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Supervisors hear varying perspectives on tax hike included in FY19 budget

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In this corner – the crowd awaits the start of the FY19 budget public hearing – the split was about even on a 1-cent real estate tax hike included in the budget proposal. Photos/Roger Bianchini

At a Special Meeting of April 10, the Warren County Board of Supervisors heard from citizens about its Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal – a $107.8-million budget proposal including a 1-cent Real Estate hike. A total of 10 people addressed council – well, 13 if you include all three Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging board members who rose to thank the supervisors for their contribution to help fund services to the community’s less affluent elderly – but we’re not even going to include the trio of Tom Throckmorton, Joe Biggs and Linda Holtzapple because they did not address the overall budget or tax increase proposal.

But for the nine who did, our count was five in favor of utilizing the tax hike to provide necessary revenue to support the budget and four against. Included in the pro side were Sheriff Daniel McEathron, Public Schools Superintendent Greg Drescher and School Board Chair Cathy Bower.

Of the proposed school security funding increase Sheriff McEathron told the board ‘Nothing is more important than to protect the students and staff in our schools.’ School Board Chair Cathy Bower watching from behind, agreed.

All three of those county officials are involved directly or indirectly in support of providing revenue to support expansion of the Sheriff’s Office School Resource Officer program. That expansion at an expense of an additional $326,905 to a total SRO Sheriff’s Office budget of $692,997 will add four resource officers so that each of the county’s nine public schools will have one full-time, on-site SRO on duty during school hours. Currently one SRO circulates between the system’s five elementary schools.

Others speaking in favor of providing necessary revenue included Roger Keys, a volunteer and professional firefighter; and Shenandoah District Planning Commissioner and Shenandoah Farms POA official Ralph Rinaldi. Keys spoke powerfully about the need to provide adequate funding for emergency services staffing to save both property and lives.

Firefighter Roger Keys asked if any supervisors were feeling a little shortness of breath – if so, he asked them to ponder death as the outcome of a cardiac incident if existing EMS staff were already on a call when their call for help was made.

Rinaldi specifically cited support of the requested increases to the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District budget – $10 to both the improved (from $285 to $295) and unimproved (from $250 to $260) lot fees. Rinaldi also expressed support for the emergency services budget, noting a timely response to a home accident fall several years earlier. He called county services during his 23 years in the community “more than outstanding”.

However, an opposing view was expressed by those opposing the penny hike in real estate tax proposal. Included in those opponents were Dennis Willingham, Steven Schwalb, Jim Bond and Chris Manion.

Schwalb, a military veteran, was particularly critical of the level of services provided by the county. He pointed to personal experiences with both county law enforcement and courts in an attempt to gain restitution from some contracted work that was never performed.

“If you would improve services maybe it would be worth paying the extra taxes,” Schwalb told the supervisors. He said all he was asking for were police and fire services and a court system that worked. Schwalb also called the lack of local support services for veterans “shameful”.

A disgruntled Steven Schwalb told the supervisor to improve the quality of county services to justify any tax increases.

Willingham was critical of what he called exorbitant County administrative salaries. He said he supported pay raises for teachers, but not for already highly-paid administrators across the County departmental spectrum. He also questioned some operational costs. He recalled a time when he said there might be one 4-wheel drive vehicle in various county departmental fleets.

“Now it seems like 90% are 4-wheel drive – I don’t think we need that,” Willingham told the supervisors, adding, “We’ve got to get out from under this spend and tax system.”

Pointing to the high number of home-schooling families in the county, Manion was particularly critical of public school administrative processes and costs. He claimed administrators could not fire bad teachers and that all teachers, even bad ones were earmarked for salary increases. Manion accused the County of treating local tax revenue “like free federal money”.

Bond said he thought the additional funding for the SRO program was worthwhile but challenged county staff to come up with existing revenue streams to fund it prior to implementation. He pointed to County Administrator Doug Stanley’s long experience in budget preparation oversight – “I know you can do it, have at it, Mr. Stanley,” Bond challenged the county administrator.

Following the public hearing’s 25 minutes of comments, Board Chairman Tony Carter noted that the County’s budget process was not a one-night process. He invited citizens to become involved earlier in that process in those months leading up to what is on the table for approval in April. He noted that by state law the board must wait one week to vote on its fiscal year budget. That vote will come at the regular meeting of April 17.

What will be on the table for approval then is a total budget proposal of $107,826,301, requiring $76,251,417 of local revenue. Those numbers are up $2.2 million and $2.3 million, respectively from FY18’s numbers of $105,626,234 and $73,955,107.

Budget dynamics

In addition to the 1-cent Real Estate Tax hike from 65-cents to 66-cents per $100 of assessed value, a 10-cent hike – from $1.95 to $2.05 – is proposed to the Machinery and Tool Tax. Additional revenues from the tax increases total about $575,000. That includes $511,850 on the real estate side – $404,850 from each penny hike, plus another

$107,000 in Real Estate tax-based fees, primarily to Dominion Power – and an estimated $63,000 from the Machinery & Tool tax increase.

That revenue coupled with $1.1-million in cuts to departmental and other budgets, as well as the use of nearly $2-million in General Fund reserves was utilized to balance the FY19 budget proposal.

The proposed real estate tax hike came despite an early budget process commitment by the supervisors to approve an FY19 budget with no tax increases after last year’s divisive 3-cent real estate hike enacted largely to fund operations at the county’s new middle school.

And in this corner – despite initial promises the supervisors seem bound to a 1-cent real estate tax hike to balance this year’s budget.

However, as Royal Examiner reported in the wake of March 23 budget work session discussion a “perfect storm” of financial variables created a need to generate some additional revenue. That “perfect storm” included: employee health insurance rate increases of 12% to about 20%; a public school budget including wage hikes to keep teacher salaries competitive after a decade of floundering to do so and the unanticipated increase in the Sheriff’s Office budget to accommodate additional school security personnel in the wake of the Florida and Maryland school shootings in the last two months; and revenue losses totaling about $1.6 million.

Primary in the negative revenue column was the loss of over $570,000 in tax revenue from the Dominion Power plant due to a pollution-mitigation equipment exemption ruling by the State Corporation Commission and the loss of over $1-million in State Composite Index (which judges a community’s ability to fund its public schools) revenue.

As for that expanding 4-wheel drive vehicle fleet, administrative salaries, and cited County services deficiencies, well …

Local Government

County looks at $1.1 million cost to meet compensation study recommendations

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Paypoint HR principals Rick and Karin Campbell bring a summary of recommendations to the county board as Paypoint staff in front row and interested county department heads behind them listen. Photos/Roger Bianchini

The Warren County Board of Supervisors got an update on its contracted Compensation and Benefits Study at a December 18 work session: the good news: in general the County pays better than 6 out of 10 surrounding municipalities it was compared against; the bad news: the recommendation to improve that standing and employee retention will cost the County nearly $1.1 million; with a corresponding compensation study of the public school system still to come with a recommendation promised to be “a BIGGER number”.

How much bigger might be ascertained from staff numbers included in the June Request for Proposal (RFP) leading to the July 2018 contract with Paypoint HR provided by the County Human Resources Department. Those numbers for the county government were 337 total employees, 212 full-time, 85 part-time and 40 seasonal; and for the public school system 936 total employees, 791 full-time, 145 part-time.

Other bad news includes the fact that the richer Northern Virginia municipalities to the east in the D.C. Metro area that were not included in the wage comparison study (other than Fauquier to our immediate east) are still there and will continue to dangle higher salaries to qualified and experienced employees willing to deal with the 30 to 60-or-so-minute commute.

It was also noted that one regional community that was included in the comparison study, Frederick County does try to offer competitive salaries with some of those Northern Virginia communities like Loudoun County “which skewers the numbers a bit,” County Administrator Doug Stanley pointed out.

‘This gives us a lot to think about,’ Board Chairman Tony Carter said in response to the compensation study presentation.

“This gives us a lot to think about,” Board Chairman Tony Carter commented toward the end of discussion of the Paypoint HR power point presentation at the 10 a.m., one agenda item work session.

Carter’s earlier question to Paypoint HR representatives, “Can you guarantee that every employee will be happy if we implement this?” led to some laughter, as well as more serious responses from Paypoint HR President Dr. Rick Campbell and CEO Karin Campbell.

“What we do is establish what is fair pay in a given region,” Rick Campbell told the Warren supervisors who hold the County purse string decision-making authority.
Karin Campbell noted that the role of an independent, third-party consultant was to “bring an unbiased, objective opinion” to the county’s officials – “We are the messenger of these numbers,” she said.

The compensation study was contracted in July in an attempt to diminish the number of experienced employees the county regularly loses to higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
County Administrator Stanley elaborated that the comparative study area was comprised of 13 municipalities, including all adjacent counties and some of the towns in those counties.
After Paypoint HR CEO Karin Campbell reviewed the company’s methodology and scope which included an excellent 94% response rate from county employees, she cited one area where she noted “opportunity for improvement” by the county. That was in “the area of employee wellness, education and communication of benefits.”

She elaborated that some municipalities offer additional perks from cell service discounts to tuition reimbursements that employees look at as an extension of their benefits package.

‘We are the messenger of these numbers,’ Karin Campbell said of her company’s role in recommending changes to county compensation in order to improve employee retention.

Rick Campbell then reviewed the existing salary scale, what was determined as the minimum adequate living wage for this community – $12.18 per hour – and recommended alterations to the county’s wage structure to improve employee retention.

Those recommendations included: 1/ raising the salaries of positions below the $12.18 hourly rate – “nine 40-hour Part-Time General positions” requiring $25,787; 2/ raising the salaries of positions Substantially Below the competitive study area Market rate – 151 positions including 22 in the Department of Social Services and 30 in Fire and Rescue with the remainder General positions both full and part-time, requiring $929,784; and 3/ raise another 47 positions also considered below the Market rate – $142,990 to implement. Those numbers add up to a total cost of $1,098,561 impacting salaries for 207 county employees upward.

The recommendation concluded with advice to “continue providing raises to positions Near Market” rate, and discontinuation of “providing raises to positions Above Market or Substantially Above Market” rates.

The study summary concluded with a reference to more work on a Sheriff’s Office Career Development plan. – “Prior to implementing a career development program for any single department or employee group, career development plans for all non-supervisory personnel should be considered,” the report stated, adding that Sheriff’s Office deputies in patrol, animal control and school resource officer Grade 14 level – noted as the bulk of the department – was currently compensated at a 63% rate of the external study area market.

County staff estimated that board consideration of the final report would come in January or February 2019. A multi-year implementation plan has been requested by the County.

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Local Government

Ed Carter, VDOT report to Board of Supervisors: Route 55-High Knob gets more rumble strips

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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.

Includes:

Maintenance

  • 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.

Projects

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.

Other Issues

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.

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Local Government

Town Council wrestles with new property maintenance authority

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FRONT ROYAL – It’s rough having the power – especially when you’ve pursued it for so long, then finally achieve it.

What now?

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.

Mayor Tharpe worried over first steps in enforcement – ‘Where do we start? We don’t want to be accused of playing favorites,’ he has commented. Royal Examiner File Photo

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.

Is he trying to hypnotize me? – Jacob Meza appears uncomfortable with Chris Morrison’s use of his pen to make a point on more aggressive enforcement of the Town’s new property maintenance code. Photo/Roger Bianchini

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.

Council’s biggest skeptic on a broad enforcement approach, Vice-Mayor Tewalt to left, voiced support of proactive movement on a smaller target base – dilapidated buildings, as Councilman Meza ponders council options. Photo/Roger Bianchini

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.

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Downtown parking: Mayor breaks tie vote on Virginia Beer Museum parking exemption request

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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.

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Local Government

BOS: Public Hearing Jan 22nd to adopt new rules for public presentations

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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.

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Local Government

Ordinance Amendment to Town Code Chapter 72 (Special Events)

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Rick Novack, owner of Royal Cinemas expresses his concern over changes to Downtown special events. Photo and video by Mike McCool, Royal Examiner.

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.

Download agenda and proposed changes here.

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