An extended and extraordinary exchange among supervisors over the county’s “budget policy” at Monday’s Board of Supervisors (BOS) meeting provided a public indication that the coming two months of budget season will not be particularly easy this year.
“I’ve been trying to stay out of this,” said Board Chairman Roger Welch of Wakefield District after Jackson District Supervisor Ron Frazier spent nearly 10 minutes criticizing the school system’s spending on administrators and maintenance and what he called the board’s history of allowing “unwarranted” annual increases. “But I guess that’s not going to be possible.
“First,” Welch said, “you criticize someone who couldn’t be here with us today [former longtime Chairman Charles K. “Pete” Estes, whom Frazier mentioned in a critical email released to the press two weeks ago], and then you criticize us — and then you ask us for our help?”
Frazier asked that the board approve the school budget on a line-item basis, instead of just approving a specific bottom line. Welch said it had been tried in the past and proved impractical and “completely unpopular.”
The exchange came at a time of unusual uncertainty about what sort of help local jurisdictions can expect this year from Richmond — where legislators and the governor are in the middle of hashing out a already much-reduced state budget. And it started two weeks ago with the email Frazier sent to Welch and others (including the Rappahannock News and rappvoice.com’s Jim Gannon) criticizing the board for failing to adequately oversee spending and management of Rappahannock County’s public schools, by far the largest beneficiary of the county’s $20- million-plus annual budget.
Not long after Frazier’s email was made public, a group called the Concerned Taxpayers — who last year led an effort opposing the school system’s plan to borrow $2.5 million for energy-system repairs — called for a meeting Feb. 11 and invited anyone “concerned about your tax dollars and the direction of our county’s spending.”
On Monday, Frazier questioned why the Board of Supervisors should be “waiting to see what we’re going to get from the state” to make decisions about next year’s budget. He accused the school system of failing to maintain its buildings and environmental systems properly, and of adding “unnecessary” administrative positions that, because they were not officially required by the state, were not part of the state’s annual allocation to the county to help fund education costs.
School Superintendent Robert Chappell, who had earlier presented the board highlights of a Feb. 1 Washington Post article that ranked the school district highly for its “commitment to preparing average students for college,” did not speak during Frazier’s comments or the exchange that followed. Chappell, who is retiring in June — the school board is actively interviewing replacements this month — was heard to let out several long sighs during Frazier’s comments.
The discussion ended after County Administrator John W. McCarthy suggested that the board direct him to investigate two of Frazier’s suggestions, which it then voted to do. The first task, McCarthy said, would involve researching the county’s taking over maintenance of the school system’s operations and buildings in a way similar to a system in operation in Fauquier County. The other, McCarthy said, is beginning a discussion with Chappell of the school system’s so-called “required” positions.
McCarthy also told the board that preliminary budget figures available from the state indicate that the county might have to cut as many as four to six positions “across all the constitutional offices,” though nothing is yet final.
“All I can assure you is that it will be painful,” he said.
In other business, the board deferred action on pursuing tax-exemption incentives for areas the county would designate as “rehabilitation, conservation or redevelopment” area until the state legislature votes on several bills that would affect the program’s features.
McCarthy discussed the program several weeks ago at the Planning Commission’s meeting, where the commission also agreed to look into providing five- to 15-year exemptions from property taxes on improvements made to commercial properties in specific “tax incentive zones.”
Although no such zones yet exist in the county, several county officials have mentioned the economically “hurting” commercial zone along U.S. 211 between Sperryville and the Shenandoah National Park boundary and what some call the “River District” — the former packing district on River Lane in Sperryville — as candidates for an area where tax incentives could bring in clean, low-impact commercial enterprises.
“This is a natural outgrowth of allowing older buildings to be used for new purposes,” McCarthy said, citing the River District’s former packing sheds as an example. “As a tool, [the tax-incentive zone] is a nice tool to have.”
The idea was suggested to the board last fall by Frazier, who had read about successful tax-incentive zones in Manassas and Harrisonburg.
Farewell to Diane Bruce
At the start of the meeting, the board passed a resolution thanking Diane Bruce for her work as Circuit Court clerk — and clerk to the board — since August 1977. The resolution cited Bruce’s “able and indefatigable” work as both court and county clerk, as well as serving as what Welch said “was sometimes like a sixth member of the board.”
“It’s been the ride of a lifetime,” said Bruce, who plans after retiring March 1 to, among other pursuits, ride a motorcycle across the country. Among the gifts the board handed her Monday was a guidebook specifically designed to make that easier.
The board later confirmed Assistant Circuit Court Clerk Peggy Ralph’s appointment to Bruce’s position effective on Bruce’s retirement, and took the actions necessary to add the Circuit Court Clerk position to the ballot for November’s regular election, at which time Bruce’s successor would be elected to fill the remaining term – through Dec. 31, 2015.