FRONT ROYAL – On the morning of January 3, the Warren County Board of Supervisors rolled in the New Year with its first meeting of 2018. With the board seated in the front two rows of public seating, County Administrator Doug Stanley convened the meeting, calling for nominations for chair and vice-chair as the first order of business.
Dan Murray’s nomination of Tony Carter for chairman was seconded by last year’s chair, Linda Glavis – Carter served as vice chair last year. But what appeared to be a fairly routine transfer of procedural authority from one year to the next turned competitive when Archie Fox’s nomination of Murray for chairman was seconded by Tom Sayre.
After review of the meeting recording, the voice vote on the Carter nomination was recorded as 3-0 for (Carter, Glavis, Murray), with Fox and Sayre abstaining. The majority vote on the first nomination precluded the necessity of a vote on Fox’s nomination of Murray.
The political play to open the new year then continued with the nomination of a vice chair. Carter’s nomination of Murray was seconded by Glavis. Fox then nominated Sayre for vice chair, but did not receive a second. However, Board Clerk Emily Mounce pointed out to us after the meeting that no second on officer nominations is required.
However, there was again no need to vote on the Sayre nomination as the Murray nomination was approved by the same 3-0 margin (Carter, Glavis, Murray), again with Fox and Sayre abstaining.
That mini-drama out of the way, the board with its new officers – titled name tags in place – got down to business. That business included reports from VDOT, the accounting firm that did the financial audit of the County, and Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Greg Drescher.
Those assessments were:
· VDOT: State road maintenance, as well as preparation for winter weather events, continues as the nationwide Arctic chill continues into a second week. There is relief and early positive reports on the full opening of the South Fork Bridge on Front Royal’s north side; and hope the Morgan’s Ford low-water bridge will open ahead of its scheduled early June opening – weather dependent;
· Auditing firm Robinson, Farmer, Cox & Associates: The County continues to get high marks, including earning another Certificate of Excellence, on its financial status from the financial analysts contracted to audit that status;
· WCPS: While thanking the supervisors for their past investment in new school facilities over the past 12 years (new HS, renovated HS, renovated MS, new MS, Ressie Jeffries renovations), School Superintendent Drescher pointed to the need to maintain an experienced teaching staff inside the system’s facilities. Okay, this one’s going to take more than a couple of bulleted sentences.
School operations & costs
Drescher pointed to an increase of about 40% to 50% in teacher attrition over the past five years as a major contributing factor in school accreditation issues. And while those issues might have as much to do with an arbitrary government-imposed measuring system as anything (and yes, that was an unsolicited writer’s opinion), it is the system that exists and within which state public school systems must operate. And currently two schools have fallen below a 75% passing level necessary in English and Reading accreditation scores, if only by two or three points at 73% and 72%. A 70% level is required in math, science and history.
Pre-2013, Drescher reported an average annual loss of 30 to 40 teachers from a workforce of about 400. Over the five years from 2013 to 2017 that average attrition rate rose to 61 to 70 per year. And while lauding the positive contributions of new teachers into the system, Drescher noted that too many coming in at once can create a net negative as less experienced teachers gain the classroom skills the experienced counterparts they replaced had cultivated over their careers.
Drescher said that rather than a criticism of the county government, he was “simply pointing out a fact – we don’t keep enough skilled, experienced teachers year to year.” He said he was not asking the board to consider additional funding to compete with wealthier counties to the east like Loudoun; however he added, “We must compete with Winchester, Frederick and Shenandoah Counties.”
Contacted later, Drescher said an estimate of the revenue necessary to bring Warren County Public School teacher salaries into line with Winchester, Frederick and Shenandoah was $2.2 million. Currently each penny of county real estate tax generates about $403,000 of revenue.
Cold temps & 2-hour delays
If that didn’t lower the temperature in the room enough for a board already committed to formulating a tax-increase-free FY 2019 county budget, Drescher began his report on the public school system with a reference to the Arctic blast keeping temperatures here well under freezing, dipping into single digits at night. Those outside temperatures are creating a problem in maintaining comfortable temperatures inside some county schools, particularly the new middle school, Drescher observed, as familiarization with that school’s HVAC system in the school’s first operational winter proceed.
However, that the problem is more widespread than one school was indicated in a recorded phone message to parents from Assistant Superintendent Melody Sheppard at 1 p.m. Wednesday afternoon. About three-and-a-half hours after Drescher’s report Sheppard’s message informed parents that county public schools will return from the holiday break on a two-hour delay both Thursday and Friday, January 4 and 5. She reminded parents to see their children are dressed for the extremely low temperatures forecast through the week – and they may want to have several layers of indoor clothes on after shedding that heavy outerwear.
No WMH maternity unit
Signs there might be an issue with a later agenda item – a request for a Letter of Support of Warren Memorial Hospital’s Certificate of Public Need to build a new hospital complex here – came during the Public Presentations, near the meeting’s outset. Carla Sayre, wife of Shenandoah District Supervisor Tom Sayre, appeared on behalf of the Front Royal Pregnancy Center. She expressed disappointment the plan submitted for the new Warren Memorial Hospital contains no maternity ward.
Mrs. Sayre worried over impacts on segments of the local population who might not easily be able to access Valley Health’s Winchester Medical Center some 25 miles away. She also worried at the likelihood women would end up giving birth in the new hospital’s emergency room, complicating that part of the hospital’s function.
During discussion of the Letter of Support of Valley Health’s plan to build a new hospital complex off Leach Run Parkway, tentatively slated for a 2020 opening, Supervisor Sayre agreed with his wife’s stance on behalf the pregnancy center. He pointed to a number of social media expressions of concern over the absence of a maternity ward from Valley Health’s plan.
“I concur,” he said of the social media opposition to the loss of a community-based maternity ward. Like his wife earlier, Supervisor Sayre worried that local women will end up giving birth in the new hospital’s emergency room. Sayre said he would vote for the Letter of Support for the new hospital, but hoped Valley Health would reconsider inclusion of a maternity ward in its plan. He reasoned that if birth numbers (333 annually) didn’t currently justify inclusion of a maternity ward, those numbers were likely to increase as the community continues to grow in coming years.
Dan Murray’s motion to approve the Letter of Support of Valley Health’s Certificate of Need to replace the 65-year-old North Shenandoah Avenue facility passed by a 5-0 voice vote.
A related story with additional detail of Valley Health’s rationale for exclusion of a maternity ward from the new Warren Memorial Hospital plan, potential options and the plan itself will be forthcoming this week.
Ed Carter, VDOT report to Board of Supervisors: Route 55-High Knob gets more rumble strips
At the December 11th Board of Supervisors Meeting, Ed Carter from VDOT made his monthly presentation to the Board. Mr. Carter gives updates to VDOT projects in the County.
- Addressed numerous potholes on various hard surface routes with cold mix and anticipate the Same in December.
- Conducted grading and stone application on non-hard surface Routes 652, 610, 607,626, 613, 631 and 639. Several of these routes we covered several times as continued rainfall necessitated. They’ll continue this month as well.
- Used contractor pipe flusher on Routes 603, 638, 636, 650, 631 and 639. Will be continuing for an additional week in December.
- Completed all mowing operations and will cutting brush on Routes 652 and 656 in December.
- Performed shoulder repairs on Route 340 and will continue on various primary routes in December.
- Mobilized and responded to two weather events in November.
Lake Front Drive is awaiting finish pavement layer, which is scheduled for this week in December, weather permitting.
Ashby Station Road and Rocky Lane environmental permits were not cleared by November 30th. New date is December 10th. As soon as VDOT has the permits, staff will be meeting with the contractor to begin pipe replacements.
Existing rumble strips have been refreshed and a new set installed closer to the intersection at High Knob. Traffic Engineering is working to verify flasher sensor lights will work at this location. Residency Administrator met with High Knob Owner’s Association on November 12th to address their concerns.
Signal Group is evaluating timing at Country Club Road and Route 340/522 for extending green time from Country Club.
Town Council wrestles with new property maintenance authority
FRONT ROYAL – It’s rough having the power – especially when you’ve pursued it for so long, then finally achieve it.
That is the situation the Front Royal Town Council wrestled with at a December 3 work session – how to approach enforcement of a property maintenance code that allows it the same powers as cities and counties to enforce building maintenance standards within its boundaries.
As Royal Examiner readers may recall from tracking the issue over the course of the last year and a half, the dilemma is that while the town’s elected officials want the ability to enforce standards that will improve the overall look, livability and property values of Front Royal, how much is it going to cost the town government and its citizens to achieve these things?
The one dissenting vote to both readings of the new property maintenance code, Vice-Mayor Eugene Tewalt, has continued to predict unexpectedly high costs, even for what has been described as a lower-cost, middle ground option adopted by council nearly two months ago. Tewalt has also been critical of his younger council colleagues for continuing to approve capital improvements, and now additional code enforcement, without creating revenue streams to pay for either long-term debt service or required staff additions.
However, undiscussed thus far has been the potential return on investment from more aggressive enforcement if a corresponding rise in property values leads to increased real estate tax-base revenue.
After months of debate dating to at least July of 2017 for this council, on October 22, 2018 council approved the second reading of a new property maintenance code that took the above-described middle ground approach of five options presented by staff. That option, formerly known as Option C, enforcement-wise “addresses all structures in the Town”; “addresses maintenance issues” and “can be enforced on a complaint basis or proactive enforcement”.
At the December 3 work session Chris Morrison pushed for immediate implementation of that option – “I think things can be implemented now – tell me if I’m wrong,” Morrison challenged his colleagues.
He also suggested council give citizens some clarity on the parameters of what has been approved – that citizens can initiate action through complaints to the town government.
Morrison has been the chief council proponent of a new property maintenance code and a rental inspection program, the latter eliminated from consideration by a council majority as definitely too expensive to implement. And on the back end of his council tenure having failed to hold his seat in the November election, Morrison seemed driven to see a commitment to forward movement on what has been adopted by his colleagues before the end of his council tenure come January.
Morrison suggested outsourcing the role of a building inspector to make legal judgments on mandated repairs or demolition in the absence of council agreeing to fund creation of its own building inspection department. Morrison noted that council had set aside funds toward some kind of implementation of a building inspection operation. While he cited $40,000 available, staff appeared to put the amount as high as $75,000 in past work session discussion.
“So why can’t we outsource now … why can’t we do it immediately?” Morrison asked his colleagues.
“If we do it under those conditions I have no problem starting with blighted buildings,” Tewalt replied of a proactive approach with outsourcing as necessary when town mandates on corrective action are challenged by property owners.
Councilman William Sealock suggested bypassing use of Warren County’s Building Inspection Department and utilization of town staff for initial phases up to the point where a state-certified official whose opinion would have legal standing in court was needed. Morrison agreed.
Town Manager Joe Waltz suggested revisiting the option of partnering with the Town of Strasburg in enforcing a property maintenance code. Like Front Royal now, Strasburg has taken the first step of approval of a property maintenance code but has yet to begin enforcement due to cost parameters.
“We can put it out there and see what kind of prices are set,” Waltz suggested.
“We can start slow – there’s nothing wrong with doing it right,” Mayor Hollis Tharpe suggested of a measured, slow and inexpensive approach to implementation.
“We’ll let Joe get behind the wheel,” the mayor said of having the town manager explore enforcement and outsourcing options.
“We need time so the town manager can put a plan together,” Sealock observed.
“I will move as fast as I can,” Waltz replied.
Morrison said he felt some good had come out of the discussion that will allow the Town to move on complaints forwarded by citizens, as well as initiate proactive movement against derelict structures. However Morrison worried at the lack of “closure” on a process as council’s final meeting of 2018 approached on December 10.
Downtown parking: Mayor breaks tie vote on Virginia Beer Museum parking exemption request
There were two issues on Downtown parking at the December 10th Town Council meeting. The first dealt with designating and authorizing the Town Manager regarding the installation and placement of traffic signs and parking regulations and to remove all references to the On-Street Parking Policy in the Town Code by rescinding the 1993 Resolution authorizing approval of the On-Street Parking Policy. Download the this agenda item and background information here.
The second was a public hearing on exempting off street parking for the Virginia Beer Museum. Mayor Tharpe broke the tie vote on the first reading. Download the this agenda item and background information here.
These issues will be back on the agenda for the second reading.
BOS: Public Hearing Jan 22nd to adopt new rules for public presentations
At the December 11th Meeting of the Warren County Board of Supervisors, County Attorney Dan Whitten ask for authorization to advertise for a public hearing on January 22, 2019 to amend the Warren County Code Section 56-3 re: rules for Address to the Board of Supervisors by Nonmembers During Public Comment Period.
Watch the discussion.
Ordinance Amendment to Town Code Chapter 72 (Special Events)
During a recent Business Forum several business owners discussed concerns with parking during Special Events held in the Gazebo Area located at Main and Chester Streets in Downtown Front Royal. Town Staff has proposed amendments to Chapter 72 to help alleviate this concerns and has also changed other areas of Chapter 72 to make the Chapter more user friendly.
Town Council honors departing Connolly and Morrison
At the December 10th Town Council meeting, Mayor Hollis Tharpe presented each departing Councilman plaques in recognition of their service to the Town of Front Royal.