Emergency services, taxes top candidates’ discussion

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Coverage of the second Friends of Liberty forum in the Hampton district is here.

The future of Rappahannock County’s emergency services — and the economic future and sustainability of the county in general — were among the topics covered last week at the Friends of Liberty’s first of two candidates forums Thursday night (Sept. 3) at the Amissville fire hall.

Candidates for supervisor in the Jackson district Ron Frazier, the longtime incumbent, and current school board member Amy Hitt, were questioned by James Gannon, the former county resident and longtime Washington correspondent (and a debate panelist during the Ford-Carter presidential election).

Sheriff’s candidates Connie C. Smith, the two-term incumbent, and Anthony “Andy” Berry Sr. also answered Gannon’s questions, and those posed by a handful of the 50-plus citizens seated at tables in the fire hall. Jackson district school board candidate J. Wesley Mills, who’s running unopposed for the seat to be vacated by Hitt, also answered questions.

The Friends of Liberty, a Rappahannock-based group that promotes the beliefs of the country’s founders, primarily as expressed in the U.S. Constitution, and which generally opposes bigger government and higher taxes, also sponsored a Hampton district-centered forum last night (Wednesday, Sept. 10, too late for this week’s newspaper). Also, the Rappahannock News is sponsoring candidates forum Sept. 21, for supervisor school board candidates, and Sept. 28 for sheriff and other constitutional officer posts; details of those in the Events calendar on page A3.

The independent but fiscally conservative Frazier, now in his 20th year as a supervisor, introduced himself by saying he would like to represent the district “one more time,” and believes he would best “represent the majority of the district.”

Hitt, a school board member since 2012 and a longtime member of the Rappahannock County School Sports Association, used the brief introduction allotted each candidate by Gannon to focus on her support of the county’s youth, noting her school board service, her athletics involvement and mentioning that her three children who went through the county’s public school system. One is now a special education teacher in California and two others, twins, are now students at Virginia Tech and Virginia Military Institute.

In his first question to the supervisor candidates, Gannon quoted “the bottom line” from the 152-page report filed by consultants hired last year to study the county’s all-volunteer fire and rescue system: “Rappahannock County is at a crossroads of accepting change for the future, or [experiencing] system failure. It is apparent to everyone involved that present operations cannot stay the same.”

Though the consultants’ study did not recommend moving to a paid fire and rescue model but laid out immediate changes to recruitment, training and resource-sharing among the county’s seven all-volunteer fire and rescue squads, both Frazier and Hitt said they would support some sort of paid responders — “possibly just during the day, like the other counties around us,” as Frazier said, and, as Hitt put it, “because we’re not going to have a choice.” Both also said they believed some future consolidation of companies would be necessary.

Both Frazier and Hitt said they supported increasing the county’s broadband access, but Frazier started his answer to Gannon’s question about whether spending public funds for such projects is necessary by saying, “That’s a tax increase.”

Frazier cited some previous efforts by the county to acquire funding for a joint project, eventually abandoned, with Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, but added . . . “At the time, there wasn’t really enough public support. Now there seems to be. I hate to commit to say yes or no, but I’m willing to look at it.”

Hitt said the county should look into business-license taxes, required in all surrounding jurisdictions, as a way of generating revenue that could be specifically earmarked for broadband access projects.

Gannon pressed Hitt on budget increases, particularly for school expenses, by far the largest chunk of the county’s annual budget.

“The school budget was level-funded for three years, and went up slightly only this past year,” Hitt said, and credited superintendent Donna Matthews with “working magic” to keep school expenses down. Gannon also brought up Hitt’s involvement with RCSSA’s decision to seek stadium lighting several years ago, with financing co-signed by the county — and eventually paid off by the county, when RCSSA fell behind on payments.

“I do not regret it,” Hitt said, citing the school division’s several state championships over the past few years, including in track (which uses the stadium). “Those kids are allowed to have anything that any other school system has,” she added, “and I would do it again.”

“Anything that any other school system has?” Gannon asked.

“Our kids should have access to anything that any other school system has,” Hitt said again.

“Even if the tax base doesn’t support it?” Gannon asked, but when Hitt started to speak, he posed the question to Frazier.

Frazier, a perennial critic of the school division’s spending and financing policies, detailed several instances in which he was able to help find alternatives that cost less, including the energy-related improvements made over the past four years at the high school and elementary school. Those projects came about, with joint county and school funding, after the supervisors objected to a school division plan to enter a long-term financing agreement with Ameresco. The Ameresco plan was initially promoted as a way to finance expensive repairs that would result in lower energy bills (thus paying for themselves over time).

“We were able to make those improvements at a fraction of the cost,” Frazier said.

Frazier also said that Hitt had agreed, in serving with him on an ad hoc committee last year tasked with evaluating the county and school division’s employee health insurance costs, to seek merging insurance plans that would cover both school staff as well as sheriff’s deputies and other county employees, resulting in decreased costs. He said when she returned to the school board to vote on insurance measures, she no longer supported the consolidation.

Because of space and staffing limitations, the Rappahannock News will have more detailed coverage of the questions answered by sheriff candidates Smith and Berry — who were to appear again at the Friends of Liberty’s forum last night in Hampton district. Their comments at both forums will be consolidated in the paper’s edition next Thursday (Sept. 17).

Last Thursday, both Smith and Berry agreed that drug use is the county’s biggest crime problem — but disagreed on how to address it. Berry believes the sheriff’s office should rejoin the Virginia State Police’s regional drug task force; Smith said the cost of being a part of the task force is too high, and that cooperation with state police and other law enforcement continues in force. Smith said drug arrests have gone up in the county, but property crimes often associated with drug use have gone down — an indicator, she said, of her department’s vigilance. Berry contended that more attention should be paid to rehabilitation and therapy programs for drug abusers.

On staffing and budget, Smith said she is doing what she can after staff reductions related to the closing of the county’s jail. Berry said he believed there should be two road deputies on duty overnights in Rappahannock; Smith maintained that her current one deputy/two dispatchers plan works well, allowing the deputy to stay on the road when transport of prisoners to the regional jail in Front Royal can be handled by the second dispatcher.

Gannon’s first question to Wes Mills, who  chaired the school board for nine of his 12 years there until 2011 — concerned school safety. “Does the Rappahannock school system have an adequate plan to deal with a potential school shooter?”

“From what I recall of our policies, and procedures we had tightened down even in the past decade,” Mills said, “we are as prepared as we can be.”

Many facility improvements and heightened “personal vigilance,” Mills said, have helped increase school security. The sheriff provides a school resource officer, on site every day, Mills said, answering Gannon’s follow-up question, “He is the only armed officer on the school premises, as far as I know.”

Mills also responded to Gannon’s questions about increases in the school budget, which come despite dropping enrollment. (When Mills first joined the school board in 2000, total enrollment was 1,025; this school year, it’s 925.)

“The thing that’s changed, and that we forget, is that during that same period the requirements for what had to be accomplished at the school went up dramatically,” Mills said. “So we had federal and state regulations that have come in and demanded requirements of us at the same time that our enrollment was going down. . . . Just saddling up for the SOLs, for example, was not an easy task. The same is true for federal No Child Left Behind. . . .

“At some point,” he said, “it’s not all about the students and the number of students It’s the requirements that keep being set for us — 80 percent of which come out of the local pocket.” Mills was referring to the local composite-index score — and state funding formula based on property values and average income, among other statistics, all of which mean the state only pays for 20 percent of school division costs, the other 80 percent being covered primarily by local funds.

Asked about the school board’s policy of not answering any questions during its public-comment period at public meetings — a policy Mills helped put in place a decade ago — Mills said he would favor modifying the policy so that questions could get answered.

“My concern is that it [the comment period] seems to linger,” Mills said, recalling that his initial reason for limiting speakers to three minutes apiece, and not answering questions, was that “many times we found ourselves still meeting at 1 in the morning, and in my view no good decisions are made at 1 in the morning.”

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