening Date To Be Determined)

Outdoor Basketball Courts – CLOSED (Opening Date To Be Determined)

Warren County Parks and Recreation Community Center, RES Youth Center, and indoor recreation facilities – CLOSED (Opening Date To Be Determined)

Events and organized activities, including sports leagues – Cancelled at this time

The Warren County Parks and Recreation Department offices remain open (but closed to the public) to field your related questions via phone at (540) 635-7750 or (540) 635-1021 or via
email at kzitzer@warrencountyva.net.

This is a rapidly changing situation, and the most current information is available on the following websites: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus or www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/. Please consult www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus for the latest number of COVID-19 cases in Virginia.

Additionally, you can find local information on the Warren County COVID-19 website: https://www.warrencountyva.net/coronavirus-latest-information, the County of Warren, VA Facebook page, or the Town of Front Royal COVID-19 website: https://www.frontroyalva.com/645/Covid-19-Local-Response.

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Rise in county COVID-19 stats, guidelines for Phase 2 reopenings explained

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County-Town Emergency Management Team officials and Warren County Commonwealths’ Attorney John Bell briefed media on the current county and Lord Fairfax Health District statistics and details of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s Executive Order 65, moving portions of Virginia, including Front Royal, Warren County and our health district into Phase 2 of Coronavirus pandemic business and governmental reopening.

Emergency Management Team Chairman Walt Mabe, center, opens Thursday’s weekly briefing. He was socially distanced flanked by Rick Farrall, left, and Commonwealth’s Attorney John Bell. Royal Examiner Photos/Roger Bianchini – Royal Examiner Video Mark Williams, Audio Mike McCool

Those statistics included 217 COVID-19 cases now in Warren County, a rise as Deputy County Emergency Manager Rick Farrall noted, of 13 from the previous day. The cumulative two-day rise in cases of 51, with 38 new cases being reported on Wednesday. A portion of that rise is related to the result of testing at RSW Regional Jail, which now reports 75 total cases, 67 of which are active, Farrall noted.

A change in the C-CAP food distribution location, from the 15th Street Public Building back to C-CAP’s 316 North Royal Avenue location, was also noted by Farrall who handed a report on the governor’s Executive Order 65 over to Commonwealth’s Attorney Bell.

Bell noted the key number “50” as in 50% capacity and 50 total customers in now re-opened indoor restaurant dining areas. The 6-foot social distancing standard, along with masks will also remain in place. Phase Two guidelines begin this Friday, June 5.

Team Chairman Mabe again urged citizen networking with their neighbors who might need additional assistance, and a general sense of community working together through this trying health threat and economic hardship stemming from medically advised restrictions on public activities during the pandemic, which was forecast to last at least through the summer to some degree.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bell addresses new guidelines for Phase 2 openings, beginning tomorrow, Friday, June 5, for much of Virginia, if not Northern Virginia.

Near the meeting’s end, those present addressed details of the planned march in honor of George Floyd, who died while being arrested in Minneapolis, Minnesota over a week ago. Four now-fired Minneapolis police officers have been charged related to what has been legally defined as Floyd’s “murder” at the hands of those now-disgraced former officers. Local law enforcement is networking with, and is expected to march with, rather than in opposition to, that local demonstration beginning at 6:30 p.m. Social distancing will be in place for that event as well, Bell said.

See the full, approximately 25-minute briefing of valuable information in this exclusive Royal Examiner video:

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County could bypass Town in ‘CARES’ funding – but doesn’t intend to …

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There was an explosive revelation in a June 4th Letter to the Editor from Greg Harold concerning the distribution of federal “CARES” Act Coronavirus Economic Relief funds. That revelation in the Letter titled “Council’s Wanton Cries of ‘More’,” is that Warren County does NOT have to include the Town of Front Royal government in the distribution of CARES (Coronavirus Aid Relief & Economic Securities) funding.

File photo of January 2020 EDA Board of Directors meeting. Greg Harold is center, far side of the table in a light shirt. Walt Mabe, a regular attendee at new EDA board meetings is directly behind Harold, who is flanked, left by EDA Board Chair Ed Daley and Executive Director Doug Parsons. Royal Examiner File Photos/Roger Bianchini

“Not to say that’s what we’re going to do,” County Deputy Emergency Manager Rick Farrall said in pointing us to the administering agency, the U.S. Treasury Department’s website for confirmation of Harold’s statement. That confirmation was most immediately apparent in a May 28 update on commonly asked questions about the federal CARES funding.

“Is a Fund payment recipient required to transfer funds to a smaller, constituent unit of government within its borders?”

To which the Treasury Department answer was: “No. For example, a county recipient is not required to transfer funds to smaller cities within the county’s borders.”

As we noted in an appendix to EDA Asset Committee Chairman Harold’s letter to the editor, “… while Front Royal is not a city, it is “a smaller constituent unit of government” within county borders.

So, if the council thought that less than a million dollars or $1.5 million were “crumbs” from the $3.5 million of CARES funding the County received on June 1, how might ZERO dollars administered through its hands play in Town Hall?

That is not to say Town businesses and citizens would lose out on that funding. Rather, the County could take on the responsibility of distribution of CARES funding to businesses and citizens on both sides of the town-county boundary who qualify by the program’s standards.

Asked after Thursday afternoon’s weekly Coronavirus Emergency Management Team briefing, Team and County Board Chairman Walt Mabe echoed Farrall’s earlier comment that unilateral County action is not currently on the table.

“It’s an option but it’s not our intent,” Mabe told Royal Examiner.

A masked Rick Farrall and Walt Mabe discuss the future of pandemic emergency management following Thursday’s Emergency Management Team briefing.

But one might imagine that if a continued, aggressively hostile and accusatory tone is the council’s collective loudest voice concerning how CARES funding will be divided, that intent could conceivably change.

In fact, Thursday evening during the first meeting of the newly formed four-member (two from the council, two from county board) Joint County-Town Tourism Committee, North River Supervisor Delores Oates referenced the recently evolving divide between the two municipal governments. In response to Joint Tourism Advisory Board Vice-Chair Kerry Barnhart’s observation on the danger of “being in the same kind of situation we’ve been in, where we have competing visions, competing, you know things that conflict with each other,” Oates began: “Well Kerry, I’m really glad you brought that up.

“Because unfortunately with the Town and the County there’s us and them perception. And WE are here to say that WE are going to end that perception,” Oates continued with emphasis on both pronouns. “We are an all us, and this tourism effort is going to be an all us. And I think in order to accomplish that we need to keep the lines of communication open,” Oates continued in describing an open, mutually beneficial network to move the partially dismantled Town Tourism function and the County’s forward on one transparent and profitable track.

“We aren’t unified and I’m going to call out the elephant in the room, Oates said to her committee comprised of she and Cheryl Cullers on the County side and Letasha Thompson and Gary Gillespie on the Town side.

More on that committee meeting in a coming Royal Examiner story and linked virtual meeting recorded broadcast.

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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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Local Government

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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King Cartoons

Front Royal
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