By Page Glennie
We are blessed to be able to live in a county with such a wonderful community culture and a beautiful agricultural landscape. Much of the credit goes to those that established our zoning laws that limit development. However, at this point the rural nature of our county that we cherish so deeply creates a situation that makes the county’s financial situation very challenging.
The county has to pay a very large portion of our school budget due to high real estate values, high average incomes, and a small population. The county has very little commercial tax revenue. Only 20 percent of the land in the county is taxed at the full assessed value due to land use and conservation reserve tax reductions. Consequently, the county is dependent on real estate taxes much more than other jurisdictions.
The county’s future budgets are strained even further by large future liabilities such as a new emergency radio system, deferred building maintenance, and deferred retirement system expenses. The county heavily depends on aging volunteer organizations to provide many of the vital services. Consequently, the county’s significant future liabilities will demand more revenue and higher taxes.
Mismanagement creates waste and inefficient use of resources increases costs, and consequently both impact tax rates. It takes a 10 percent increase in the tax rate to generate an additional million dollars of revenue. Our county has an aging population, many of whom are on fixed incomes that are not able to absorb significant tax increases.
On the pages of the Rappahannock News and in public meetings, the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors (BoS) have opined about a “vocal minority” of citizens that are “whining” about county business practices and “criticizing” county employees. The issue is not those citizens taking the time to get involved in their local government and express their opinions. Voicing our opinions about how the county is run is our right, as taxpaying citizens. We should be very skeptical of any official who is uncomfortable with us doing so. The issue is the BoS not adequately fulfilling their responsibility to oversee prudently the operation of our county government (a $32 million per year operation), to address issues as they arise, and to put in place the appropriate management controls.
I think it is safe to say that the BoS considers me a part of that vocal minority. This is not how I planned to spend my retirement, but a little over a year ago I started attending BoS meetings and became concerned about how things were being done. As the third generation to own the property where I now live, I could not turn a blind eye to the serious problem that jeopardizes the future of the county, and which also has the potential for grave negative impacts on my family and all county residents. As I’ve gotten more involved and told people what I’ve learned, they’ve been astounded, clearly unaware of what is going on, and asked me to keep doing what I’ve been doing.
To make my point, the following example demonstrates many of the root management issues present in our county government. What follows are the facts, the mismanagement, and the impacts of what I’ve discovered regarding just one issue, that of the surplus U.S. Army cargo truck you may have heard about.
First the facts (from meeting minutes, invoices, and discussions):
- On 8 June 2016 the county purchased a $5,300 surplus U.S. Army cargo truck from the Virginia Department of General Services (DGS). The stated purpose of the truck is for plowing snow when there is a medical emergency and when the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has not yet plowed to the location.
- On 27 June 2016 the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors (BoS) approved the purchase of the truck using money set aside in the 2016 budget for office space rental. That extra money in the office space rental budget has existed for years and has been used for things other than office space rental.
- On 1 September 2016 a snow plow blade for the truck was purchased for $250 with a county credit card using money set aside in the 2017 budget for training/planning and supplies for the county’s Emergency Services Department.
- Also on 1 September 2016 a second truck was purchased for $2,000 using a county credit card. This truck was bought for the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department with money donated by a citizen. Because the truck was purchased by a county employee using a county credit card, DGS may still consider this truck to be county property.
- Both trucks and the plow blade are currently located at the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department.
- DGS rules require the surplus vehicles to be operational within one year of purchase. At this time neither truck is operational, nor has the required DGS paperwork regarding operational deployment been completed. The second truck has significant engine problems, which to this date, have not been repaired. Neither truck is tagged or insured. It is unclear if anyone has been properly trained to drive these vehicles or trained to plow snow.
- VDOT requires training for contracted snow plow drivers to plow roads under their jurisdiction, and uses only VDOT employees for gravel roads due to the potential damage to the road. Contracted snow plow operators are liable for any damages to the road, mailboxes, etc.
- On 6 February 2017 Castleton Volunteer Fire and Rescue Squad offered to buy the truck. The county’s Public Safety Committee voted to recommend approval of the sale. The county has not established procedures for the disposition of surplus equipment as required by Virginia Code, so it is unclear how the county should sell the truck. Furthermore, DGS prohibits resale of equipment they categorize as “Compliance Items” until 18 months after the equipment becomes operational.
The alleged mismanagement:
- The Rappahannock County BoS did not properly reallocate the funds for the vehicle purchase. When Mr. Frazier, who was not present at the 27 June 2016 BoS meeting, questioned this purchase, the other supervisors said they did not know about the truck.
- The Rappahannock County Administrator did not assess the plan for the truck, confirm that all necessary aspects were addressed, determine liabilities, or evaluate alternatives.
- The Rappahannock County Administrator who serves as the County Financial Officer did not follow basic accounting principles by approving invoices for payment from an inappropriate funding line.
- The Rappahannock County Administrator who serves as the County Procurement Officer did not properly follow the county procurement requirements in County Code 43. Purchasing authority has not been delegated to other county employees. Purchases over $5,000 require BoS action. Purchases over $500 dollars require bids or a documented sole source justification approved by the BoS.
- The Rappahannock County BoS and County Administrator did not establish a credit card policy upon issuing the cards. When questioned about the credit cards, BoS members said they were not aware the county had credit cards. A policy has now been drafted and scheduled for discussion and action at the April BoS meeting. The draft policy states that these types of credit card transactions are inappropriate and are not allowed.
- The Rappahannock County employees involved, the County Administrator and Emergency Systems Coordinator, exceeded their responsibilities, circumvented legal processes, did not use good judgment, and have not been held accountable. Their excuse is that they are overworked and trying their best. Neither employee has established employee performance requirements or has had a performance evaluation. The BoS has not had a closed session to discuss the performance of the employees involved.
- The Rappahannock County BoS has taken action to hire more employees. That may in fact be the proper response, but there has been no work study, meaning there is no quantitative analysis that justifies increased expenditures and higher taxes.
- The principle response by the Rappahannock County BoS, County Administrator, and Emergency Systems Coordinator has been to criticize those raising the issue, make misleading statements, and attempt to cover up the situation by selling the truck. Other than Mr. Frazier, it would appear that none of the BoS members have investigated the situation or taken the prudent measures necessary to address the issue.
- This situation raises a number of legal issues and possible criminal behavior regarding misappropriation of funds and procurement ethics. Yet nothing has been referred to Rappahannock’s Commonwealth Attorney for investigation. Since our Commonwealth Attorney also is our County Attorney, it would appear that there may be a legal representation conflict.
- This situation has created considerable liabilities for the County without any real review, without any analysis of alternatives, or without any public input. Now taxpayers are burdened with the cost of cleaning up this situation.
- This situation demonstrates the risks associated with on-the-job training for critical positions. Mistakes at the leadership level often have cost and legal ramifications.
This is just one of a number of major issues that affect our county government and impact the taxes we pay. Critiquing our local government and forcing the BoS to fulfill their management responsibilities is clearly fully justified. In fact it is our responsibility as citizens to hold our government representatives and employees accountable.
The issues that face the county are solvable, but they will not be solved by the same methods that created the issues. The issues cannot just be swept under the rug. Behind closed door deals that benefit only some are not acceptable. The county’s challenges must be addressed with leadership and proven management techniques in clear view of the public. This county has many proven leaders and managers with the skills to get the job done. I’m confident that if asked, those people will step forward to help the county solve the challenges it faces.
There is considerable energy being spent on national politics that we have little ability to affect. Let’s put that aside for awhile and work together to clean up our local government that more directly affects each of us.
The writer is a resident of Amissville. Editor’s note: This commentary was scheduled previous to Monday’s supervisors community outreach meeting.