County has to borrow to pay its bills

Up to $1 million authorized for first time in 20+ years

A sharply reduced surplus and apparent issues with new accounting software in the treasurer’s office forced County Administrator John McCarthy to ask the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors to approve a measure allowing the county to borrow up to $1 million to pay its bills this month — which the board did, not quite happily, at its regular monthly meeting Monday (Oct. 7).

The 4-0 vote (Hampton supervisor Bryant Lee was ill) followed apologies and an explanation by McCarthy, who expressed regret primarily for not knowing about the cash-flow issue sooner.

“I’m glad to say I didn’t budget to borrow money,” McCarthy said. “I’m sorry to say we have to. This falls on my head, and I apologize.”

McCarthy said Tuesday he learned of the shortfall only last week from Treasurer Frances Foster, whose office has reportedly fallen behind in what had been monthly trial-balance reporting. The treasurer’s and revenue commissioner’s offices have been transitioning over the summer to new accounting software both offices began using July 1.

“In the past, we have been able to get by without borrowing by just deciding in advance which bills we could hold until the revenue was there, but there just isn’t time for that now,” McCarthy said Tuesday. The county’s monthly payroll/benefits obligation alone is about $300,000.

Foster said Wednesday that the three full-time and several part-time employees in her office “have been working overtime, all of us,” and that adjustment to new software did slow down some operations. “But we really do need another full-time person here,” she said. “We don’t play. You might have a minute or two to talk, but we work.”

As McCarthy told the supervisors Monday afternoon, it’s the first time in more than two decades that the county’s had to authorize borrowing to bolster the budget-surplus “cushion” typically needed each year to pay the bills from July 1 through November — by which time much of the county’s real-estate and personal-property tax revenue is in the bank. The county has received short-term loan quotes at rates that ranged from “prime to prime plus a half to three-quarters of a percentage point,” McCarthy said Tuesday.

In recent years, that surplus has hovered around $4.5 million, McCarthy told the supervisors. “For reasons both agreed to and forced upon you, we had to cut into the general surplus this year,” he said, noting the two largest causes: budget-busting expenses over the last three years for the county’s Comprehensive Services Act share (to pay for remarkable increases in state-mandated foster care, among other services), and the county’s purchase last year of the commonwealth’s attorney/county attorney office building opposite the courthouse on Gay Street from Peter and Sharon Luke.

“You agreed to stem the Comprehensive Services-related bleeding by raising the property tax rate by 2 cents for this year — so after this year, hopefully this won’t be part of the problem,” McCarthy said.

“Our surplus is and remains at $3 million,” he said, “but from July 1 to November, we use all that surplus to meet monthly obligations, because there’s no revenue stream . . . If we authorize this, it’s still possible we won’t need it, and at the very least we will only have to borrow some portion” of the $1 million authorized.

“Perhaps we could get regular balance updates in the future,” said Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek before the vote.

Board chairman Roger Welch, who always votes last, voiced his usual “And aye as well” to conclude the borrowing resolution roll call, adding: “And let’s not do this again.”

After meeting in closed session following their afternoon meeting, McCarthy said the board requested a meeting with the treasurer to discuss better methods of tracking the county’s cash flow.

Scenic roads and dark skies

In other actions, the board at its evening session Monday approved a resolution to advance the official Virginia Byway designation of Richmond Road (specifically, Route 729 from U.S. 211 south to Route 618/Laurel Mills Road, also known as Newby’s Corner), and hosted a public discussion of “dark skies.”

“Darkness at night is something I just feel should be part of our viewshed in Rappahannock County,” said Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish, who suggested last month that the supervisors host the public forum, “and something that’s being lost throughout the world.

“If someone builds a house on the side of a hill and its outdoor lighting is not shielded, it affects a lot of people — and the individual who put that lighting up likely had no idea they were adversely affecting their neighbors’ viewshed,” Parrish said. “So the purpose of this discussion, in my opinion, is to help raise awareness and to encourage people, when they put up lighting, to have it downward-facing and shielded.”

Regulation was another possible aim Parrish mentioned (“I don’t know if it would enforceable, or even if it wasn’t . . .”), as it was for most of those who rose to speak after him, including: Reid Folsom of Rixeyville, who recommended motion-activated security lighting (“If your lighting is on all hours, the bad guys will know where the shadows are”); Milton Roney, who has a weekend place in Sperryville and used to work for the International Dark-Sky Association, who said most people on the east coast have never seen the Milky Way and mentioned the organization’s website (darksky.org) as a place to learn of light pollution’s effect on the ecology and human health; Rick Kohler, president of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection (RLEP); and the Piedmont Environmental Council’s Rappahannock conservation officer Don Loock.

After the public comment ended, Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier said he doubted any regulation of residential lighting would be enforceable, unlike the county’s commercial lighting ordinance, which five years ago squeezed around Virginia’s Dillon Rule (e.g., the state has the final word) by connecting its lighting regulations to commercial site-plan approvals, an accepted statewide practice.

No such precedent exists for residential development, County Attorney Peter Luke affirmed. McCarthy agreed, suggesting that the principal argument against more outdoor lighting would increasingly be the cost of electricity. He also said that similar comments in support of dark skies had come up during recent public forums for the county’s five-year update of its comprehensive plan.

“I like the notion of encouraging it,” he said, “and the comprehensive plan saying that dark skies are important to us, and we want it to be important to you if you’re making your home in Rappahannock.”

The scenic-road designation of Route 729 received similar universal support, among those speaking in its favor at the afternoon session being James F. Massie Jr., lifelong Rappahannock resident and owner of Meadowview Farm, a prominent component of both Richmond Road’s scenic worth and the county’s conservation-easement juggernaut — not to mention one of Rappahannock’s largest working farms.

Massie credited Parrish with “getting the ball rolling” with the state after a discussion the two had last winter about why Route 729, already a Virginia Byway from 211 north to Flint Hill, couldn’t hold the same official designation in the other direction.

At the evening session, when Department of Conservation and Recreation program planner Lynn Crump presented the board with DCR’s official positive evaluation of the proposed designation and Rappahannock Historical Society president John Tole pointed out several significant Civil War sites along the route.

The resolution passed unanimously and goes to the Commonwealth Transportation Board for its stamp, and then to the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), which will install those distinctive blue Virginia Byway signs.

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 535 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.