In open session Monday afternoon, the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors decided to take its fiscal-year 2016 budget off the table for a couple of weeks.
In closed session, it agreed to put a proposal to build a cell tower on county property back on the table.
The cell tower proposal is from Community Wireless Structures (CWS), the same Arlington company whose proposal to erect a monopole at Rappahannock County High School was rejected in January by a school board under fire by some for its transparency — or lack of it, according to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act-related lawsuit filed last year by Sperryville resident Eric Tollefson — and by others for supposedly ignoring students’ and teachers’ safety by locating the tower too close to the school.
Others, including Rock Mills attorney David Konick, who represented Tollefson against the school board, just called the contract between the school board and CWS a “bad deal.”
The supervisors met briefly in closed session, after noting that the board was legally doing so to discuss the proposed lease of county property. Afterwards, County Administrator John McCarthy emailed that the supervisors authorized county staff “to explore the possibility of entering into a lease agreement with CWS to allow them to locate a personal wireless services facility on county-owned real estate.
“We are not limiting the discussion to a particular property at this time,” McCarthy added, in response to a question. The county “owns a number of properties in the vicinity,” he said, “but they are all between Schoolhouse Road in the east and Rediviva Bridge to the west.”
McCarthy had earlier said it also was not clear that CWS was the only company the county would be negotiating with.
CWS spokesman Thomas “Tam” Murphy said by phone later Monday that he doesn’t expect finding wireless carriers to lease space on any facility in Rappahannock County will be difficult. The county requires at least one carrier be under contract before issuing any permits for a wireless facility; CWS is not a carrier itself, but builds such facilities and rents antenna space to the biggest four or five wireless carriers, Murphy said, mentioning AT&T and Verizon as the “most active carriers.”
Three years after AT&T abandoned approved permits to build cell towers in Sperryville, on U.S. 522 near Boston and near the high school, McCarthy said, based on anecdotal evidence and Sprint’s coverage maps (Sprint being the only major wireless carrier with existing towers in Rappahannock), about 40 percent of the county’s homes and businesses can get wireless coverage.
About 10 percent of current wireless traffic is used for voice calls, Murphy said; the other 90 percent is data traffic, and the broadband portion continues to grow.
Murphy said CWS is also pursuing private tower leases in Sperryville (at the same Woodward Road location approved for AT&T) and in Castleton.
The budget, continued
At the start of the supervisors’ discussion of the three standard, first-Monday-in-June budget-adoption resolutions presented by McCarthy, Jackson district supervisor Ron Frazier suggested the board talk about the budget one more time before approving it.
“We have not met, again, as a board, to review the budget and discuss ways of finding $150,000 to $200,000 [of fat] in a $22 million budget,” Frazier said. “I think we need to do that, that it’s our responsibility to do that.”
Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish disagreed, and appeared to propose a motion that the board — which cut $44,000 last month from the school board’s proposed $90,000 increase in local funding over last year — could approve the budget Monday, but also cut its property-tax increase to 1 cent.
He pointed out that if the board kept in last year’s 25-cent increase to the personal property tax rate, and also kept the $20-per-vehicle county registration fee (formerly known as a sticker fee, though there are no more stickers), the county could eliminate half of the proposed 2-cent increase. (The other half will pay for increases to the fire-rescue levy mostly required by upgrades to the emergency communications system the county shares with Fauquier and Culpeper counties — and, according to some, to compensate for cuts made to the fire levy by the supervisors two years ago.)
McCarthy had proposed the 1-cent cut, offset by the personal property tax increase and the vehicle fee, as “one option,” when he first presented the draft budget to the board.
Parrish didn’t get to make the motion. Frazier had already put his suggestion of a final work session in the form of a motion. Piedmont district supervisor Mike Biniek — after asking McCarthy to confirm that it would still give the county time to meet various deadlines before the July 1 fiscal year starts — seconded it. Supervisor chair Roger Welch (noting that “all of us should be working together, and pulling on the same rope . . . ”) and Parrish joined Frazier and Biniek. Hampton supervisor Bryant Lee cast the sole no vote on the measure to postpone approval.
The supervisors will thus meet, at the Rappahannock Extension office conference room (311 Gay St., second floor) at 9 a.m. Tuesday, June 23, to go through the county’s proposed $22.7 million 2015-16 budget, which now carries a 2-cent increase in the local property tax rate (from 64 cents to 66 cents per $100 of assessed value).
The board also passed a separate resolution authorizing the county to borrow any funds necessary to bridge the gap between July 1’s start of the fiscal year and the influx of property-tax revenue in the fall.
The supervisors also scheduled a public meeting to gather input on recommendations by consultants JLN Associates on changes to the county’s fire and rescue system. McCarthy asked that the supervisors meet after the county fire and rescue association could meet to discuss a review of the JLN’s recommendations by its company-chiefs committee. The supervisors’ session is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, June 30 — likely at the courthouse, but possibly elsewhere if a conflict arises.