The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors didn’t make any cuts to the proposed $21.99 million fiscal year 2015 budget at its work session Tuesday night (May 13), but rather spent most of its 90-minute meeting discussing the sheriff’s and building offices.
The budget drafted by county administrator John McCarthy calls for a 4-cent increase on property taxes, bringing Rappahannock’s total to 69 cents per $100 of assessed value. McCarthy began Tuesday’s meeting by reiterating the five reasons behind the proposed increase:
• The sheriff’s transition from a local jail to a regional jail and the surplus that has to be built up to start paying the county’s share of the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail’s debt in fiscal-year 2016;
• A general real estate reassessment that must be completed by 2016;
• An increase in Virginia Retirement Service costs;
• Increases in county employee health insurance rates and a 2-percent salary increase in December;
• and a fire-and-rescue needs-assessment study to be performed by a third party this year.
Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie C. Smith — whose departmental needs were questioned at last month’s public budget hearing — was present to explain why she requested what she had, including two new vehicles for her deputies (a $68,000 expense).
The short version is to help combat the drug problem in Rappahannock County, Smith explained — a problem made even more clear by Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff’s last-minute request for a $65,000 increase to his department’s budget to cover an investigator working directly with Goff.
The investigator — a sworn police officer with Task Force credentials, Goff said — would also require a county vehicle (bringing the county’s total vehicle count to 26). “It is vital to public safety that the epidemic of drug use be confronted,” read Goff’s request. “In my experience, the only effective means we in law enforcement have of addressing drug trafficking is the tactics and methods used by Regional Drug Task Forces.”
Smith admitted that the county does have a drug problem — or at least a drug trafficking problem — but added that she didn’t agree with Goff’s proposal. “If Mr. Goff feels he needs that . . . I do have some issues with that.”
Until two years ago, the sheriff’s office had participated in the Virginia State Police-sponsored Blue Ridge task force, Smith explained, but it was an expensive process. “In two years of partnership, I put around $200,000 into [the task force] and only got around $20,000 back out . . . I can’t say we got out of it what we put into it.”
Those figures, Smith explained, are based on busts conducted by the task force, the confiscated assets of which are subsequently divided between its member jurisdictions. “Drugs are everywhere,” Smith admitted, “and especially now there’s a big heroin problem.
“The problem is there’s no way to track it back to Rappahannock County,” Smith continued. “There are no hospitals here, so those people are going to Warren or Fauquier County . . . With HIPAA [patient privacy] laws being what they are, the hospitals aren’t going to call us and say, ‘We’ve got John Doe from Rappahannock here.’”
All of which, Smith concluded, makes it very hard to tell exactly how bad Rappahannock’s drug problem is.
“We’re trying to be proactive and bring in as many [drug runners] as we can . . . But [U.S.] 211 is a drug border with people bringing drugs from D.C. to Harrisonburg, and Harrisonburg to D.C. The interstates are too heavily patrolled, so they choose the back roads . . . Right now the drug of choice is prescription drugs. Now you can go to the doctor and complain that your back hurts and get 100 oxys.”
“I will say one thing though,” Smith concluded. “I’m here because you’re looking at cutting my positions, and I already know my salaries . . . There’s a lot of things you’re not seeing here [with this proposal].”
All of which left the supervisors in agreement — at least in principle, as the budget won’t be adopted until their June 2 meeting — that rejoining the task force was a good idea that could wait at least a year. “There are lots of good things we don’t have the money for,” said chairman Roger Welch.
Turning the board’s attention back to the vehicles, Smith explained that this would be the last year — if granted — she’d be requesting new vehicles for a while, and that the $68,000 cost included two “fully equipped” patrol cars that would help defray the extra miles the RCSO would be putting on their pre-existing cars when they began transporting prisoners to the regional jail.
Of the 16 cars (15 patrol cars, one animal control vehicle) Smith said she currently uses, seven have more than 100,000 miles (one has more than 160,000). And while the RSW Jail will transport prisoners to Rappahannock for court appearances, getting the prisoners to RSW is the county’s responsibility.
Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek asked Smith if she had thought about restructuring the sheriff’s office — as she recently said she would be forced to, if nine positions were lost in the transition to the regional jail. Smith said she had, but wasn’t optimistic about her department if she indeed lost that many people.
Smith said the state compensation board (the agency that determines staffing for local jurisdictions’ state-mandated positions) wants to take away 11 positions. (McCarthy said he’d heard the board wants 11 but will, in essence, reimburse the sheriff two positions, for a net loss of nine.) That number would only leave Smith five patrol deputies — the “floor,” McCarthy said, of what counties must have. (Smith would still have the services of four Virginia State Police troopers.)
“Things were so much easier when we just had stocks out in front of the courthouse,” said Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier.
The supervisors then turned their attention to Richie Burke — who wears three hats for the county as the emergency services coordinator, E-911 coordinator and the county building official. “There’s a lot going on in one office, but we manage it,” Burke said.
All three of Burke’s positions are required by law, McCarthy explained, and while the county could have three separate people (as other counties do), it instead chose to simplify by putting Burke in charge.
Burke explained he’d been trying to minimize his office’s expenses by using primarily part-time help so the county wouldn’t have to offer benefits. The erosion and sediment control office, however, is a “dead expense,” Burke admitted, as it doesn’t generate much income.
The EMS cost recovery program — which allows the county to bill insurance carriers for trips made by volunteer rescue squads from any location in Rappahannock County to a hospital or medical facility — has helped offset some of the costs, Burke and McCarthy both noted, and the proposed fire-and-rescue needs-assessment study could help streamline the system in future years.
McCarthy said he’d have a list of proposed cuts for the supervisors at their June meeting, but did mention one likely cut Tuesday night: $12,000 set aside for RappCats, which McCarthy said the nonprofit cat shelter has little chance of receiving this year.