Supervisors weigh public (and public safety) comments

Public comment provided the highlights of last week’s Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors meeting, at which the board also reappointed Wakefield supervisor Roger Welch as its chairman.

Culpeper Sheriff Scott Jenkins urged the board to give raises to the staff of his former employer; veteran school board member Aileen Johnson expressed the excitement of kicking off another term with three new board members; and several residents rose to comment on – well, the value of public comment.

Former Rappahannock chief deputy and now Culpeper County Sheriff Jenkins thanked the board for its past support of equipment and training for the local department.

“As we approach budget season, I think it is important that we acknowledge not just the equipment but the people themselves,” Jenkins said, with second-term Sheriff Connie C. Smith looking on from the audience of about 15. He noted that Rappahannock deputies make just over half that of nearby counties, including Culpeper and Fauquier.

“Deputy sheriffs are not paid comparable to other counties; the sheriff here gets what my lieutenants get in Culpeper,” Jenkins said, before acknowledging the five former RCSO employees he hired to work for him in Culpeper. “I will take the best employees I can from here, because they are getting good training here. The deputies here have been aggressive and are doing a great job.

“There is much talk during these meetings about protecting our resources – our trees and our mountains – but we should also protect our people,” Jenkins said. “To avoid losing your best people, I’d suggest providing them with an increased salary. If you gave Sheriff’s Office employees a salary increase of even just $3,000 across the board, that’s less than $100,000 total. You have to consider the costs of training these deputies who are leaving here when a higher-paying position elsewhere opens up. I will bring you hard numbers [including, he said, the CCSO salary rates] to show what you’re up against.”

Aileen Johnson, longtime Piedmont district representative to the school board whose colleagues the following night renamed her as their vice chair, spoke on behalf of her school board colleagues, past and present. “We are appreciative of the relationship our board has had with your board over recent years,” Johnson said. “And as you know, we have three new board members now, and I think that with this new board we can accomplish a lot . . . We have two good schools, good faculty, and all we want is what’s best for our children here in the county.”

Public comment and new a rule

Castleton resident Mike Cioffi spoke about attending the board’s December meeting, when members voted to eliminate a second public comment period the board had added to the agenda in August 2010. Dismayed, Cioffi said, he wrote a letter to the editor (published in the Dec. 15 Rappahannock News) about the importance of that end-of-meeting comment period.

“We have an incredibly good opportunity here,” he said. “Politics are no longer just ‘business as usual’; the new normal is that people are choosing to become active – I am an example of that. The fact is that you, as members of the board of supervisors, are a microcosm of the U.S. Congress.” Cioffi added that the approval rating of congress in this country is at about nine percent, and he thinks a big reason for that is because citizens feel they don’t get an opportunity to voice themselves.

In response to the negative feedback several supervisors reported receiving from residents about erasing the second comment period, the board discussed a rules-of-procedure amendment that would allow members of the audience to request a board member present pertinent matters to the board – after votes have been recorded – as “additional information.” The additional information may be written or orally presented. However, in cases where the board already voted on a matter, any motion to present additional information must originate from a board member on the winning side of the vote.

Welch said that the second public comment period was originally added to the agenda in April 2010 because supervisors wanted people to have a chance to speak at the end. He said that over the past six or seven months there were eruptions at the end of meetings, where residents on the losing end would use the period to complain about the outcome of a vote.

“We need to know what the public is thinking, because we make decisions that affect a lot of people in this county,” Stonewall-Hawthorne district supervisor Chris Parrish said, admitting that he doesn’t always know how he’ll vote on an issue by meeting time. Parrish said that the best time to make a point to board members is before meetings, and that by the time the second comment period came around in a meeting, “the vote was cast, all was said and done. People that spoke just re-illustrated their point and it didn’t really contribute to the meeting.”

“I’ve been on this board a considerable amount of time, and I don’t think anyone has left this courthouse without getting to say what’s on their mind,” Welch said, adding that it is important for the supervisors to utilize local expertise on issues that are pertinent to the meetings. “To say that we have a lot of talent in this county is an understatement.”

The board agreed to vote on this amendment next meeting.

Lights, jail . . . bills

County Adminsitrator John McCarthy said he calculated the remaining balance on the Musco stadium lights loan – which he reminded supervisors last month has been accruing $30 a day in interest – was about $223,000. “I guess it’s pay me now or pay me later – and pay me later’s more,” Welch said, before the board voted unanimously to pay off the loan. The loan was guaranteed by the county in support of the Rappahannock County School Sports Association (RCSSA), the county school sports booster organization which promised two years ago to make the annual $30,000 payments by raising funds throughout the year. RCSSA blamed shortfalls in fundraising efforts and turnout for competitive school sports teams when it informed the board in the fall that it would come up short and couldn’t make the full payment.

The board has asked financiers to present an update on the Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren (RSW) Regional Jail at next’s month’s meeting. McCarthy said that the groundbreaking – planned for late spring or early summer – is on schedule, adding that Welch has been deeply involved in the planning process.

“This is a $64 million facility in which Rappahannock County is an extremely small contributor,” McCarthy said, noting that the county’s current prisoner population would account for less than 10 percent of the inmates at the regional jail – which has a capacity of over 700 inmates. “In July 2014, our jail will head toward closure and the regional jail will open up.”

McCarthy added that former Commonwealth’s Attorney Peter Luke made a valid comment that it would be nicer to have prisoners close by, so you can go and “rattle his cage to get information on cases,” but that the oldest part of the county’s jail is 60 years old. To demolish and rebuild all of the cell blocks in the jail to meet ever-rising Department of Corrections standards would cost upwards of $100,000,” McCarthy said.

Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier applauded Sheriff Jenkins’ support of his former department’s staff, though he added that the county has had a habit of “lurching from tax increase to tax increase” to address budget concerns in the past. Frazier recommended forming a budget subcommittee to make decisions in the upcoming budget process.

“At some point we will tax every existing local body out of this county,” Frazier said, noting that the school board has had a budget subcommittee for more than 20 years.

“The most uncomfortable part of this job is being caught between taxpayers and county employees,” Parrish added.

McCarthy said he would research a plan for the formation of a budget subcommittee to be considered next month.