At the June 3rd work session the Town Council continued the discussion from the March 4, 2019 work session were Town Council had discussed additional options for collection of bad debt on utility accounts. The items Town Council requested to pursue were:
- Judgments for bad debt on utility accounts
- Raising the minimum deposit amount from $125.00 to $150.00
- Personal guaranty on business utility accounts
- Proof of Income
Town Staff is currently processing the first round of utility accounts to obtain judgments and continues to work to streamline the process. Town Staff will report back to Town Council with an update once judgments have been put in place or additional information is obtained.
Town Staff has recommended several options to include:
- Requiring a personal guaranty and/or furnishing proof of income should help reduce the Town’s bad debt expense, but will make the utility application process more cumbersome for applicants.There are approximately 2,000 new utility accounts opened each year and approximately 240 are subject to bad debt expense after 5 years. The amount written off during FY2018 was roughly 1% of the dollar value billed.
- Staff recommends raising the minimum amount of deposit on utility accounts, allowing staff to continue pursuing judgments, and possibly review additional collection options such as the personal guaranty & proof of income after one year.
As you can see in these related stories, the Town Council has been discussing this bad debt issue for some time. Is it now time for action? The proposed code (with changes) is below.
Town Council approved a revision to the Bad Debt Policy in March 2019 and requested to review/approve write-off of bad debt quarterly. Town Council is requested to approve the removal of 5 years or older of outstanding accounts receivable (bad debts) on the Town’s ledger for the second quarter of 2019 totaling $27,755.98 which is comprised of 59 utility accounts. All possible recourse of attempting to collect these amounts has been completed and the accounts have no activity for at least 5 years.
HISTORY: The Town of Front Royal had a large dollar value of uncollectible “bad debt” recorded yearly on the Town’s ledger, due to non-payment of utility bills which had not been addressed for over 30 years until 2012. The Town’s auditing firm, Mitchell & Company, requested that Town Council approve a policy that would allow the Department of Finance to review outstanding uncollectable debt annually, and abate the bad debt from ledgers after all avenues for collection had been exhausted. Town Council adopted a bad debt policy on November 13, 2012 that deemed an uncollectible account as having no activity for a period of 7 years. Town Council adopted a revision to the bad debt policy on March 11, 2019 that deemed an uncollectible account as having no activity for a period of 5 years to coincide with the Code of Virginia.
Code of Virginia § 8.01-246 allows action to be taken to collect on written contracts for a period of 5 (five) years. Written agreements are used for Town of Front Royal Utility Accounts. Based on the Code of Virginia, a Town of Front Royal Utility Account would be deemed uncollectible after there has been no activity from the account holder for a period of 5 (five) consecutive years.
Based on the utilities billed & bad debt written off during FY2018, the Town of Front Royal Department of Finance collected approximately 99% of the amounts billed annually before accounts were deemed uncollectible and written off.
Town Staff has determined that the accounts presented meet the criteria for uncollectible as determined by the Town’s bad debt write off policy:
- No activity on closed account for at least 5 years
- All other methods of collection have been exhausted
The amount of bad debt approved to be removed by Council is as follows:
- Dec 2013 – $848,191 – approved for removal
- Dec 2014 – $144,049 – approved for removal
- Feb 2016 – $225,318 – approved for removal
- Feb 2017 – $203,808 – approved for removal
- Nov 2017 – $175,999 – approved for removal
- Oct 2018 – $166,191- approved for removal
- Mar 2019 – $277,974.34 – approved for removal along with revision to policy
- June 2019 – $27,755.98
The FY19 budgeted revenue for the sales of electric, water, sewer, & refuse totals approximately $30.8 million. The amount of $27,755.98 represents approximately 0.09% of the budgeted sales.
Here is a list of the Utility Account Bad Debt
Balance – Service Address – Final Bill Due Date
680.88 84 – E STRASBURG RD #4 – 3/31/2014
205.63 – 604 EARL CT – 3/13/2014
415.08 – 112 W 16TH ST – 5/31/2014
312.82 – 1318 DIXIE AVE – 5/30/2014
171.26 – 1122 N SHENANDOAH AVE #6 – 5/23/2014
400.34 – 111 W 12TH ST #1 – 3/20/2014
216.37 – 706 W 14TH ST – 4/2/2014
422.72 – 842 W 11TH ST – 4/17/2014
207.44 – 708 W 11TH ST #3 – 3/31/2014
246.19 – 708 W 11TH ST #4 – 3/7/2014
318.61 – 650 E W 11TH ST – 3/21/2014
509.49 – 343 KENDRICK LN #20 – 5/31/2014
214.27 – 1400 MASSANUTTEN AVE #2 – 5/23/2014
301.63 – 122-B N ROYAL AVE – 4/17/2014
240.14 – 21-D W 6TH ST – 3/7/2014
763.28 – 717 VILLA AVE – 4/22/2014
180.38 – 15 MASSIE ST – 3/7/2014
551.07 – 144 CHESTER ST #1 – 4/17/2014
44.71 – 8-A CHESTER ST – 4/17/2014
670.05 – 190 COMMERCE AVE – 5/23/2014
249.70 – 110 E 4TH ST – 4/17/2014
374.21 – 718 WARREN AVE #3 – 3/21/2014
1504.30 216-B E MAIN ST 4/24/2014
219.18 – 615-A VISCOSE AVE – 7/31/2013
418.60 – 518 W MAIN ST #3 – 4/24/2014
52.77 – 117 E MAIN ST #3 – 8/5/2013
403.30 – 413-A E MAIN ST – 3/7/2014
422.50 – 23 S ROYAL AVE – 3RD FLOOR – 4/30/2014
50.87 – 215 S ROYAL AVE #3 – 9/10/2013
120.72 – 124 W JACKSON ST #6 – 3/24/2014
63.61 – 405 E CRISER RD #204 – 3/20/2014
346.70 – 1084 FOX DR – 5/7/2014
326.83 – 19 SHENANDOAH COMMONS WAY #103 – 4/24/2014
139.26 – 17 SHENANDOAH COMMONS WAY #201 – 9/27/2013
224.74 – 13 SHENANDOAH COMMONS WAY #103 – 3/31/2014
586.40 – 634 BEL AIR AVE – 5/23/2014
492.39 – 425 BEL AIR AVE – 4/30/2014
1173.34 – 519 BEL AIR AVE – 5/23/2014
604.67 – 1433 HAPPY CREEK RD – 3/31/2014
84.19 – 541 S ROYAL AVE POOL/OFFICE – 11/28/2013
529.27 – 227 CHURCH ST #3 – 4/30/2014
247.06 – 315 PINE ST – 5/1/2013
4466.22 – 226 CHURCH ST – 2/13/2014
755.37 – 219 CLOUD ST #2 – 3/31/2014
1054.78 – 219 CLOUD ST #4 – 4/24/2014
72.49 – 320 CLOUD ST #3 – 4/14/2014
1024.16 – 320 CLOUD ST #5 – 3/17/2014
202.07 – 10 HIGH ST #1 – 4/14/2014
423.26 – 212 FLETCHER ST – 5/28/2014
152.05 – 322 RITENOUR ST – 3/7/2014
531.84 – 337 RITENOUR ST – 4/22/2014
854.11 – 101 PINECREST ST – 5/10/2013
178.54 – 27 ROYAL LN #3 – 4/2/2014
86.69 – 61 ROYAL LN #1 – 5/16/2014
338.63 – 125 BIGGS DR #8 – 5/23/2014
511.77 – 1443 JOHN MARSHALL HWY #5 – 4/2/2014
863.22 – 2 LAKE AVE – 4/30/2014
82.24 – 205 POLK AVE – 3/13/2014
451.57 – 209 POLK AVE – 3/13/2014
This is the proposed code to Town of Front Royal Municipal Code 134-71 related to the remaining four items listed above.
134-71 UTILITY ACCOUNTS-PAYMENTS/TERMINATION OF SERVICE
1. Amount: For an existing residential service location, the deposit required for Town utility services shall be an amount equal to the highest monthly bill for that location during the preceding twelve months or one hundred and fifty dollars ($150.00), whichever is greater.
For an existing commercial service location, the deposit required for Town utility services shall be an amount equal to the highest monthly bill for that location during the preceding twelve months or two hundred dollars ($200.00), whichever is greater.
To calculate the amount of the deposit for newly established residential or commercial service locations, the Front Royal Department of Finance shall establish the deposit at an amount equal to the customer’s anticipated monthly usage of water and electric service, as may be the case.
If, at any time, the customer’s deposit is waived or returned, as set forth below, but the customer’s service subsequently is terminated for nonpayment or the customer has made four late payments during any twelve month period, a deposit, in an amount as set forth above, shall be required.
2. Deposit Waiver: Notwithstanding the foregoing, no deposit shall be required hen an acceptable credit history is furnished by the customer from a previous utility provider. Acceptable credit history is defined as a customer who can demonstrate that during the previous twelve months his bills were paid with no more than four (4) late payments on a monthly billing system or no more than two (2) late payments on a bimonthly system.
3. Payment of Deposit: Payment of the deposit is due upon execution of the service work order. In lieu of the foregoing, when the required deposit for a residential customer exceeds one hundred dollars ($100.00) but is less than two hundred dollars ($200.00), the customer may elect to pay one hundred dollars ($100.00) at the time the work order is executed and pay the balance of the deposit along with payment for the first month’s service. When the required deposit exceeds two hundred dollars ($200.00), the deposit may be paid in two equal installments with one half due when the work order is signed and pay the remaining half along with the payment for the first month’s service.
4. Interest and Refunds: Deposits shall be held in an interest-bearing account. Deposit plus interest shall be refunded either: (1) upon termination of the service account in an amount equal to the deposit and accrued interest minus any amount deducted to satisfy customer arrearages or other debts owing to the Town; or (2) upon the customer’s request after a period of twelve months of service during which there were no more than four delinquent payments. Upon request of a refund, the Director of Finance shall first ensure that customer does not have any debts owing to the Town. If the customer is indebted to the Town, the Director of Finance will apply any refund toward satisfaction of these debts prior to the refund of any money to the customer.
1. Due Date – Fines and Charges: All payments for water, sewer, electric, and garbage collection services shall be due within 20 days of the date of billing. Accounts, for which full payment is not received within 20 days, are delinquent. A late charge of 2% of the delinquent bill immediately shall be charged to the delinquent account. If the account remains delinquent for 10 days after the original notice, an additional service charge of $10.00 shall be charged. Finally, a service charge will be required to reconnect service that has been discontinued due to non-payment. If the reconnection occurs during normal business hours, the reconnection fee shall be $20.00-first reconnection fee; $30.00-second reconnection fee; $40.00-third reconnection fee; $50.00- reconnection fee for all other times.
2. Allocation of Payments: During a delinquency in the payment for any service (electric, water, sewerage, or garbage collection) any subsequent payment received for services will be applied first against the most delinquent account which is not subject to a defense of any applicable statute of limitations.
3. Budget Billing: Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Director of Finance, in his discretion, may enter into agreements with customers for alternative billing and payment schedules with persons on fixed or limited incomes.
C. TERMINATION OF SERVICES:
1. Notice: The Director of Finance shall notify the customer in writing of all 20 day delinquencies, imminent service termination, and right to contest as set forth below. Notice also shall be posted on the door of the premise with the delinquent account.
2. Protest: The customer may contest the bill by contacting the Director of Finance for the Town of Front Royal who will immediately schedule a hearing on the customer’s claim that his account is not delinquent.
3. Disconnection of Service: If the matter is not successfully contested by the customer and arrearages remain 10 days after the date of the aforementioned notices, water service shall be disconnected. If the account remains delinquent after another 2 days, electric service shall be disconnected. If, however, the customer has not secured water service, electric service (rather than water) will be disconnected after 10 days. Notwithstanding the foregoing, no services shall be disconnected prior to a requested hearing.
4. Persons in Poor Health: Customer may seek an additional 30 days before water and electric services are disconnected if the Director of the Warren County Health Department certifies in writing to the Town of Front Royal Director of Finance that the customer has a serious medical condition or the customer resides with a family member with a serious medical condition. Upon providing certification the service termination may be delayed twice within a 12-month period, but may not be consecutive, certification shall be valid for period of 365 days.
5. Conditions for Reconnection of Service: Once disconnected, services shall not be restored to that customer until the outstanding balance (service fee(s), penalty, and reconnection fee(s)) for that service location is paid in full, unless the Director of Finance has approved other arrangements for payment in full.
D. RETURNED CHECK POLICY: If a check is returned to the Town for any reason, the Director of Finance shall notify, in the same manner as provided above, the Customer. If payment, in full, plus a $35.00 service charge is not received by the close of business three days after the date on the notice, all utility services to the customer’s service location shall be disconnected. If the customer presents the Town with more than two bad checks during any twelve month payment, payment by check will no longer be accepted.
E. BUSINESS ACCOUNTS. The Town shall require any entity not a natural person requesting a utility account to either: (1) provide the written personal guaranty of payment from a natural
person holding an ownership interest in the entity or, (2) pay an additional deposit amount equal to the greater of: (a) twice the average monthly utility bill during the preceding twelve (12) month period for utilities provided at the service location or, (b) $375.00. Any additional deposit paid pursuant to (2), above, after applying same to any past due balances, shall be refunded to the entity within a reasonable time after the utility account is closed.
F. PROOF OF INCOME. Customer shall furnish Town with documentation necessary to verify source of income to prove ability to pay average monthly utility bill for that location for the preceding 12 month period; such proof may include, pay stub, bank statement, copy of last year’s federal tax return, wages and tax statement (W-2 and/or 1099’s), pension payment, social security payment, child/spousal support agreement, and/or other documentation deemed acceptable.
No announcements out of Town Planners Closed Session with town attorney
The Front Royal Planning Commission adjourned to Closed Session shortly after 6 p.m., Thursday, October 21st, for discussion with legal counsel. No announcement or action followed the Closed/Executive Session with Town Attorney Doug Napier. Vice Chair Connie Marshner convened the special meeting and closed session in the absence of Chairman Doug Jones, who arrived shortly after the commission entered the Executive Session behind closed doors.
The Notice of the Special Meeting cited the Closed Session topic as “a specific matter(s) that very recently came up before the Planning Commission and to consider making recommendations which may need to be addressed by the Front Royal Town Council.”
That wording was altered slightly in the motion to go into closed session read into the meeting record Thursday evening, citing the subject as: “matters that came up before the Planning Commission and which may require recommendations by the Planning Commission to Town Council, pursuant to Section 2.2-3711. A. 8. of the Code of Virginia”
What that “matter” or “matters” may be remains to be seen, as no announcement or action followed the closed session before the special meeting’s adjournment.
Joint Town Planning – Council Meeting kicks off Comprehensive Plan rewrite push
The Front Royal Planning Commission did not consider any new permit proposals this month, and instead met October 20 with the Town Council in a Leadership Forum to hear from the consultant team that will help the Town with a major rewrite of its Comprehensive Plan. The current plan dates from 1998. In that version of the Comprehensive Plan, the Town sought to address the problem of an increasing number of community residents who had to commute to the Washington DC metropolitan area leaving a bedroom community without a strong economic base or community character. The plan also identified the loss of the rural character of the area by residential developments in rural areas or mountain development as slowly robbing town residents of the public values contributed by surrounding farms and natural areas. Many of the themes and emphasis areas in the old plan are even more relevant in 2021.
Summit Design and Engineering, the firm that the town has tapped to provide expertise and staff to conduct the rewrite, provided an overview of the schedule and areas of concentration for the joint session, as they had in a one-on-one meeting with council the previous day. Ann Darby, the Summit Design representative, explained that the Comprehensive Plan is a guiding document that envisions what the future of a community looks like and outlines steps it takes to get there. A particularly important point is that although the plan itself does not have the force of law, it should lead to changes in the official zoning map and the Zoning and Subdivision ordinances that bring legal weight to the adopted guidelines.
Town Planning Director Lauren Kopishke outlined the results of a Town Council session held on October 19 where council members identified their vision for the town. That vision included:
- An abundance of retail options
- A walkable community
- Riverfront Development and Access
- Preserve and enhance Downtown
- Natural Resources
- Small town charm and architecture
- Community Appearance
- Lodging Options
- Public Transit options
- Small area planning for key areas.
During the October 19 meeting, Council also identified areas that the members felt should be revisited during the Comprehensive Plan rewrite:
- A Road Diet, described as a review of the roadways in the town and how they can be made appropriate to the traffic levels
- Expansion of the entrance corridors
- Minimization of trip time for basic necessities
- Location of Industrial Zoning
- Desirable vs. undesirable uses
- Traffic Concerns
- Bike/Pedestrian safety
- Public Transport expansion
The vision and goals identified during the process of rewriting the Comprehensive Plan are really only the beginning of the process. A useful Comprehensive Plan is the product of, not only the team assembled by the Town with participation of a consultant, council itself, and the Planning Commission, but the largest and most challenging part – public participation.
The traditional permit process used for individual projects or permit requests includes advertisements in the neighborhoods affected by the granting of a use permit, public hearings, and council approval, but it was noted the Comprehensive Plan needs much more. To properly address the small-town character, economic, environmental, and housing sustainability, tourism, mobility and accessibility, public health and safety, responsive and accountable governance, and public services, the plan needs input from citizens, businesses, and even visitors, in addition to the planning experts and government staff. The Town Planning Department will be reaching out to the public with a variety of tools to gather public input. The team will use public input sessions, an interactive website, online and paper surveys, comment sessions for draft documents, and vision statements to reach the widest population of those citizens, business owners, and visitors who will be impacted by the decisions made in the review and rewrite.
Because the plan must be grounded in current reality, the team intends to spend the initial months of the process gathering information on existing conditions. It must take account of what is working, and not working, Darby said. The plan will be ultimately organized around 11 general areas:
- Community Appearance
- Land Use
- Economic Development
- Capital Improvements
- Parks & Open Space, Development Areas
- Goals, Vision, and Future
The benefits of both the Comprehensive Plan and the ensuing Subdivision and Zoning Ordinances are for both citizens and businesses – Companies want to locate in places where their employees would want to live, and citizens want an active local economy for employment and supply for their everyday needs. A good plan builds realistic expectations, better transparency, and a healthier community. Work is expected to continue on the Comprehensive Plan into February of 2023.
‘Ghosts of EDA Loans Past’ come back to haunt county supervisors
The most interesting part of Tuesday evening’s Warren County Board of Supervisors meeting was likely behind closed doors after the board adjourned to Closed/Executive Session for a legal-based answer to North River Supervisor Delores Oates question as to what benefit to the County and its taxpayers there was in approval of a Resolution admitting a “moral obligation” to continue to pay the debt service on bank loans made by the EDA during its developing financial scandal, circa 2016 or so. There was one of three loans at issue of particular interest – the $10-million-dollar loan to Truc “Curt” Tran’s ITFederal company poised to jumpstart commercial redevelopment at the 149-acre portion of the former Avtex Superfund site known as the Royal Phoenix Business Park.
Of particular interest, because the “moral obligation” for that loan was initially believed covered by the Town of Front Royal, whose elected officials agreed to provide a $10-million-dollar “bridge loan” requested by then EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald to indicate to First Bank and Trust that “the community” stood behind the loan and proposed project it supported. That request for and Town show of financial support for the ITFed project came despite the fact the company showed virtually no assets other than the three acres at the Royal Phoenix/Avtex site valued at slightly over $2-million-dollars that was “gifted” to the company by the EDA behind closed doors for one dollar.
A clue to what the county supervisors heard over about 15 minutes in Closed Session may have been offered by the board’s action out of it. After some hesitancy in response to the Chair’s call for a motion on the Resolution, Oates’ motion for approval of the “EDA First Bank and Trust Support Agreement”, seconded by Walt Mabe, passed by a unanimous roll call vote. The vote commits the County to continue to absorb those “moral obligation” payments through the Fiscal Year 2021-22 at an estimated cost of $214,000.
In open session, responding to questions about the Resolution in support of the “EDA First Bank and Trust Support Agreement”, County Administrator Ed Daley mentioned consolidation of three loans, including the above-mentioned ITFederal loan (at $9,551,500), as well as a First Bank and Trust Line of Credit ($8,691,600), and a First Bank of Strasburg loan ($3,450,000). Contacted later, Daley cited one condition that would bring the EDA’s payments to the bank on the ITFederal loan in line with what ITFederal pays the EDA monthly at about $42,000. Before the EDA payments fluctuated to more or less than the ITFed payments, sometimes as much as $7,000 a month more.
Despite the commitment to an estimated $214,000 in payments through this fiscal year, the board’s unanimous vote in support of its moral obligation payments likely reflects negative consequences were the County to bail on covering an EDA debt mid-fiscal year. But again, the agreement is only to the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, 2022. What might the future of “moral obligations” related to the “Ghost of EDA Loans Past” bring in FY-2022-23? – Stay tuned for another seasonal episode of “A Front Royal-Warren County EDA Carol”.
Thermal Shelter bathrooms
County Administrator Daley was also prominent in responding to another matter raised by three speakers during Public Comments about things, not on the meeting agenda. That was the elimination of two bathrooms in the Health and Human Services Complex at the old 15th Street middle school utilized by the County and involved churches and civic organizations to house the community’s homeless indoors at night during the winter. Opening that discussion was First Baptist Church Pastor Christy McMillin-Goodwin, followed by Aneita Bryant and Jim Bunce.
That trio said an alternate plan for mobile outdoor restrooms was unadvisable due to security and additional personnel to monitor out-of-building night trips, as well as potential severe weather issues. Noting a replacement plan that would not have new indoor facilities in place in time for this winter’s thermal shelter setup, these speakers wondered how the removal plan had been initiated without notice to those involved in helping the County operate the thermal shelter. Bryant suggested allowing access to the next closest indoor facilities.
In responding, Daley said he had been at point for the County in initiating the bathroom removal due to failing pipes that caused toilet backup issues. He said he had envisioned a much quicker turnaround in replacing the removed indoor facilities in that section of the building than ended up being the case. He promised to work proactively with those involved to see that an adequate alternate overnight option was available when the thermal shelter opens as winter arrives.
Also Tuesday following public hearings, the board unanimously approved three Conditional Use Permit applications, two for short-term tourist rentals and one for a private use campground. Following application summaries by Planning Department Deputy Director Matt Wendling the first two CUP applications, Charles and Lou Ann Dotson’s for the Private Use Campground on their property on Burma Road in the Man-Da-Lay Subdivision; and Jacob W. Lott Jr. and Sandra J. Kiepfer for a short-term tourist rental on their 1.6-acre lot on Little Indian Road in the Blue Mountain Subdivision in Linden went to a vote with no public hearing speakers. Wendling did note that a letter from the chairman of the Blue Mountain Property Owners Association had been received, expressing “no problem” with Lott and Kiepfer’s short-term tourist rental application.
Up last were Nicole and Sean McMinn with a short-term tourist rental permit application for their 2.42-acre property on Sagar Drive in the Highland Estates Subdivision in the Fork District. Again, there were no public speakers after the applicants responded to the board chair’s offer to summarize their request. The D.C.-based couple told the board they had run into little opposition from neighbors, and what opposition there had been from neighbors was not from those closest, but with property over a thousand feet from theirs.
And while there were no public speakers, the McMinns noted a number of letters to the board from supporters of their short-term tourist rental CUP application, which they asked to be read into the meeting record. Board Clerk Emily Ciarrocchi then read nine letters of support, including one with “25 to 30” signatures. Several of the letters, including one from the owner of the Downriver Canoe Company, noted positive impacts on tourism-related businesses from short-term renters. One letter noted, “They come; they spend; they leave”.
The board then made its final unanimous vote of approval on a motion by Archie Fox in whose district the applicant’s property lies, seconded by Walt Mabe.
Following that vote, Happy Creek Supervisor Tony Carter noted a “Bless you” included in one of the letters read by the clerk that was well-timed to a sneeze by someone present in the government center meeting room.
In fact, facing a future out of the public eye politically – Carter did not file to be on the ballot for reelection to his Happy Creek seat in November – Carter appeared at times Tuesday to be auditioning for Comedy Club spots during his member report and at various other times during the meeting. In fact, his coming local election, Halloween costume advice during his member report led three of his four colleagues to decline to try and “follow that act”.
See all the fun, business, and other public perspectives, including opening Public Comments speaker Michael Williams question as to whether a recent church-sponsored candidates forum in which the moderator was shown prior to the forum to have contributed to one church-associated candidate’s campaign could threaten that church’s tax-exempt status on U.S. Constitutional separation of church and state guidelines, in the County video:
EDA gets McDonald company property as part of settlement agreement
On Wednesday, October 20, Warren County Economic Development Authority Board of Directors Chairman Jeff Browne verified the EDA’s acquisition of the 41-acre “Happy Creek Road” parcel owned by former EDA Executive Director Jennifer McDonald’s Moveon8 real estate LLC. Acquisition of the undeveloped property assessed at just over a million dollars according to county court records is part of the $9-million-dollar no-fault settlement agreement reached between the EDA, McDonald, and the Harrisonburg Bankruptcy Court handling McDonald’s 2020 bankruptcy filing. The EDA will now be able to market the property as a developable EDA asset. It is located near the intersection of Happy Creek Road and Leach Run Parkway.
Browne said that in addition to receiving full value on the Happy Creek parcel, the EDA was in line to receive a percentage of the sale price of other McDonald assets distributed through the bankruptcy court proceeding. Exactly how close those percentages might get the EDA to the $9-million-dollar settlement figure remains to be seen. It was not immediately clear as to whether the EDA will have an outright full value claim to any other McDonald-held properties or assets.
McDonald is the central figure in the EDA financial scandal that began unravelling in mid-to-late 2018. She resigned in December 2018 under mounting pressure from her board of directors. She has been accused in civil and criminal court of utilizing her EDA position to misdirect EDA assets to her and others personal benefit. Western District of Virginia federal authorities have taken over the criminal side of the EDA case after a state special prosecutor’s office in Harrisonburg dropped criminal charges against McDonald and as many as 23 co-defendants due to speedy trial concerns as it wrestled with the volume of evidentiary material – estimated at 800,000 to over a million pages at the time. With charges against some defendants originating with the county commonwealth attorney’s office that initially handled the criminal investigation during Brian Madden’s tenure heading the department, failure to meet speedy trial timelines could have led to defense motions for dismissal of criminal charges against the defendants.
On August 31, 2021, federal prosecutors made their initial move, handing down a 34-count indictment against McDonald. Of those 34 counts, 16 were for money laundering, 10 for bank fraud, 7 for wire fraud, and 1 count of aggravated identity theft regarding someone identified as “T.T.” – ITFederal principal Truc Tran perhaps?
At least two supervisors willing to revisit continuation of coyote bounty program in more open forum
Seeing the continued awarding of $50 bounties for the random shooting of coyotes in Warren County following a November 10, 2020, work session presentation by County legal and animal control staff seeking an end to the practice as counterproductive to its intent of thinning coyote pack numbers, Royal Examiner recently sought information on the Board of Supervisors apparently unanimous decision to continue the bounty awards.
In early October this reporter emailed Board Chairman Cheryl Cullers with copies to the other four board members in case there was a divergent opinion on the matter that has not, to this reporter’s knowledge, been publicly discussed. The only initial reply was from the board chair: “… but there are those that don’t agree with that information,” Cullers replied of the information presented to the board on November 10, 2020, by Warren County Sheriff’s Office Animal Control Officer Laura Gomez and Assistant County Attorney Caitlin Jordan.
“That information” was addressed in Royal Examiner’s November 11, 2020, story “County headed to public hearings to end coyote bounty payments and expansion of loose dog prohibitions”. It included the following information: “The biggest issue with (coyote bounties) is we have documentation showing it’s not effective in any way. And removing the coyote bounty would not prevent people from still being able to protect their property and their livestock … And they’re showing in that letter that it has over a 150-year failure,” Animal Control Officer Gomez noted of the proposed ordinance amendment ending the bounty program.
“That letter” referenced by Gomez to the county supervisors on November 10, 2020, stated among other things that: “Coyote bounties have been tried throughout the United States for more than 150 years. There is not a single documented instance of a bounty
program temporarily or permanently reducing coyote populations or livestock depredation problems,” Michael L. Fies of VDGIF (Va. Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) wrote in response to a November 2016 inquiry by Bath County Animal Control officials included in Tuesday night’s agenda packet,” Royal Examiner reported at the time.
And it was not simply the abandonment of bounties, but the implementation of what was called more “successful targeted control” programs in place of bounties, suggested at the state level that was brought to the supervisors late last year:
“Since coyote bounties are ineffective, our Department has consistently recommended against these programs in favor of targeted control efforts around farms with a history of coyote damage. This approach has been successfully used by USDA Wildlife Services to reduce livestock losses in other portions of the state,” VDGIF’s Fies wrote in the above-referenced 2016 letter to Bath County officials presented to Warren County’s elected officials by animal control and legal staffs in late 2020.
It might be noted that this reporter’s headline on the referenced story on that November 10, 2020, presentation on coyote bounty programs contained one glaring inaccuracy – “County headed to public hearings to end coyote bounty payments (and a related animal control issue on dogs running loose in the county). For no public hearing was there to be, nor to this reporter’s knowledge, any open work session or meeting discussion by the board of the information it was presented with by county staff on November 10, 2020, nor of any expressed citizen disagreement with that information.
Rather, on January 5, 2021, coyote bounties were presented for continuation as part of the Consent Agenda for matters considered “routine business” not requiring public discussion or scrutiny by the board prior to a vote of approval. And while other Consent Agenda items were pulled for discussion that evening, continuing the coyote bounty program was not one of them.
But that could be poised to change. Contacted about the approval process, first Board Chairman Cullers expressed a willingness to revisit the issue. “I would be glad to have a future discussion on this issue. I understand the side that feels it is not effective, but there are those that don’t agree with that information. Again I will be glad to readdress the issue,” Cullers replied to this reporter’s emailed inquiry about the initial approval process.
And “readdress” would seem a wise course for this board majority. Because that initial approval process, essentially done out of the public eye, other than the vote to continue it without a public hearing or public discussion other than one meeting public comment favoring continuation of the bounties that Cullers cited, seems to run contrary to the process of a board majority carried into office over a year and a half ago on campaign promises of ending political “business as usual” out of the public eye – a process cited as contributing to the EDA financial scandal the county is still recovering from.
In fact, we reached out a second time to North River Supervisor Delores Oates following her comment at the October 5 Board of Supervisors meeting to County Administrator Ed Daley regarding the effectiveness of air purification machines the County is pondering the purchase of for use in county government buildings. – “We want facts, not opinions,” Oates told Daley of a final decision on the air purification device purchase for Warren County Government buildings.
And yes, facts, as they are available, would be valuable in ascertaining the effectiveness of the air purification machines in limiting the spread of contagious viral or other airborne illnesses. But why not the same standard of “facts, not opinions” in the decision to continue a coyote bounty program found locally, state-wide, and nationally to be counterproductive to its intent of thinning coyote packs anywhere over 150 years of experience?
And Oates too expressed a willingness to revisit the issue prior to publication.
“I would be happy to discuss. If memory serves me correctly, there were no alternatives offered to control the population of coyotes at that presentation. I believe we postponed a decision to learn more about what options were available to reduce the coyote population,” Oates responded to our email inquiry.
“I stand on my facts, not opinions statement,” she added, pointing to myriad other issues the County has faced in the past year: “On this topic, we didn’t revisit as I suspect many other issues have taken precedent. With COVID and the IT breach, the coyote topic didn’t seem urgent. I am not opposed to revisiting the alternatives to bounties in the near term,” Oates wrote Royal Examiner, adding, “Perhaps we needed to understand what targeted control meant. I will be honest it’s been almost a year since we heard the presentation. We wanted to understand what the cost was to farmers with a targeted control approach. I know there were lingering questions which is why we just didn’t eliminate the program.”
And with a perhaps building board consensus, it appears the county supervisors may be revisiting the coyote bounty issue, and exploring alternatives such as those referenced “targeted control efforts around farms with a history of coyote damage” that Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Michael L. Fies referenced in his 2016 letter on the subject to Bath County officials. As we told Supervisors Cullers and Oates during our discussion, it seems counterintuitive to continue to pay people in a bounty program cited by wildlife professionals as not only ineffective but achieving the opposite effect of often increasing coyote numbers, rather than reducing them.
And if there are citizens who disagree with those conclusions of wildlife professionals, it would be nice to publicly hear what facts, if any, those disagreements are based upon.
See the full November 10, 2020, presentation and discussion in the linked Warren County Work Session video Nov 10, 2020 Board of Supervisors Work Session – Warren County, VA (swagit.com):
County Planning Commission reviews Fire Department Capital Improvement Plan, also faces upsurge in permit activity
The Warren County Planning Commission met on October 13 in a work session to review a Capital Improvement Plan submission for 2021-2025 for the County Fire and Emergency Services Department. Chief James Bonzano told the Commission that calls for service for 2020, the last complete year, increased by over 3%, continuing a trend that began in 2013. This increase impacts response times, budget costs, and equipment availability, he explained. Calls were split between Fire, at 14%, and EMS (Emergency Medical Service), at 86%. EMS vehicles are called out more than 4 times as often as fire apparatus, have longer runs, and as a result, wear out that much sooner.
The National Standards for fire department equipment govern when it should be placed on the reserve list or removed from service. According to Chief Bonzano, the current fleet has 18 units of its 65 that are over 15 years old, and two over 25 years. In Warren County, there is currently no capacity to place vehicles in reserve. The chief also identified facility improvements needed, live-fire training, and firefighter cancer prevention as priorities in the submission. The Chief oversees a nearly $6 million annual combined budget.
Several commissioners suggested ways to extend budgets by alternative financing or leasing. The Chief acknowledged he is looking into these mechanisms but cautioned that many of them assume a fleet that allows for residual values when turning in a vehicle at the end of the lease. Much of the current fleet is far past the age where it would have any residual value as used equipment. The Fire/EMS Department is also pressed for volunteers – not only operational but associates – helpers of all kinds, including fundraisers. The Fire and Rescue Services capital investment submission will now be fed into the County’s budget process.
The regular Planning Commission meeting followed immediately after the work session, and the commission considered two Conditional Use permits (CUP) requests.
Terra Site Constructors, LLC, is requesting a Conditional Use Permit for a contractor storage yard at 6986 Winchester Road in the North River Magisterial District. The property is zoned Industrial (I). Planning Director Joe Petty reviewed the recommendations for approval of the request for the commission members. There were no public comments on the proposal, so Commission Chairman Robert Myers closed the public hearing. The site will primarily be used for the temporary storage of heavy equipment. After a brief discussion, the commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the permit. The request will now go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
Gordon Lee Birkhimer has requested a Conditional Use Permit for a short-term tourist rental for his property at 52 Forest View Drive, an Agriculturally zoned property in the Fork Magisterial District. Mr. Birkhimer is planning a sailboat trip around the world and expects to be absent for up to two years. He has engaged a professional management firm to oversee the rental activity, and a local citizen to do maintenance and upkeep.
When Chairman Jones opened the floor for public comment, Pamela Rhodes addressed the commissioners and outlined her opposition to the permit. As a 30-year resident of the neighborhood, she expressed the opinion that the applicant would have no control over what kind of people would be renting the property and as an absent property owner would not care. She was opposed to long or short-term rental for the property. In addition, one neighboring property owner, Phyllis Wright, had written to the planning department and opposed the permit being issued. Her concerns were for personal safety, fire danger, and the potential for crime.
Once the Public hearing was closed, Vice Chairman Hugh Henry commented that the community’s experience with short-term tourist rentals has been very good – an asset in a neighborhood, particularly since strict rules govern the issuance of a permit. Tourist rentals must be well maintained or guests won’t rent them. A long-term renter is a much greater risk, since a property owner can rent his property to anyone he chooses, and neighbors have no recourse. Management companies do generally perform background checks, and a written set of guidelines in the property management plan assure that guests know what the rules are.
Given the growing experience with the issuance of short-term tourist rental CUPs and the concerns of neighbors, Vice Chairman Henry asked the applicant if he would agree to two additional conditions: A prohibition against the use of ATVs on the property or roads around it, and a prohibition on discharging firearms. The applicant agreed. The commission then voted unanimously to recommend approval. The request will now go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
The commission faces a steep climb at its November meeting with 10 CUP requests for a variety of uses, including short-term tourist rentals, a cluster housing development, an Outdoor Recreation Operation, two Rural Events Facilities, a gunsmithing service, and a campground, as well as two proposed Text Amendment changes to the Warren County Code Chapter 180. Commissioners approved authorizations to advertise all these requests.
Planning Director Joe Petty told the commission that the Comprehensive Plan review work sessions will resume in January, and he thanked the commissioners for their time and work so far on the new plan. Meantime, the Planning Department will be meeting with the contracting firm that is helping with the rewrite to prepare for the next steps.
Chairman Myers then adjourned the meeting.