BOS hears pleas for budget increases
Rappahannock County Deputy Administrator Debbie Keyser recommended to the Board of Supervisors Monday that it start saving money for what many believe is inevitable: the county’s first paid emergency responder.
Keyser asked the board to create a new line item in the county’s fiscal 2017 budget of up to $200,000 as a contingency fund that could be used to “rent” paid EMS help if the need arises. For now, she said, there’s an apparent “uptick” in new volunteers that “may well get us through the next year” without any paid staff. The fiscal-year 2017 budget goes into effect July 1.
In the nearly four-hour annual budget work session, the supervisors also heard several departmental pleas for increased funding and/or staffing, including in the Registrar’s Office and the General District Court clerk’s office. They also received a report on tourism by Keyser who talked about its importance as a source of revenue.
The county’s seven all-volunteer fire and rescue companies are having varying degrees of trouble keeping up with calls (especially medical calls) as the average age of both their emergency medical clients and their volunteer responders continues to rise. This is true as well with the never-ending need for fundraising, and with finding and training new (and young) volunteers.
Based on what’s happened in other jurisdictions, some quite close by, everyone involved in the year-long fire and rescue discussion — from the supervisors to the chiefs of the county’s fire and rescue association — is keenly aware that once you start paying for emergency services, finding and keeping volunteers becomes all the more difficult.
“I’m also somewhat disappointed that the fire and rescue association hasn’t completed a strategic plan,” Keyser told the supervisors, referring to a key recommendation of the JLN Associates consulting firm’s study last year of the county’s future fire and rescue needs (a study that met with a decidedly mixed reception).
“It’s basically on hold,” said Richie Burke, the county’s emergency services coordinator and former chief of the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department, who preceded his remarks by saying that he was “speaking now as the former president and an advisor” to the fire and rescue association, not as the emergency services coordinator. Burke said the feeling among the association’s leadership was that “if there isn’t going to be any funding, why should they bother” to create such a plan.
Keyser told the supervisors that the county needs a strategic emergency-services plan, and recommended they consider forming a committee, suggesting it include Burke, Frank Huff of Flint Hill Fire and Rescue and “possibly several professionals in the field who live in the county,” to finish the strategic plan.
Burke said the proposed fire levy line item for fiscal year 2017, which funds the seven volunteer companies’ operational expenses, reflected an expected 10-percent increase in those expenses — including expanded training for new and potential volunteers, raising the overall fire levy fund by about $48,000.
The supervisors — as at any preliminary budget workshop — asked several questions, and made no decisions.
Part-time or full-time registrar?
Some 20 persons arrived at the budget work session to support a slide presentation by Kimberly McKiernan, the County Registrar (a position renamed by the state to “Director of Elections”).
Rappahannock’s registrar office is one of just 16 local offices in Virginia designated by the state as part-time — open three days most of the year, and five days a week only during election run-ups and certain other times. McKiernan, who’s held the job four years, outlined her duties — and her actual working hours, which she said often bring her to the office when it is officially closed — to make the case that a part-time registrar can no longer properly serve Rappahannock’s 5,587 registered voters.
In Virginia, McKiernan said, cities with populations of more than 7,500 are required to have full-time registrars. Rappahannock’s population is about 7,300, she pointed out — but, unlike a more compact city or town, its voters are spread over a much wider area. Measures are underway in Richmond to make all registrar offices full-time offices, but the county can choose to do so on its own with a supplement. (The state currently pays 49 percent of McKiernan’s wages, the rest locally funded.)
During the recent dual presidential primary, McKiernan said, she worked 10 days straight to prepare for the election.
After granted permission by supervisors’ chair Roger Welch to speak at what was otherwise “not really a public hearing,” six others rose to support McKiernan’s request. “It’s time to vote like your right to vote depends on it,” said Denise Chandler, who serves on the county’s court-appointed electoral board, which oversees the registrar’s office.
“I think the county has been taking advantage of Kim,” said Tim Pagano of Huntly.
Though her own salary hasn’t yet been set, Keyser said, she noted for the supervisors’ benefit during a review of supervisor-related and county administration costs that the impending retirement July 1 of County Administrator John McCarthy, after 30 years as the head of both zoning and county administration, will have the expected significant impact on the budget.
She also noted that she intends to include a half-year’s salary in the draft budget for a possible deputy county administrator who would function as the county’s first full-time zoning administrator— a position that McCarthy and County Attorney Peter Luke strongly recommended to the supervisors at their meeting earlier this month.
If the supervisors decide to fund the position, Keyser said, a search and interview process could take until the end of the calendar year; hence the proposed half-year’s salary. McCarthy has said the two positions would still cost the county less than his and Keyser’s combined salaries. Keyser, who was hired early in 2015, said later, that those figures had not yet been finalized.
During a review of other administration-related line items, Keyser and the supervisors found some $20,000 in reductions from last year’s budget — including, after a long discussion prompted by Jackson District’s Ron Frazier, a $1,500 payment for fireworks at the county’s annual Fourth of July celebration.
The Fourth of July celebration is a fundraiser for the Sperryville Volunteer Fire Department, Frazier pointed out, and said he’d heard from at least two other fire and rescue companies that it didn’t seem fair that the county didn’t make similar allowances for other annual fire department fundraisers, such as Amissville’s annual carnival and parade and Castleton’s annual turkey shoot. Frazier said the latter “had to be cancelled last year because I understand they couldn’t get enough volunteers.”
Keyser gave the supervisors a PowerPoint presentation on tourism and its importance as a source of revenue, and hope, among the county’s small-business community.
In meetings over the winter with an informal committee of tourism-related business owners, interested citizens and others, Keyser said, it’s become clear that tourism could be a more significant revenue source — though not necessarily more of a tax burden.
“This is not a request for additional funding,” she said, noting later that the county’s current $54,000 tourism-related budget is not likely to change in fiscal year 2017. The funds go toward upkeep and part-time wages at the county visitors center, website development and maintenance, brochures and advertising.
Rappahannock’s tourism industry represents an “unusually broad, eclectic web of mutually beneficial local economic connections between business, customers and local suppliers,” Keyser said. Besides hospitality and restaurants, it also includes agritourism, artists and artisans, theater and music, breweries, wineries and a distillery, and outdoor activities — chief among the last being the county’s largest single landowner, Shenandoah National Park. Last year, she said, more than 404,000 visitors passed through the Thornton Gap entrance on U.S. 211, Rappahannock’s main drag.
“We have to take advantage” of those park visitors, Keyser said, by giving them more reasons to stop, eat and stay in Rappahannock. She estimated that if current tourism growth rises at the same rate as in recent years, in five years there would be a $158,000 increase in tourism-related revenue (the “tourism” revenue counted is primarily meals and lodging taxes taken in, and the county’s share of state sales taxes collected here).
“If we doubled that, to $316,000, in five years or sooner,” she said, “that revenue could pay, for example, for four or five full-time EMS personnel, if needed.”
She outlined some of the many ideas that had come up in meetings with the tourism committee — an informal group which includes representatives of local businesses, the Rappahannock Artisan Trail, rappahannock.com, the Businesses of Rappahannock (Jason Brady, BizRapp’s president, joined her at the supervisors’ table during the presentation), the Farm Tour and the Town of Washington.
She suggested that the most important (and popular) idea among the committee members would be a “point person” to coordinate the efforts of many independent entities and businesses. She did not use the term “director of tourism,” nor suggest the county fund it (as it did at $30,000 a year until 2012, initially with grant funds) expressing hope instead that the BizRapp, the Artisan Trail and others might find a way to sponsor such a position independently.
Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish pointed out that tourism revenue is still “just 1 percent of the county’s revenue,” and that he still believes the best way tourism can be promoted is by “word of mouth.”
Frazier said he wasn’t sure things would ever be the same as “those days when cars were backed up on 211 waiting to get in the park.”
“I don’t think anyone here could have predicted that in 2006, the price of fuel would go from $1.40 a gallon to $4.99 — in one year,” Frazier said. “I mean, it took 42 years for it to go from a quarter a gallon to $1.40. And that puts a dent in something like tourism. Those weekend trips just aren’t being taken.”
“I agree that it’s dangerous to make predictions,” said Parrish.
Hampton supervisor John Lesinski suggested that the most important element of Rappahannock’s attraction to visitors is broadband internet access and cell service.
Longtime Flint Hill B&B owner Phil Irwin strongly urged the county to “realize that tourism has become a very competitive business in this region.” He pointed out that in Warren County, “100 percent of meals and lodging tax revenue goes toward tourism, toward supporting the visitors center in Front Royal.”
Both Washington’s mayor, John Sullivan, and town council member Gary Aichele rose to emphasize the importance of tourism to Rappahannock and the region, but Aichele also came around to the question of broadband and cell service — both still hard-to-find commodities for about half the county’s residents.
“I agree that the biggest problem with our guests,” said Aichele, who runs a B&B in the town, “is . . . as soon as they lose cell service, they wonder if they’ve made a mistake. As soon as they lose cell service, they don’t know where to eat. They don’t know whether the winery’s open or closed. So they make different choices. They’re heading back up to Warrenton, back to Culpeper, going across the mountain.
“This county suffers the same thing it suffered in 1820,” Aichele said, “when no railroad came through. You don’t have to come through this county, you don’t have to stay in the county, you don’t have to spend a dollar in this county — unless you grow something here. So agribusiness may have a solid footing, but it alone won’t sustain our county.
“We have this tenuous balance between tourism, visitors, and the guts of this county, agriculture. And they are compatible, they can survive together — but tourism is fragile. So I think we really need to understand that you gotta compete, as Phil said, you gotta be smart — not just for those taxes, meals and lodging and sales, but employment, real estate taxes . . . We all need any dollar we can find from anybody.”
Help for General District Court clerk
General District Court Clerk Patricia Davis walked upstairs to sit briefly at the supervisors’ table, between Keyser and Treasurer Debbie Knick, and make a brief case that the supervisors consider supplementing the clerk office’s funds that are available for wages.
Davis’ wages and that of the deputy clerk are both set and paid entirely by the state; though she said the two have not received a raise in nine years, other than one 2-percent cost of living adjustment. The $15,000 supplement she came to ask from the county would pay for occasional part-time and fill-in help. The state allows for no such funds, she said.
As she spoke, she said, her deputy was off for a week or more of compassionate leave to look after an ailing relative. She herself has had need of health-related leave in recent years, “and it’s just the two of us there,” and when one of them is gone, she said, it’s a long day for just one staff member.
“I asked for this last year and did not get it,” Davis said, in answer to a supervisor’s question. She also noted that the General District Court clerk’s office has never had any wage-related supplement from the county, which pays only for supplies, vendors and office-related expenses.