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Governor Northam announces $2 billion public-private broadband investment

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RICHMOND—Governor Northam announced that Virginia has received a record number of local and private sector applications to match state broadband investments, putting the Commonwealth on track to become one of the first states to achieve universal broadband access by 2024. Virginia anticipates more than $2 billion in total broadband funding, thanks to local and private-sector matching funds that go beyond the $874 million in state appropriations since the Governor took office in 2018.

“Broadband is as critical today as electricity was in the last century,” said Governor Northam. “Making sure more Virginians can get access to it has been a priority since I took office, and the pandemic pushed us all to move even faster. Virginia is now on track to achieve universal broadband by 2024, which means more connections, more investments, easier online learning, and expanded telehealth options, especially in rural Virginia.”

The Virginia Telecommunication Initiative is the Commonwealth’s broadband program. It was started in 2017 to fund public-private partnerships to extend broadband service to areas unserved by an internet service provider. When the most recent application round closed last month, the program received 57 applications from 84 localities, requesting $943 million to connect more than 250,000 Virginia homes and businesses. These applications leverage $1.15 billion in private and local matching funds. The Department of Housing and Community Development is reviewing applications and expects to award the funds by the end of the year.

Virginia has taken dramatic steps on broadband since Governor Northam took office in 2018, as Virginia’s first rural Governor in a generation. He set out a clear goal: achieve universal access to broadband within 10 years. The goal was bold, as Virginia’s broadband program was investing just $4 million a year and 660,000 Virginians did not have access to high-speed internet.


Since then, Governor Northam and the General Assembly have awarded $124 million in grants to connect more than 140,000 homes, businesses, and community organizations. The Virginia Telecommunication Initiative has awarded 39 projects in 41 different counties, supported by over $94 million in matching private and local funds. Along with private investment and federal broadband grants, the Commonwealth has reduced the digital divide by 65 percent. Plans accelerated further in August, when Governor Northam and the General Assembly allocated $700 million in American Rescue Plan funding to broadband, moving the original goal for achieving universal access to 2024.

“Ensuring that rural Virginians have access to broadband is the number one way we can make sure they have equal access to the economic, educational, and health opportunities that broadband provides,” said Broadband Advisory Council Vice-Chair Delegate Roslyn Tyler. “No Virginian should be left behind. Thanks to Governor Northam’s commitment to getting universal broadband done, we’re seeing record levels of public and private sector matching funds, and we’ll have this critical infrastructure available to all Virginians more quickly than we imagined.”

“Broadband a vital resource for communities across the Commonwealth,” said Broadband Advisory Council Chair Senator Jennifer Boysko. “Broadband access allows our citizens to connect to their workplaces, schools, and doctors and broadens their opportunities and choices about where to live and work. The Northam administration’s investment in broadband, paired with these matching funds, will get universal broadband access to Virginians in record time.”

The overwhelming response to this year’s Virginia Telecommunication Initiative grant round demonstrates that Virginia has built an innovative and successful model for bridging the digital divide.

 

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An Arlington push for stronger swatting laws and more Va. headlines

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The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder gave congressional testimony that was “often evasive or misleading,” according to a report from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which has been looking into a variety of misconduct allegations surrounding the team.—Washington Post

• William Fowler, a former sergeant with the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office who is married to Democratic Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, has filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired over politics. Sheriff Ken Stolle called the claims “completely frivolous.”—Virginian-Pilot

• Arlington County is helping lead a push for stronger Virginia laws against “swatting,” the practice of calling in fake threats to draw a police response to a targeted location.—ARLNow

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• An Albemarle County judge set a March 30 preliminary hearing in the case of Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., the University of Virginia student facing murder charges for allegedly killing three football players in a shooting last month.—VPM

• The owner of a Spotsylvania County restaurant that’s feuded with authorities over COVID-19 rules rejected Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposal to forgive all punishments for businesses like his. “You have proven how ineffective and weak you are as a leader,” wrote owner Matt Strickland, who’s also a Republican candidate for state Senate.—Free Lance-Star

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Virginia officials say more than 10,500 felons remained on voter rolls after re-offending

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Another data glitch in Virginia’s election system caused 10,558 felons to remain on the voter rolls after they committed new crimes that should’ve made them ineligible to vote, state officials announced Friday.

The Virginia Department of Elections said it discovered the issue while conducting list maintenance as the agency prepares to replace the state’s aging voter system.

The affected voter registrations involve people with felony convictions who had their rights restored by governors as Virginia dramatically relaxed its lifetime disenfranchisement policy over the last decade. As hundreds of thousands of felons regained their right to vote, the state’s voter system wasn’t set up to account for the possibility that some of those newly registered voters might re-offend and become ineligible again.

“The original computer code written for the restoration of rights process did not provide for the instance in which an individual might be reconvicted of a felony following the restoration of their rights,” the agency release said. “ELECT has automated a solution to cancel these voters and add them back to the prohibited list.”


According to officials, only a small portion of the impacted voters — roughly 1,000 — have cast a ballot in a Virginia election since 2011. That indicates the impact on election outcomes was likely minimal because the vast majority of people who had their rights restored did not re-offend.

Governors from both parties have prioritized rights restoration over the last decade, meaning a felony conviction no longer prohibits democratic participation for life as it once did. However, the lifetime felon disenfranchisement policy remains in the Virginia Constitution, despite the repeal efforts of advocates who argue fundamental rights shouldn’t come down to the whims of whatever governor happens to be in office. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe made rights restoration a major focus of his administration, restoring the rights of more than 150,000 people during his time in office.

The felon issue comes after the elections department experienced significant problems earlier this year processing voter registration data coming over from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Before the midterm elections, local election officials had to process more than 250,000 transactions that hadn’t properly transferred. Officials said that issue was also caused by faulty computer code.

The new voter system, which officials have said is expected to address many technological defects in the current one, is set to be developed and implemented over the next two years.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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School divisions, facing buildings in disrepair, tap into new buckets of money

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A tour of Henrico’s new Highland Springs High School construction is estimated to cost about $80 million. (2021 photo Henrico County Public Schools)

 

According to state data related to school construction needs, Grayson, Franklin City, Martinsville, Bristol, and Petersburg are Virginia’s most financially strapped localities.

The five have fiscal stress ratings of around 107. By contrast, many divisions in the more affluent Northern Virginia have scores of around 90. The state average is set at 100.

A school division’s financial situation is one of the major factors state officials consider in determining whether to provide a loan to help cover the costs of repairing and replacing aging buildings. More than half of all school buildings in Virginia are greater than 50 years old, according to a June 2021 presentation to the Commission on School Construction and Modernization.


Some common needs among school divisions are roof repairs and replacements, as well as safety upgrades and fixes for electrical and plumbing issues.

Additionally, the June report found 19% of schools failed to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, with estimated compliance costs totaling more than $204 million.

The biennial budget signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin this August put $400 million into the state’s Literary Fund to be loaned out to local school divisions for construction projects at lower interest rates than previously allowed by law. However, some districts say the state’s criteria for those loans, which include the division’s ability to pay back the loan, has deterred them from seeking such assistance.

Jason Wood, superintendent of Patrick County Public Schools, said rural school divisions “would benefit more from additional grant opportunities, not loans that we cannot afford to repay.”

“Asking our taxpayers to take out another loan will be too burdensome when the majority of our local revenue already comes from property taxes,” he said. “Just as rural and small schools need a different funding formula to level the playing field with larger divisions, they also need additional help in school construction.”

Most portions of Patrick County’s schools date back to the late 1930s. The county also has one of the oldest collections of buildings in the state, with a median age of 82 years. At the same time, it has one of the state’s lowest composite index ratings, a measurement of a division’s ability to pay education costs, according to the latest data collected by the Virginia Department of Education.

While some divisions cannot seek assistance from the state’s Literary Fund because they cannot pay the loan back, others say they are constricted by a rule that prohibits divisions from getting Literary Fund loans to help cover the costs of projects that are already underway.

That’s the case in Floyd County, where the school division has one of the oldest groups of facilities in the state, with a median age of 75.5 years.

Floyd County Public Schools Superintendent John Wheeler said while the division was fortunate to be able to start on construction and renovation projects about four years ago when costs were lower, it is ineligible for a loan since its projects are underway.

2022 legislation

In the last session, with Virginia seeing record surpluses, lawmakers gave school divisions more options to get state funds for school construction and modernization.

The newly created School Construction Fund and Program offer competitive grants supported by appropriations from the general fund and literary funds, with ongoing funds to come from the newly authorized casino gambling in Virginia. This year, the new gaming proceeds fund is expected to receive $4.7 million from Virginia’s only operating casino, in Bristol, but casinos could generate up to $828 million in net revenue by 2028 when four casinos are expected to be up and running.

Under the School Construction Grants Program, a revived version of a program that existed before the Great Recession, schools receive funding based on a formula and can carry over those funds to future fiscal years. Recipients are determined through scoring criteria developed by the Board of Education. That program received $400 million in funding this year.

The School Construction Assistance Program, which received $450 million in the budget, awards competitive grants to divisions covering 10 to 30% of project costs. The program prioritizes grants to divisions with poor building conditions and higher fiscal needs, with recipients determined based on the local composite index and fiscal stress classification.

Before those investments, schools financed improvements with a combination of local revenues, bank loans, bonds, and state and federal funds like Literary Fund loans.

Nine localities in Virginia, including Mecklenburg and Patrick counties, are allowed to impose a local sales and use tax to fund school construction projects. Efforts to allow more local governments to levy such taxes failed in a House subcommittee during the last General Assembly session.

Legislation to create incentives for local governing bodies and school boards to set aside funds not spent in a school year for maintenance, renovation, or construction projects also failed during the same session.

Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools and president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools in Virginia, said he and other advocates are asking the General Assembly to make adjustments to how the state awards funds for construction costs. One recommendation is to make all construction projects that were either started or completed during the current biennium eligible for the School Construction Assistance Program.

That, said Perrigan, “will provide much-needed resources to high-poverty school divisions.”

Ken Nicely, Roanoke County Public Schools superintendent, said the school division will qualify for $100,000 from the School Construction Assistance Program based on its composite index. However, he’s concerned Roanoke will not meet the criteria for grant funds due to the way different factors, such as need and building conditions, are scored.

“We will still apply for the grant in order to express interest and true need, but we are concerned that our projects will not score high enough due to the manner in which the point values were assigned,” Nicely said.

He said he hopes that the criteria will be adjusted for future competitive grants in order to allow divisions to complete and additional funds will be appropriated by the General Assembly for the formula grants.

 

by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Attorney General Miyares issues restitution checks to consumers harmed by service dogs organization

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Attorney General Jason Miyares announced that his office has mailed restitution checks totaling $192,667.11 to 94 consumers as part of two judgments entered in a lawsuit filed against Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, Inc. (SDWR) and its founder, Charles “Dan” Warren, Jr. The Attorney General’s Office filed suit against SDWR, a Virginia-based company that sold purported service dogs to consumers nationwide, and Warren for alleged violations of the Virginia Consumer Protection Act and the Virginia Solicitation of Contributions law.

“Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, Inc. sold dogs that purportedly could assist people with various conditions such as diabetes, autism, seizure disorders, or post-traumatic stress. I’m proud that we are now able to return some money to these consumers, thanks to the dedication and commitment of my Consumer Protection Section,” said Attorney General Miyares.

Instead of receiving service dogs, consumers often were delivered poorly-trained puppies with significant behavioral challenges and inadequate skills or training. The Amended Complaint also alleged that SDWR and Warren misled customers, charitable donors, and the public about certain aspects of the business’s payment structure, its affiliation with local police departments, and Warren’s own military service.

In August 2021, the Commonwealth obtained a judgment against SDWR in Madison County Circuit Court (after SDWR filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in the Western District of Virginia Bankruptcy Court) and a Consent Judgment settlement with Mr. Warren. The restitution funds mailed by Attorney General Miyares today represent a portion of those judgments, the sources of which include a distribution from the SDWR bankruptcy estate obtained this year and a settlement payment from Mr. Warren.


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Virginia State Police won’t release job records of ex-trooper who killed 3 in California

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Virginia State Police acknowledged “human error” caused them to miss a violent incident in the past of a former state trooper who killed three people in California last month, but the agency is refusing to release 247 pages of personnel records that could shed more light on his time as a state employee.

The Virginia Mercury filed a public records request for all documents related to State Police administrative investigations and background checks of former trooper Austin Lee Edwards, whom authorities say “catfished” a 15-year-old California girl online before traveling there and killing three members of her family.

Edwards’ 15-month stint as a State Police trooper ended Oct. 28, when he left his state job to join the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Southwest Virginia. According to California authorities, Edwards killed the girl’s mother and grandparents on Nov. 25 and tried to kidnap her before dying by suicide during a shootout with police.

State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said the agency was choosing to “exercise its statutory discretion” to keep the employment records confidential. Asked if the agency could explain that choice given the significant public interest in the murders Edwards committed and his background as a police officer in Virginia, Geller said the state’s transparency laws don’t require the agency to comment further.


Edwards’ behavior as a State Police officer never triggered any internal investigations, according to the agency, and there was no potentially troubling information in his background that the agency would have been legally required to pass along to his new law enforcement employer in Washington County. Under Virginia law, the State Police would have had to tell the county sheriff’s office about any alleged criminal activity, excessive force, or other misconduct in Edwards’ law enforcement background.

However, State Police say their own hiring process was flawed because they were unaware that a court-ordered Edwards to be hospitalized for a mental health episode in 2016, years before he became a state trooper, in which he threatened to kill himself and his father, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In a news release Wednesday night, State Police said, “human error resulted in an incomplete database query during Edwards’ hiring process.” The hiring process, the agency said, includes a background check “that requires passage of written, psychological and physical testing, as well as a pre-employment polygraph.”

“Although we believe this to be an isolated incident, steps are currently underway to ensure the error is not repeated going forward,” the agency said. “The department is also proactively auditing existing personnel records and practices.”

The agency said it is conducting a “forensic review” of Edwards’ state-issued laptop and cell phone.

Geller made clear the agency would not be releasing any personnel information related to Edwards, including his monthly job performance evaluations.

“The materials you are seeking constitute personnel information of this agency concerning identifiable individuals,” Geller said, pointing to a longstanding exemption in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that allows state and local governments to shield a wide array of records dealing with the hiring, firing, and performance of public employees.

However, the Supreme Court of Virginia recently narrowed the exemption in an October opinion that concluded government agencies don’t have a blanket right to shield all personnel records. Instead, the court found, the exemption only applies to truly private information, defined as anything that, if disclosed, would appear to be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” to a reasonable person.

Federal FOIA guidance says that “after death, a person no longer possesses privacy rights.” But that interpretation doesn’t bind state agencies or state courts.

 

by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Loudoun superintendent fired after grand jury report and more Va. headlines

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The State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

 

• The NCAA is granting another year of eligibility to all University of Virginia football players who were playing in their final year this season. The move comes in response to the mass shooting last month that left three players dead and led the team to cancel several games.—Daily Progress

• The Loudoun County School Board voted to fire Superintendent Scott Ziegler following the release of a grand jury report that concluded he lied about a sexual assault that took place in a high-school bathroom.—WTOP

• The average gas price in Virginia has fallen back to $3.21 per gallon, the same price as a year ago, after hitting a high of $4.86 in mid-June.—Richmond Times-Dispatch


• Virginia will get $16 million as part of a $434 million national settlement with Juul Labs, the e-cigarette maker accused of marketing its products to minors.—WRIC

• “Dozens of members of Congress and other Virginia dignitaries paid their respects to Rep. A. Donald McEachin at his funeral in Richmond on Wednesday morning, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”—Washington Post

 

by Staff Report, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Historic Area Journey back in time and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of a Civil War Encampment during the holidays. Interact with the 10th VA Infantry, also known as the Valley Guards,[...]
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Italia Performing Arts is pleased to announce its own student production of the seasonal ballet The Nutcracker, to be presented in Front Royal, VA, on Saturday December 17th 2022. Tickets: $35 and $25 Under 16:[...]
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Historic Area. While the American tradition of celebrating the New Year occurs at midnight on New Year’s Eve, other cultures celebrate by enjoying the sunrise on New Year’s Day. As part of the continuing American[...]
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