At its monthly meeting Monday (March 5), the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors heard much news of upgrades to the county’s physical and fiscal infrastructure – new road bridges, more energy-efficient schools, solid bookkeeping, increasing tourism-driven tax dollars.
And it heard much advice – most of which addressed ways to keep taxes down while hammering out a 2012-2013 school budget this spring that already appears will be weighed down by benefits increases the county can do nothing about.
Also, in the one matter of infrastructure that was in their grasp this month, the supervisors voted to start over.
The board voted unanimously to reject the bids it had received to install new windows and HVAC systems at the elementary and high schools this summer, after a discussion begun by Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier – and a vigorous protest during the public comment period by Bradley Schneider – that the energy-efficiency of the windows chosen by the county’s engineering consultant for the project was not high enough.
Both Frazier and Schneider had served on the committee of school board, supervisors and community representatives that ultimately hired the Richmond engineering firm Simmons, Rockecharlie & Prince (SRP). That’s the same firm that set the standards for the five bids received by the county for the windows this month – the lowest of which, at $644,000, the board was preparing to accept.
“I think we should step back and look at different windows,” said Frazier, who said the bid specifications should have been higher. “I don’t think putting it off one month will hurt the process.”
County Administrator John McCarthy, worried that the new bids would not be advertised, received and awarded in time to begin construction as soon as school is out this summer, adding that the difference in energy-savings was not enough to be recoverable “in 20, 30 or even 40 years.” After more discussion – during which it seemed possible that the schedule could be kept – the board voted to re-advertise for bids with specifications for slightly more energy-efficient windows.
“I realize this is not an ideal situation . . .” Frazier said.
After a beat, McCarthy said, “Welcome to my world.”
Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) representative David Cubbage told the board that VDOT’s projects to replace two bridges in the county – the Route 729 bridge over Battle Run, and the high-traffic bridge that carries U.S. 522 over the Thornton River in Sperryville – would begin within the month.
The Route 729 project will be finished by Oct. 2, Cubbage said, and will require a 90-day closure (most likely during the summer’s Castleton Festival). The Sperryville project, which requires the bridge be closed for 60 days, is scheduled for completion by Aug. 27.
During the Sperryville closure, McCarthy said, VDOT plans aggressive signage as far east as Warrenton and Clevenger’s Corner on U.S. 211 and in Culpeper and Madison on Route 231 and U.S. 522 to the south – to warn tractor-trailer and large equipment operators that their vehicles will not be able to make the detour-route turn (from Main Street near the Sperryville Rescue Squad) to head east on U.S. 211 – or the reverse (the left turn from U.S. 211 onto Main Street to go south on U.S. 522).
County tourism consultant Laura Overstreet told the supervisors that 2011 – the first year of operation for the county’s weekends-only visitors center on U.S. 211 near Washington – had been a good year for tourism. She cited meals and lodging tax revenues in both the county and town of Washington at $208,626 last year, a 12 percent increase over 2010. (County meals and lodging revenue was $153,109, a 17 percent increase; the town’s 2011 figure was $81,695, up just a percent from 2010.) She also mentioned the average monthly visitation of the county’s visitrappahannockva.com website (5,072 unique visitors) and its more recent entry into social networking, with a Facebook page that already has 436 fans.
The 2012 visitors guide carries 42 display ads and 72 enhanced listings, she said, and is financially self-supporting.
“When something increases 17 percent,” said Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek, “whether you take credit for it or not, it’s impressive. I mean the economy has not increased that much.”
The supervisors also heard a report from Wes Clark, representing the auditing firm of Robinson Farmer Cox Associates, that the county’s accounting for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011, had received the firm’s unqualified stamp of approval.
Schools superintendent Aldridge Boone’s monthly report to the supervisors began with a caution, delivered as he stood amid a cluster of clearly concerned parties – including two school board members, at least one former school board member and several frequent letter-writers who planned to speak about the school budget during the public comment session.
“I know this sounds crazy, but – I think it’s important to say that I have not yet submitted a formal budget proposal to the school board yet,” Boone said. “I’ve had a couple of presentations during which I’ve presented several possible additions to the budget [additions that could raise the annual school budget, held at $12.6 million for the last five years, by as much as $900,000].”
Boone said that the General Assembly – itself being cautioned by public-interest groups to settle its budgetary differences soon – has not yet done so, and that the largest possible increases in the school division’s budget are still not set. Those are increases in the local jurisdiction’s contribution to the state employees pension fund and health insurance premiums.
“I budgeted Anthem [the county’s health insurance provider] at an 8 percent increase,” Boone said. “But it could be 5 percent, it could be 2 percent. I just don’t want people to get lodged into a particular number, which could still fluctuate by hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The school board’s public hearing on a proposed budget is next Tuesday (March 13) at the high school auditorium. The following Tuesday (March 20), the school board and supervisors will meet at a public “work session.”
Several members of the public began the budget dialogue during Monday’s public comment period, however, including one-time school board member Ron Makela of Amissville, who distributed eight-page handouts to the supervisors and others to support his plea – which was to “strongly encourage you all to work with the school board” to rein in the percentage of the annual budget devoted to school employee insurance benefits.
Makela’s figures put that percentage at 15 – while in neighboring Page and Culpeper counties, he said, the figure is closer to 6 or 7 percent.
The school employes’ health insurance program – for which the school division pays all premiums for single employees and between 85 and 90 percent for spouse and family coverage – is “the Cadillac of coverage programs,” Makela said.
“We can’t afford to do this,” he said. “We have to deal with it, and we have to deal with it now because it’s only going to get worse. I know a lot of employees are not going to be happy, but we have to start somewhere.”
Jim Gannon of Flint Hill also spoke in a similar vein, saying “I actually think the teachers should be given a raise [Boone’s proposal includes a 3 percent across-the-board salary increase]. I don’t have any problem with a 3 percent increase – but you have to find the money to pay for that elsewhere, and so far no one is talking about cutting anything that you have some control over.
“This is not just a local problem [employee benefits]. States are going broke, cities are going broke all over the country, because they can no longer keep up with promised benefits to public employees,” Gannon continued, addressing the supervisors. “I think you need to work with the school board this year really, really hard.”
Stonewall-Hawthorne district supervisor Chris Parrish introduced a motion that the polling place for his district’s voters be advertised to move, in time for required notification of those planning to vote in the June 15 presidential primary, from to the Castleton Volunteer Fire and Rescue hall on Castleton View Road.
The supervisors unanimously approved advertising the polling place change, and put the final resolution to enact the change on the agenda for its April 2 meeting (though, McCarthy pointed out, there would not be enough time for the board to change its mind, advertise the change again and make the change in time to meet voter notification deadlines for the June election).
Board of Elections member Francie Schroeder told the supervisors that the elections board favors Scrabble School as the new polling place, but Parrish said the road to the Scrabble School and the size of its parking lot were inferior to those of the Castleton fire hall, and that Castleton Fire and Rescue also has an pre-existing relationship with the county, which would make leasing and scheduling easier.
McCarthy said the move is required because the current polling place, Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, would like to end the agreement with the county because of increasing date conflicts.