Council approves draft town budget, $80,000 loan for wastewater debt

Money was much on the minds, and agenda, of the members of the Washington Town Council Monday night.

Six of the council’s seven members (Patrick O’Connell was absent) voted unanimously to approve a draft town budget that, at $336,000, is about 10 percent lower than last year’s budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The same unanimous votes went to resolutions authorizing the town to borrow up to $80,000 in short-term funds (possibly needed, according to Mayor John Sullivan, to help make payments on the town’s wastewater treatment plant debt), and to donate $1,750 to the Rappahannock Food Pantry.

Meanwhile, town attorney John Bennett reported that negotiations — along with various requested studies and inspections — are continuing with the still-unidentified but “very serious” potential buyer of six acres of the nine-acre town-owned Avon Hall estate. The land includes the main house and pond and several small adjacent structures but leaves a potential commercial lot at the corner of Leggett Lane and three acres south of the main house for possible mixed-density residential.

The negotiations, which Bennett has said he would conduct with just one potential buyer at a time, are apparently going well enough for Bennett to have repeated that promise again Monday night, in part as an answer to a question from Sullivan, who said he’d just that evening been asked whether Bennett would consider other “serious” offers, should one be made.

“If anything came in, I would review it,” Bennett said, speaking of other offers, though Sullivan later said he had no idea if any such additional offer existed.

“If it [another offer] just wasn’t in the hunt,” Bennett added, “I’d tell them that right off the bat. However, if it was something that would merit serious consideration, it would be my intention to say, ‘I’m negotiating with this party, and will negotiate to the conclusion one way or the other. If that conclusion is not satisfactory, you are the next in line.’ ”

The budget

The town’s budget — and its attendant fiscal year 2017 draft budgets for the Washington Water Works ($88,450, down from last year’s approved $94,350) and the wastewater system ($344,450, down from $398,000) — will be the subject of a public hearing at the council’s next regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, May 9.

“I’d like to give just a few brief headlines,” said Sullivan. “As it says on the bottom of these pages, this budget does not include any proceeds from the possible sale of Avon Hall, because it has obviously not yet been sold. If it is sold — and it will have major impact on our budgets, both on income but also on expenses, because we would no longer pay $63,000 on principal and interest on Avon Hall — we would amend the budget, and it would be a public process.

“Secondly . . . we decided to attempt to be quite conservative, going into next year,” Sullivan said. “The headline there is we are not increasing the meals and lodging tax revenue above what we anticipate being this year’s final number,” he added, referring to the projection of $310,000 — below the FY16 budget’s optimistic projection of $340,000.

Also, the budget reflects increased revenue projections for water and sewer systems, since increased usage rates for those went into effect Jan. 1, Sullivan noted. He added that the wastewater and water system expenses also reflect a savings of about $30,000, brought about by the town’s decision last year to consolidate operations of both systems with a single vendor — ESS of Culpeper. (The town previously paid the Rappahannock County Water and Sewer Authority to operate and maintain its water system.)

The town’s legal bills were projected in the budget to reach $50,000 in the current fiscal year — twice what was budgeted last year (and again for next year, when that line item is again at $25,000). The bills reflect the town’s involvement in lawsuits through most of 2015, brought by attorney David Konick and others who challenged the town’s involvement in a “Town Center Beautification” project with the Inn at Little Washington that began in 2013. Fees went to both Bennett and a special counsel hired by the town March 2015. Konick has appealed the circuit court’s ruling against him to the state supreme court.

As part of the brief discussion of the budget, council member Gary Aichele pointed out that in past years, the town’s meals and lodging tax revenue has increased, but may have leveled off over the past year — and that the town should consider revisiting the idea of raising the town’s 2.5 percent rate to match the county’s 4.5 percent meals and lodging tax rate.

“We talked about it before,” said Aichele, “but we postponed it because we, in part, were raising the water and sewer rates.”

“I agree with you, period,” said Sullivan.

Tax collections

Treasurer Jerry Goebel reported that the town will be more aggressively pursuing past due accounts — specifically meals and lodging taxes, water and sewer usage fees and even some sewer connection fees, a $7,500 fee originally charged to most residents and businesses to connect to the town’s wastewater treatment system when it began operation five years ago.

Meals and lodging taxes, Goebel said, the town’s largest single source of revenue, are mostly up to date. He said the town would try to work out payment arrangements with those who haven’t paid their sewer and water bills, and that some could be threatened with service interruptions. The town’s wastewater ordinance allows the town to bill those few whose original sewer connection fee remains unpaid for $15,000, double the original fee.

Aichele asked town attorney John Bennett if the town legally had the “full range” of collection efforts available to them — they did, Bennett said — and suggested that property liens “are one way to get the property owner’s attention.”

“I think we’re all compassionate and we’re a very small community where everyone knows everyone else. But there’s no reason some taxpayers should pay their taxes and some shouldn’t,” said Aichele. “I think when a taxpayer is in arrears, they should be notified of that, given time to enter some kind of reasonable repayment schedule, but in the absence of a willingness to do so, to be notified . . . of a pending claim on their real estate.”

ARB appointment

In one of its few non-financial-related actions Monday, the council also voted unanimously to appoint Rappahannock real estate agent and builder Butch Zindel to the town’s Architectural Review Board, filling a non-town-resident vacancy created by the recent departure of Ernesto Flores.

Sullivan nominated Zindel after a brief discussion of his qualifications and those of the two others who’d submitted letters of interest, architect Bill Smith and historic preservation expert Christine Mumm.

“I just want to say that I’m so impressed by all the applicants,” said council member Mary Ann Kuhn. “I wish we could have all three of them serve.”

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