Blue Ridge Muse News, views and musings from Southwestern Virginia Wed, 16 Apr 2014 12:47:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 To tax or not to tax Sat, 12 Apr 2014 11:18:29 +0000

If speakers who have appeared at recent meetings of both the School Board and Board of Supervisors represent an accurate demographic of Floyd County, a tax increase is overwhelmingly favored to support increased needs of a new fiscal year budget that goes into effect on July 1.

Some supervisors, however, say comments from the constituents they represent run overwhelmingly against a tax increase.

Here at Blue Ridge Muse, emails run about 50 – 50 for and against paying more taxes to support budget increases primarily for the county school system, which currently accounts for about two-thirds of the $30 million plus budget.  Same for comments during breakfast at Blue Ridge Restaurant during the week.

So what really is the will of the voters?  Unknown at this point.  No formal public opinion polls exist on the question in Floyd County.  The last three county supervisors to lose re-election bids point to their votes in favor of previous tax increases as primary reasons for their defeat at the polls.

Perhaps the question should be put to voters in a referendum in an upcoming election.  That might gives voters a chance to say what they want at the ballot box.  That might also be dangerous because tax increases usually lose in public referendums, particularly in areas where conservatives dominate elections.

Most supervisors tell me a tax referendum would probably fail because Floyd County is, by and large, conservative.  They are probably correct about the right-wing makeup of the electorate.

The current Board of Supervisors is all Republican.  Among elected county officers, only Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Shortt is not a card-carrying member of the GOP.  She runs as an independent.

Republicans dominate election results in Floyd County, even when the outcome goes the other way statewide.

For example, Barack Obama carried the state easily in the 2012 Presidential election but Mitt Romney finished at the top of the Presidential ballot easily in Floyd County.

Same for the governor’s race in 2014. Terry McAuliffe won Virginia but Ken Cuccinelli led the ballot locally.

Many years ago, President Richard Nixon used to talk about the “silent majority,” a part of the electorate he claimed was silent everywhere except the ballot box.

Nixon’s “silent majority” consisted mostly of older Americans — much like the bulk of the population of Floyd County.

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Painful budget decisions Fri, 11 Apr 2014 11:38:00 +0000 Pat Campbell of Check: "I'm a senior citizen, living on a fixed income and I support a tax increase."

Pat Campbell of Check: “I’m a senior citizen, living on a fixed income and I support a tax increase.”

Lots of attention this week to the annual, and often painful, budget process for Floyd County with the usual tug-of-war over what is considered most important and of the highest priority for approval by local government.

On one side of the tense and passionate public debate is the local school system, which accounts for two-thirds of the county’s $30 million plus annual budget and one which generates understandable passion within the ranks.

As the county’s largest employer and one that affects 2,000 students, school officials feel their budget should — and must — top the list of priorities in a cash-strapped county where attempts to balance everything often boils down to transfers and re-allocations of relatively small amounts.

But in a locality where crime is on an alarming rise, the manufacture, distribution and use of highly-addictive crystal methamphetamine is considered “an epidemic” and both use and sale of heroin is increasing, the argument can be made that law enforcement is also a high priority.

Floyd County’s school system asked for an additional $2.2 million in its budget request for the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1.  The current budget set for approval by the Board of Supervisors gives the system $173,000 of that request.

A majority of speakers who appeared before supervisors on Tuesday supported a hike in taxes and said any budget allocation of less than most of what the schools wanted would be disastrous and, in effect, the beginning of the end for the county education system.

Such hyperbolic claims are not unusual in passionate debates.  While the school system will have to face some budget cuts, modification of existing programs and reallocation of funds, few expect the dire threats of closed schools in places like Indian Valley, massive layoffs of teachers or an end to extra-curricular activities like football to occur.

Still, the schools face difficult times ahead.  Many of the system’s buses are worn out, some with more than 200,000 miles on them.  The newest school in Floyd County is a half-century old and all buildings face mounting costs for repair.

But the schools are not alone.  Many sheriff’s department cruisers have more than 150,000 miles and face high maintenance costs each year, both the county fire department and rescue squad need replacement vehicles and updates equipment and other departments have serious needs as well.

Some speakers in the more than 90 minutes of public comments before the supervisors this week suggested the county implement a meals tax that exists in the town and other communities.  While such a tax would generate some extra revenue, it would not provide anywhere near the total amount of extra funds necessary to meet upcoming budget needs.  The brunt of the cost will lies where it usually rests:  Property taxes.

The school system did not get all that it wanted.  Neither did other county departments.  Budget requests are often wish lists.

Supervisors also remember that, at the ballot box, the last two within their ranks to lose re-election bids went down to defeat by voters after voting for tax increases.

Counties like Floyd also face an increasing demand from the Virginia General Assembly to implement costly programs without any help to pay for them by the state.  These requirements, called unfunded mandates, come annually along with threats of fines and other punishments.

Floyd County faces an almost-certain tax hike next year — one that will come right on the heels of property reassessments.  The school system, sooner or later, will have to close one of the county’s four elementary schools and move students to one of the three remaining buildings.  That is inevitable and will come with a lot of pubic outcry and threats of retaliation.

Some remember the painful debates more than a half-century ago when the county combined its existing three high schools into one.

As the old song goes, “the times, they are a-changing” and that change will not come easy or without cost.

But it will come.

Jessica Cromer, princpal of Check Elementary School, speaks about the school budget before county supervisors.

Jessica Cromer, princpal of Check Elementary School, speaks about the school budget before county supervisors.


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Parkway’s Gestapo? Thu, 10 Apr 2014 17:18:59 +0000 Park Ranger running radar in front of Mabry Mill

Park Ranger running radar in front of Mabry Mill

An increasing number of drivers on the Blue Ridge Parkway in and around Floyd County say a new Park Ranger is overly-aggressive, rude and condescending.

Even worse, some say, he abuses his power and confronts those who legally cross the Parkway to get from one section of the their farmland to another in times of bad weather when the road is closed to tourists but not to those who have a legitimate reason to use the road.

Parkway officials acknowledge they are receiving complaints about the actions of a new ranger in the area and say a “review” of his actions and behavior is underway.

Farmers who have land on both sides of the Parkway say they have been harassed by the ranger when they drive farm vehicles along the road on dog-leg intersections that require them to use short sections of the road.  Virginia’s long-standing agreement with the National Park Service allows such use of the road by landowners whose property lie along the road.

Others say they have been verbally abused and threatened with additional punishment when stopped by the ranger.

The ranger’s actions bring back unpleasant memories of of excessive abuse of power by the Parkway’s now-defunct Criminal Interdiction Team (CIT) that terrorized those traveling to and from FloydFest in 2008 and even harassed Floyd County Sheriff Shannon Zeman.

Parkway officials tried to deny the that Zeman was stopped by an officer who used abusive language even though the incident was witnessed by chief Deputy Jeff Dalton, a passenger in the sheriff’s vehicle.

In 2008, when I tried to photograph a CIT member hassling a FloydFest patron, the ranger threatened me with arrest and claimed the USA Patriot Act prohibited me from taking photos of his actions.  Then-Parkway Chief Ranger John Garrison denied the incident occurred and rejected my offer to pick the ranger in question out of a lineup of CIT operatives.

The CIT unit, created with funds from the Department of Homeland Security, was later disbanded.

Some who have complained to both the Blue Ridge Parkway and the National Park Service compare the new ranger’s actions to long-time ranger Pete Schula, who is retiring next month and who was often polite and understanding when dealing with users of the road.

This story is developing.  More to come.

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An important fund Thu, 10 Apr 2014 09:47:08 +0000

While many focused this week on efforts to persuade the Floyd County Board of Supervisors to increase funding and — if necessary — hike taxes to support budget requests of the the county school system, another drama played out among the 35 speakers who voiced their opinions in a public comment period.

Sheriff Shannon Zeman opened the issue during his regular “county officials report” section of the meeting by expressing surprise that his department’s employee retention fund was removed from the budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, noting that supervisors had, in the past, told him the fund would be protected.

Zeman also displayed concern that the cut came from one of his former employees — retired deputy Joe Turman, who now serves as the Supervisor from Burk’s Fork District.

That concern was echoed by Chief Investigator Jeff Dalton, who took the floor with several deputies from the department watching, and stated emphatically that the fund’s removal from the budget violated a promise of the board and sent the wrong message in a county where “a handshake” used to be as strong and trustworthy as a contract.

In a budget work session later in the day, the supervisors — without comment on any reasons for the fund’s earlier removal — restored the funding as part of an action that drained the county’s reserve fund and also provided an additional  $173,000 to the school system and a part-time assistant prosecutor for the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Zeman’s employee retention fund was established to provide bonuses and other financial incentives to deputies who are often tempted to leave the department for other police agencies that provide higher salaries and better benefits.

Floyd County’s sheriff’s department has lost deputies over the years to Christiansburg, Montgomery County, the Virginia State Police and other agencies. County employee attrition is not limited to the Sheriff’s Department.  A popular building inspector left for better pay and benefits in Carroll County and the school system argues that their pay scales, which rank among the lowest in the state, causes valuable and experienced teachers to seek positions elsewhere.

Salaries and benefits paid to county employees rank in the bottom tier of Virginia rankings.

As someone who lived and worked out of the Washington, DC, area for 23 years and traveled the world in a career that now totals a half-century, I can say without hesitation that the Floyd County Sheriff’s Department is one of the better law enforcement agencies that I have dealt with on a professional basis over the years.

The department’s leadership is solid and the officers are professional, dedicated and committed to their jobs as public servants. It’s a shame they had to appear at a public meeting and beg to keep an employee fund that is both necessary and needed.

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No tax hike Wed, 09 Apr 2014 08:39:51 +0000 040814supervisors1

Marsha Vass, fifth-grade teacher at Willis Elementary, outlines her support for the proposed school budget increase and a tax hike.

As happens so often in government, the decision that came out of the Floyd County Board of Supervisors Tuesday was a compromise that resolved some problems, created others and left many unsatisfied.

After an overflow crowd of parents, grandparents, school officials, deputy sheriffs and students spilled out into adjoining rooms and hallways and 33 of 35 speakers urged the board to give the school board what it wants for the upcoming fiscal year — even if it means a tax hike — the board decided by consensus to hold the line on taxes, give the school board about 10 percent of the extra money it wanted, and restored some programs trimmed in earlier budget sessions.

Supervisors restored a $105,000 cut from the school board’s current budget allocation and added another $173,000 in new funding — an amount far short of the $2.2 million increase requested by the board and a final figure that will send the educational system back into budget work sessions to figure out what to cut and how to re-allocate funds to keep as many programs and teachers as possible.

Sheriff Shannon Zeman got his employee incentive program back and Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Shortt will keep her part-time assistant prosecutor, but the supervisors drained its reserve account to meet some — but not all — of the requested budget hikes and a property tax increase, while put off for another year, becomes more of a eventuality when the next budget comes up for consideration.

In all, the county expects to spend $30.7 million for the new fiscal year that begins July 1 and the school system will account for $20.5 million of that.

“We’re going to have to raise taxes next year,” Board Chairman Case Clinger told the board after a motion by Locust Grove Supervisor Lauren Yoder to raise the tax rate by two cents failed when it didn’t get a second.

“I think we can and should consider (a tax hike) this year,” Yoder said, adding that his motion reflected a concern about the dangers of wiping out the county’s reserve fund to come up with some of the increases for this year’s budget.

Without the reserve money, the county may have to depend more on a $1.8 million line of credit that helps cover cash shortfalls during the year.

While the board appears to have resolved its role in funding for county schools, which also depends on state money that is still pending, debate over the level approved Tuesday is expected to continue and could dominate a as-yet unscheduled public hearing that the board will set at its meeting on April 22.

However, under Virginia law, once a local board of supervisors sets the tax rate, it cannot raise that rate until a new budget is considered next year.  A proposed tax increase can be lowered later in the process but rates cannot be increased.

Some supervisors say that while public comments at meetings of both the school board and supervisors have overwhelmingly supported an increase in funding and a tax hike to pay for it, comments they have received from constituents overall oppose both a tax increase or a large increase of a school budget that, overall, accounts for two-thirds of the county’s annual spending.

Details of the long, sometimes raucous, meeting is on the Floyd Press web site and more will follow here soon.


Part of the overflow crowd at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.


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Judge: ‘AGs, butt out’ Tue, 08 Apr 2014 10:10:15 +0000 Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.
(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

A federal judge in Richmond Monday told a group of former Virginia attorney generals to butt out of the case against scandal-ridden ex-governor Bob McDonnell.

U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer said a motion that five former AGs wanted to file in the upcoming corruption trial against McDonnell and his former pro football cheerleader wife was out of order and had no place in the proceedings.

Earlier, Spencer denied a motion from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to file a similar brief in the case where the McDonnells are accused of selling the power of the governor’s office to former dietary supplement executive Jonnie Williams after he provided cash and expensive gifts to the debt-ridden couple.

“The court declines to exercise its discretion to allow amicus curiae briefs to be filed in this criminal matter,” Spencer said.  “Accordingly the motion is denied.”

The five former Virginia AGs included Democrats Andrew P. Miller, Mary Sue Terry and Stephen D. Rosenthal along with Republicans J. Marshall Coleman and Mark L. Earley.  The motions from the AGs and the Trial Lawyers Association claimed the feds were acting beyond their authority by insisting that a governor and his wife perform simple tasks like putting the needs of the state ahead of their own personal gain.

The AGs claimed the legal action against the McDonnells “is completely alien to any legal advise that any of us would have given to any governor of Virginia.”

McDonnell, who is also a former AG of Virginia, apparently feel the same.

Which is why he and his wife may be headed to federal prison if convicted of the charges.

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Supervisors vs. schools Mon, 07 Apr 2014 10:28:29 +0000 Dr. Kevin Harris: Floyd County School Superintendent

Dr. Kevin Harris: Floyd County School Superintendent

Floyd County heads into a potentially tense and defining week as a seemingly-unavoidable annual confrontation between the School Board and Supervisors escalates over a budget that has brought talk of teacher layoffs and school closings from the superintendent.

School boss Dr. Kevin Harris laid out a gloomy future in a recent email to school teachers and other employees — one that he says is inevitable if the system does not get the bulk of a fiscal 2014 budget request that adds $2.2 million to a county budget that supervisors say is already stretched to the limit.

At the moment, the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 is far from final.  In work sessions, supervisors look right now at a funding level for the schools that is about the same as the current year and talk at the last work session about moving $105,000 — including $85,000 for a football field irrigation system — out of the current budget triggered a strong response from Harris.

Level funding, Harris says, really means a $1 million reduction in the school budget because carryovers last year amounted to almost that amount and those funds are no longer available and increases in insurance costs push the shortfall even higher.

“Cuts that total over one million dollars will have a devastating effect on our school system,” Harris said in his email to school employees.

Among those “effects,” Harris said, is:

  • “Reduction of salaries by reducing contract days.”
  • “Elimination of non-SOQ positions.”
  • “Elimination of other teach positions.”
  • “Closing schools.”
  • “Reducing or eliminating extracurricular activities.”

In other words, firing teachers, closing Indian Valley elementary school and elimination of sports programs like football, basketball and curtailment of other activities.

The threat of closing Indian Valley is a strategic move designed to force support of a tax increase out of a board that is normally reluctant to impose extra levees a county where many family are strapped for cash.

Indian Valley Supervisor Fred Gerald is both a strong proponent for keeping the elementary school open but also prides himself in a record that has never cast a “yes” vote on a tax increase.

Supervisors have to make a decision on whether or not to increase taxes no later than April 18 so County Treasurer Missy Keith can prepare tax bills.  If the board decided not to raise taxes, that decision is binding and cannot be changed for the upcoming fiscal year.

Speakers at a “media event” school board meeting at the county high school last week supported a tax increase to give the schools the money they want but those who oppose additional taxes are expected to appear at upcoming public comment sections of supervisor meetings.  Recent speakers at Supervisors meetings have questioned the salary of teachers, which they say is already higher than the county’s income average and one speaker noted that many school teachers and administrators live outside the county, saying they take money from the county and spend it elsewhere.

Supporters of the school system dismiss both arguments, noting that Floyd County’s teacher salaries rank among the lowest in Virginia and say that is doesn’t matter where a teacher or administrator lives as long as they teach and have a positive effect on county students.

The battle heads into the next round Tuesday at the first April meeting of the Board of Supervisors.  The meeting starts at 8:30 a.m. and the public comment period is at 9 a.m.

The debate over the school budget threatens to overshadow proposed cuts in other county departments, including the possible elimination of the Sheriff’s Department employee retention fund and a need for additional cruisers.

Some say what is becoming an annual — and very public — debate over the school system budget is a culture clash in Floyd County.

Others call it a battle of egos.

Most, however, agree that — in the end — the losers of such battles are usually the children who attend the county’s public schools.

Supervisors Lauren Yoder (left), Joe Turman and Board Chairman Case Clinger.

Supervisors Lauren Yoder (Locust Grover), Joe Turman (Burks Fork) and Board Chairman Case Clinger (Courthouse)

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Floyd Radio Show Sat, 05 Apr 2014 09:43:06 +0000 041213radioshow

Elizabeth LaPrelle (front) and Anna Roberts-Gevalt

Floyd Radio Show Saturday night at the Floyd County Store.

Guests for this month include John Lilly and Adam McPeak and Mountain Thunder. Join them along with hosts Elizabeth LaPrelle and Anna Roberts-Gevalt for old-time music, story-telling and more.

If you haven’t been, it’s worth a visit to watch the mixture of stories, music and comedy.  The show plays on the first Saturday of the month through the Fall, Winter and Spring months and provides a good time for all.

The show starts at 7:30 p.m. More details on The Floyd Country Store web site.

See you there.

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Sound and the fury Tue, 01 Apr 2014 10:04:43 +0000 Past public hearing on the school budget.

Greg Locke speaks at a past public hearing on the county budget and taxes.

A comment posted on Monday’s story about the weather urged county citizens to attend what she called a meeting of the county board of supervisors Tuesday night to protest cuts in the school board budget for next year.

Tuesday night is not a meeting of the Floyd County Board of Supervisors but a informational gathering of the county school board to raise public concerns about the possibility of cuts in the school budget request.

Although no county budget has yet been approved by the supervisors, they did discuss moving $105,000 out of funds allocated last year, including $85,000 set for an irrigation system for the football field.  The Supervisors did not vote on the move but agreed, by consensus, to consider it as work on the new budget continues.  The school board is asking for a $2.2 million increase in their budget this year and that is still pending.

When word of the discussion reached the school board offices, prompted by a Facebook post that had the amount larger than it actually was, it prompted a flurry of emails between School Superintendent Kevin Harris and County Administrator Dan Campbelll and notices to employees of possible personnel cuts, program reductions or eliminations even possible closure of a least one school.

As Mr. Spock once observed on an episode of Star Trek, the the defecation struck the rotary oscillator.

No action has been taken on the school budget request or the overall county budget yet, primarily because the state budget has not been approved and no one is sure how much money will come to the school system and other county agencies from the state.

No budget decisions have been mad yet and nothing is set in stone.  The proposed $105,000 removal of funds allocated primarily for an irrigation project, represents a deduction of less than one half of one percent of the current school system allocation.  The school system will face serious funding problems if the $2.2 million in additional funds they seek is not approved, just as other county agencies face problems if they don’t the funds they feel they need.

During budget work sessions, budget discussions often include discussions of both cuts and allocations that never make it to final approval.  In this year’s budget work sessions, supervisors are also discussing reducing or eliminating the sheriff’s department’s employee retention fund — a move that could cause some deputies to seek employment with other departments.

Requests from county agencies this year would increase the county budget by about $4 million.  The school system, which accounts for two-thirds of the county budget, is asking for a little more than half of that increase.  Any substantial increase in the county budget will require an increase in property taxes and, most likely, personal property levees.

Those who attend Tuesday night’s meeting to speak out in favor of the school’s budget needs will be preaching to the choir.  The school board wants both the increase for next year and the current allocation left alone.

Those who want let the county board of supervisors know their feelings can speak at the public comment period of the supervisors first meeting of April on the 8th or at the second meeting on the four Tuesday night of the month.  The first monthly meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. with the public comment period at 9 a.m. or the second meeting on the fourth Tuesday at 7 p.m. and the public comment period is first on the agenda.

Once a budget is approved and/or a tax level is set by the supervisors, a pubic hearing on the matter will be scheduled.

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Cold winds, power outages Sun, 30 Mar 2014 10:07:27 +0000 122809electricMother Nature’s overnight blow job left more than 2,600 Virginia area electric customers without power this morning, including 1,039 in nearby Patrick County, 469 in Roanoke County, and 431 in Franklin.

High winds downed trees and power poles, knocked down electric lines and left many in the dark as Sunday morning dawned cold and blustery with temperatures in Floyd County around 29 and winds blowing at 30 t0 35 miles per hour, bringing the wind chill down to about 16 degrees.

Reports of snow flurries are coming in from parts of the county, but no significant accumulations and the moisture falling from the skies is expected to turn to rain as the temperatures climb to a high of around 50 today.

But the high-wind warning continues until 10 p.m. Sunday and the temperatures are expected to plunge back to below freezing before skyrocketing into the high 60s Monday and 70s through the week.

With overnight lows mostly in the mid to high 40s through Friday, the weather may actually look and feel a little more like Spring.

Many could say “it’s about time.”

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