Town’s rising visitor revenue . . . submerged?

Council says it must raise utility rates to make systems self-sustaining

As part of its proposed fiscal year 2015 budget — unveiled for the first time at its meeting Monday night (April 14) — the Washington Town Council decided to raise the town’s water usage rates for the first time in more than a decade, though the exact rate hasn’t been determined.

The town itself, the Washington water works and the wastewater treatment facility all have their own separate budgets. Both the town itself and the wastewater treatment plant saw a proposed increase in the budgets that go into effect July 1. The town’s rose from $312,000 to $385,000; the wastewater budget rose from $362,900 to $407,000.

The increase in town water rates — ostensibly to help run the town’s water works and four-year-old wastewater treatment plant — was first suggested by Mayor John Fox Sullivan, who noted that the waste plant will likely exceed — by $50,000 — its repair budget of $25,000 by the end of the current fiscal year.

More than $42,000 has already been spent on the plant so far this year, Sullivan said, as multiple expensive components required repairs in quick succession — all of which he said was compounded by the long, harsh winter Rappahannock experienced.

As its has in past years, both water facilities are being funded by the “profit” turned by the town itself — revenues driven primarily by the town’s meals and lodging tax, which rose by nearly 15 percent. Last fiscal year, the council predicted that tax would take in approximately $280,000. Instead, it’s on track to finish at about $300,000. The council raised its projected fiscal-year 2015 meals-and-lodging revenue estimate to $360,000.

“I’m comfortable with that number,” Sullivan said, “though I do think it could also be higher.” The increase, he added, was likely due to the increased number of rooms — such as those at the recently opened White Moose Inn and about-to-open Parsonage (formerly Clopton House) at the Inn at Little Washington — as well as other new restaurants and renovations underway in the town.

Those renovations, including the improved Trinity Church/town center parking lot and continued repair of Avon Hall, accounted for one of the town’s additions — an increase of $3,000 in the town’s promotion and beautification expenses, which would total $30,000 in the new budget.

That $30,000 also includes $7,200 to pay for a contract with Mark Ferris, a local painter who will be painting the rest of the exterior of Avon Hall. Ferris painted the roof earlier this year, and will finish up the exterior by May 4 — 10 days before the town and Avon Hall host the inaugural Americana Music Festival, presented by Ben “Cooter” Jones and Alma Viator.

“There’s probably some preventative maintenance in there, but it’s mostly a visual thing,” Sullivan said.

“It’s the symbol of the town,” said council member Patrick O’Connell, who’s also chef and proprietor of the Inn at Little Washington, far and away the town’s largest source of meals-and-lodging tax revenue and the county’s biggest tourist draw. “We don’t want it to be an eyesore.”

The discussion then returned to higher water rates, which, as council Mary Ann Kuhn pointed out, have been proposed before but never acted on. At least one council member explained that the goal of raising the rates — which last increased a decade or so ago — is to make both water-based facilities self-sustaining, much as the town of Washington itself is.

As vice-mayor Gary Schwartz explained, the town’s meals and lodging tax is currently subsidizing the costs otherwise to be covered by citizens paying higher rates for water and sewer. Most of the income to the wastewater facilities come from hookup costs; next fiscal year, those costs will drop off substantially, town clerk Laura Dodd said, as most everyone in the town will already be connected.

“It was a conscious — and I would argue rational — choice not to raise people’s rates due to the [initial] hookup costs,” Sullivan said. “I would add that if we do increase the rates . . . the percentage is likely to seem much higher than the actual amount.”

A typical bill for a Washington resident, Schwartz said, is about $33 a month, though that includes both water and sewer usage rates. No exact increased figure was proposed at Monday’s meeting, though even a rise by as much as 20 percent would only mean a $6 increase.

Ultimately, the council agreed with Sullivan’s suggestion, and formed a two-person committee (composed of Sullivan and treasurer Jerry Goebel) to look at raising the water rates. That increase will be considered, along with the rest of the town’s budget, at a public hearing at the council’s next monthly meeting May 12.

Avon (Meeting) Hall?

The council also heard a proposal from new town resident Judd Swift, who advocated marketing a revitalized Avon Hall as a “top-notch board and/or strategic meeting center for corporations.”

Swift, who worked in the hotel business for a decade, said he had started discussing ideas with  local real estate agent Butch Zindel about six weeks ago and had “seen the potential in Avon Hall.” Specifically, Swift said, because of the town’s strategic location relative to Richmond, Charlottesville and Washington, D.C., using Avon Hall as “an upper-end, high-level” meeting facility could help “bring the right kind of people — those with money — to the town” and could positively impact the town’s economy.

“I stand ready to assist,” said Swift, who cautioned that he had not yet conducted any formal feasibility study.

As with most discussions of Avon Hall, nothing was decided Monday night. The council members all seemed visibly intrigued with Swift’s idea. Council members Daniel Spethmann and Kuhn — tasked several months back with helping find a use for Avon Hall — agreed to meet with Swift and discuss the idea further.

VDOF grant

After the budget discussion, Sullivan informed the rest of the council that the Virginia Department of Forestry had award RappFLOW (Rappahannock Friends and Lovers of Our Watershed) a $1,875 grant to use toward the beautification of the Avon Hall grounds.

“It’s not as much as requested,” Sullivan admitted, “but nothing ever is.”

Despite getting less than the $3,000 requested, Sullivan said RappFLOW was pleased with the grant and would put it to good use. Additionally, Sullivan said the VDOF has agreed to give RappFLOW several trees free of charge, which will also be planted on the Avon grounds.

The council also approved a $1,750 donation to the Rappahannock Food Pantry in support of Food Pantry Day (May 10). Sullivan originally proposed the town donate its usual $1,500, but the rest of the council voted to increase the amount. The donation was approved 6-0. (Alice Butler was absent.)

“The highlight of my year is taking that check over to the Pantry,” said Dodd. “Everyone stands and applauds.”