By Dan McDermott
Warren County Report
In an interview with Warren County Report’s Roger Bianchini, Rep. Frank R. Wolf said he was visiting Front Royal to meet with EPA officials at the former Avtex Superfund site to work toward releasing the property to be used by the town. Avtex was a rayon fiber manufacturing plant that produced materials for World War II and the US space shuttle and missile programs before being closed for it’s massive pollution of the Shenandoah River.
James Madison University has expressed an interest in opening a satellite campus on the property, a use currently prohibited by federal rules. The local EDA is also interested in leasing 40 acres at the site to be used to build a solar power plant and solar panel manufacturing facility.
Wolf said it’s time to “put fresh eyes” on the project and favors more local decision-making on the site’s use in the future. “The people of Front Royal, the people of Warren County ought to be the decision-makers. They were the one’s impacted [by the pollution.] They were the ones who had the job loss [when the plant was shut down.] They were the ones who lived through the cleanup,” he said.
Wolf said he doesn’t think the federal government should be telling the people of Front Royal and Warren County what they ought to be doing with the property once the cleanup has taken place.
The Health Care Reform Act
Wolf said he was disappointed that the recently enacted health care bill was handled in what he called a “partisan way.” He said he favored certain elements of the bill like banning companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and likes the idea of allowing parents to keep dependent children on their insurance until the age of 26.
“We’re dealing with one-sixth of the economy and you have to deal with it in a bipartisan way,” Wolf said.
Wolf pointed to his authorship of the bill that created the bipartisan Iraq Study Commission, led by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, that offered recommendations toward reaching a consensus on how to proceed with the implementation of the Iraq war.
“That consensus worked. Look at the elections we are having in Iraq today. The same thing should have been done with the health care bill. I think the partisan nature and the divisiveness and the fact that there was no bipartisan effort and no effort to reach out to Republicans was really a mistake,” he said.
Wolf said he voted against the bill because the costs, which he estimated at $2.5 trillion dollars, were “overwhelming.”
“We have $37 trillion dollars of unfunded obligations. We have 12 trillion dollars of debt. The nation’s broke,” he said.
Wolf pointed to a recent Moody’s report that said the United States could lose its AAA bond rating. Such an event would cause the US government to have to pay higher interest rates on money it borrows.
China as our ‘banker’
In addition to expressing concerns about how much money the US government owes, Wolf expressed strong feelings about where the United States goes to borrow money.
“We owe $12 trillion dollars of debt. We owe money to China. China that is spying against us is our banker. China that has Catholic bishops in jail is our banker. China that has protestant pastors in jail is our banker. China that has plundered Tibet–they’ve turned Lhasa [the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region] into a dirty city–they are our banker. And so the nation is fundamentally broke,” he said.
As ranking member of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, Wolf said he has worked closely with FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and feels that China is the “number one spier” on the United States.
“Almost every day there is a cyber attack against an American corporation to steal technology [or] against a United States government agency. China is the number one user of cyber attacks against the country and they’re our banker,” he said.
Wall Street bailout
Wolf was asked why he opposed the health care plan while supporting a federal bailout of major Wall Street firms.
“The bailout, as undesirable as it was, and it was done in a bipartisan way…there were some that felt we were going to have an economic collapse. We were going to have another economic depression. People were going to lose their home. People were going to lose their jobs. There was a prediction of 25% unemployment, banks failing, people showing up at their local bank and there’s no money, you with your retirement wiped out, you with your house taken away,” he said.
Threats against members
Speaking only an hour before the release of a statement from his Virginia colleague Rep. Eric Cantor that a person had been arrested for threatening Cantor, Wolf decried the current ‘partisan atmosphere’ that has led to members of both the House and Senate receiving threats.
Wolf pointed to his efforts over the past few months to force the Justice Department to prosecute members of the Black Panthers. “[They were] standing outside voting booths intimidating people, hollering racist things. They have threatened to come down to Washington to get me. Well I didn’t make a big deal out of it. If they come to Washington, you know, they’ll get arrested,” Wolf said.
“There is no place in our political system for violence. I think the political process is rough and tumble but you ought to challenge ideas and not challenge people,” he said.
Dan McDermott: email@example.com
Roger Bianchini: firstname.lastname@example.org
EDA approves pending solar field lease at Avtex
By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report
Is a small, rural Virginia town poised to take a lead position in a U.S. move toward increased reliance on solar power – and bring the troubled 70-year story of what was the nation’s largest environmental disaster Superfund site to a happy and green ending?
On March 26, the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development unanimously approved the terms of lease and purchase agreement on approximately 40 acres of what is envisioned as a 150-acre business park on reclaimed land at the Royal Phoenix site in the Town of Front Royal, some 67 miles west of Washington, D.C. The lease is tentative pending approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and FMC Corporation.
EPA is the overseer of over $26 million in federally-funded cleanup of the site, which covers a total of some 467 acres, or about 10-percent of the land in the small, rural, northwestern Virginia town of about 13,000. FMC is a federally-mandated cleanup partner and the lone surviving of three owners of the former rayon and synthetic fibers manufacturing plant opened in 1940 by American Viscose Corporation.
After 49 years as its community’s major employer and economic engine, and a major materials contributor to the Allied war effort in World War II, the then Avtex Fibers plant was closed down in 1989 by Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry for ongoing violations of the state’s water-control standards.
In June of 2009 principals of SolAVerde Inc. proposed development of what could eventually be a 100 to 150-megawatt solar field on one or more sites in Front Royal. But negotiations stalled as an initially envisioned $211 private sector start-up investment morphed into a request by SolAVerde partners for an up-front $18-million investment on a 14-year pre-purchase of solar power from the project by the town.
But with other investment options being explored, including a potential, private sector partnership between SolAVerde/Standard Energy and AMP-Ohio (American Municipal Power), things appear to be regaining momentum. AMP-Ohio is a municipal energy consortium Front Royal joined three years ago.
Former Front Royal Mayor James Eastham, now a town appointee to the EDA board of directors, made the March 26 motion to approve a lease-purchase agreement on 40.6 acres of the 150-acres Royal Phoenix business park site.
Afterwards he said, “The EDA doesn’t want to be an impediment in the process of this proposed use of the entire 150-acre business park side of Royal Phoenix. The EDA is about creating jobs and this is a step in that direction.”
While the remaining acreage at the business park has yet to be released, the EDA and 10th Virginia District U.S. representative Frank Wolf are poised to seek a fast track and eased restrictions on uses at the site at a planned March 29 meeting at EDA headquarters at Royal Phoenix adjacent to the involved 40 acres.
Several hours after the EDA vote approving a pending lease-purchase of the property, this reporter sat down with Front Royal Vice-Mayor Bret Hrbek to discuss the implications of that vote and the status of the solar proposal for Front Royal.
– President Obama’s healthcare bill has passed. What’s in it?
– Why so much misinformation?
– People are freaking out. Is it similar to the reaction to desegregation?
– Australia spends half as much of GDP on healthcare and everyone is covered.
– Doctors say it was a bad idea to have let the health insurance companies take over health care.
Guinea Pig-Gate: A Front Royal man is charged with buying a guinea pig at a pet store, killing it and making it into a hat which he wore around his neighborhood.
– Should he be charged with a hunting violation?
– Should you be allowed to kill your pets?
– Is the man competent to stand trial?
– Is it hypocritical to say cute furry animals can’t be killed but cows can?
– What if he had fed it to a snake?
Is Front Royal about to over burden local businesses with luxury taxes?
– Front Royal, VA will not raise real estate or personal property taxes.
– The town is facing a $700,000 budget shortfall but by law must balance it’s budget.
– The town is considering some luxury tax hikes that could affect smokers, restaurants and hotels.
– People freaking out over $20 a year
– Will town businesses lose customers to Warren County?
Police Chief criticized for speaking at public hearing in uniform with gun.
– Front Royal, VA Police Chief Richard H. Furr was criticized for an email sent by an aide advocating a tax hike to fully fund his department.
– He was also criticized for speaking at a town council public hearing while wearing his uniform and gun.
– Fair charge or silly town politics?
– Town police chiefs always go to town council meetings in uniform.
Front Royal Town Council poised to approve flat tax rates on March 29
By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report
On Monday night, March 22nd the will of a minority, of both councilmen and public speakers, once again appeared to prevail as the Front Royal Town Council failed to approve a first reading of any real estate or personal property tax increases for the coming fiscal year. Those increases were being sought to help compensate for a now anticipated $700,000 revenue shortfall in the coming fiscal year.
It is the second consecutive year council has declined to do what many municipalities did last year, institute what is termed a “revenue neutral” increase to the personal property tax rate to compensate for lost revenue due to declining automobile values in the down-turned national economy. As for the real estate rate – like the personal property tax rate here, it hasn’t been raised in a decade.
With Shae Parker absent due to illness (this reporter verified Parker’s hospitalization with a flare-up of pancreaitis the day following the meeting), council was unable to gain a required 4-vote “super” majority required by the town charter to authorize tax increases. Tom Conkey’s amendment to approve a 1.5-cent real estate the 14-cent revenue neutral personal property tax hike was defeated by a 3-2 vote, with only Carson Lauder joining Conkey in support of the increases. Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek prefaced his no vote by stating he would support only a 1-cent increase to the real estate tax rate of 7 cents per $100 of assessed value.
But with only a 3-2 majority looming for the 1-cent and 14-cent increases, no effort was made to pursue a futile second vote of support of an increase to either tax rate. Had Hrbek joined Conkey and Lauder in support of those latter increases the vote would have mirrored the March 8, 3-2 vote in support of tax hikes. And like that earlier vote, it would have failed for lack of Mayor Eugene Tewalt’s necessary fourth “super majority” vote. By town code the mayor can only vote to break ties.
While he had opposed and blocked passage with an abstention of 3-cent and 14-cent increases to the tax rates on March 8th, Parker indicated in a conversation with this reporter that he would consider a vote in support of as much as 1.5 and 14 cents to the tax rates to help balance the budget this time around. In fact, Parker indicated he may have voted for the personal property hike on March 8 had the two increases been offered in separate motions. But alas, as the bell rolled and tolled toward 1 a.m. that evening no one picked up on any subtle signals the councilman may have been sending out.
With Parker’s potential fourth swing vote absent, Conkey capitulated to the council minority’s will, acknowledging no chance of passing an increase with only a 3-2 majority present and the mayor’s required fourth vote again held in limbo. Thomas Sayre’s original motion to approve the town’s decade-old, flat 7-cent real estate and 60-cent personal property tax rates then passed by a 5-0 vote. A required second vote of approval will be taken at a Special Meeting at 5 p.m. on March 29 at the Front Royal Town Hall. A tax rate must be approved by April 1st due to the town’s newly instituted twice-a-year tax billing.
La, la, la -I’m not listening
During council’s second public hearing on tax rates, a second majority, this time 9 of 17 speakers, once again asked council to do what it must to maintain governmental service levels. Five letters read into the meeting record also supported maintaining police and library services even if it meant a small tax increase after a decade of no real estate and personal property tax increases in Front Royal. The public hearing support of small, across the board tax increases deemed necessary mirrored, if less dramatically, a March 8th public comments turnout during which 33 of 41 speakers urged council to tax if it must to maintain levels of service, particularly by law enforcement and the public library.
On March 8th, 3-cent real estate and 14-cent personal property tax increases failed despite a 3-2 majority favoring the increases. At that time, appointed council member and tax hike opponent Parker had abstained, blocking Mayor Eugene Tewalt’s required 4th “super majority” vote to authorize the tax increases. But after six hours and 66 public speakers on two major issues impacting the town’s future direction – a balanced budget and east-side growth – as the March 8th meeting was adjourned at 1:10 a.m. council failed to re-set any tax rate as required annually by state code.
The decision to re-advertise the tax rate was made to allow additional citizen input on the hot-button political issue before a second attempt to raise the rates was made. However it appears that despite much talk about democracy and listening to the will of the people before making even the most fundamental common sense decisions (reference Riverton Dam), certain elements of council hear only those who agree with them on ideological issues such as taxes.
Among those March 22nd speakers who agreed with no-tax council hardliners Sayre and Chris Holloway were non-council candidate Matt Tederick and his political mentor and council candidate Joe Swiger. Tederick insisted the town could balance its budget by utilizing Enterprise Zone surpluses. While Town Finance Director Kim Gilkey-Breeden explained the town could, in fact, borrow against its own surpluses committed to specific areas such as utilities, she added that it was essentially a loan that must legally be repaid within a “reasonable” amount of time.
$20, $30 a year – too much!?
Rather than ask town citizens to equally share the burden of governmental services – in on the table amounts of $7 per year per $5,000 of assessed automobile value or $10 per year per $100,000 of assessed real estate value – candidate Swiger rose to call on councilmen to sacrifice their approximately $6,000 in net annual salaries to conduct town business and donate their personal assets, as he claimed to have done in the past, to prop up the town budget.
Conkey was critical of Tederick’s suggestion of using or borrowing against town cash surpluses, in order to balance budgets. He, as Hrbek has, pointed to negative economic consequences that could eventually cost citizens more than the minimal tax increases being sought.
As Conkey commented on difficulties the Town of Leesburg had in maintaining its general fund in the face of lost litigation surrounding its own water-sewer rates, Tederick began talking back from his seat in the Warren County Government Center meeting room – “apples and oranges, apples and oranges,” Tederick said to Conkey.
“We’re not going to have this debate now,” Conkey said of Tederick’s interruption of his response to some of Tederick’s earlier remarks. Conkey continued to elaborate on some of the recent unexpected town expenses, including several hundred thousand dollars in snow removal that the town must cover out of its uncommitted fund surpluses.
Carson Lauder pointed to other potential costly and unanticipated expenses, such as broken utility lines running into the north corridor. “What would that cost to repair – a quarter million dollars, more?” Lauder asked. “You need extra money in your accounts for these unanticipated expenses,” Lauder said.
Replying to some anti-tax citizen comments, Lauder also said, “And we don’t always raise taxes in Front Royal – that’s the problem,” he insisted of the town’s uncommitted general fund surplus of about $1.1 million. Lauder pointed out that nearby Strasburg, a town perhaps a third the size of Front Royal’s, has a 16-cent real estate tax rate. Some have suggested localities raise their tax a half cent annually just to cover rising costs.
On the bright side, Gilkey-Breeden informed council that the state would fund about $380,000 in so-called 599 local police funding to the town this year. Initially it was feared that all $410,000 of 599 funding would be eliminated from this year’s state budget. That state money reduces the anticipated deficit from flat funding levels, from $1.2 million to around $650,000 to $700,000.
According to the town’s finance director, each penny of real estate tax would generate $130,000 of revenue and the 14-cent personal property tax hike would have generated $120,000 of revenue. By those numbers had the proposed increases been approved, the town would still be facing a $400,000 revenue shortfall.
Responding to a question about the use of Enterprise Funds, Gilkey-Breeden pointed out the town had borrowed on its Enterprise Fund in recent years to renovate the Adelphia building her finance office now occupies along with the town’s cable TV provider across the street from town hall.
Show me the money!
Staff has explained that of an existing $6 million General Fund balance, $4.9 million is committed to various expenditures, $2.9 million is committed to a 90-day emergency cash reserve, and only $1.1 million remains uncommitted. Of the much-ballyhooed (by Tederick and Swiger) $8 million in electric Enterprise Fund surplus, staff has explained essentially that, that money may only be used to support the specific utility whose fund it is in. However, as she pointed out at the March 22 meeting, Gilkey-Breeden said the town could borrow against its own Enterprise Fund balances, but is required to take on payments as with any loan “within a reasonable” amount of time.
Well there are the easy (political) answers – go into debt to yourself, put additional competitive disadvantages on your already struggling in-town businesses, stop advertising the town as a tourist draw, and drain your available surpluses till their gone … why didn’t the council majority, mayor and staff think of that???
What me worry?
Following the vote to maintain flat tax rates Sayre assured those present cuts to either the police department or the library were not on the table (surely pennies from heaven are about to fall the town’s way from somewhere).
It now appears those pennies will come from some combination of operational expense cuts, so-called luxury taxes like meals, lodging and cigarettes, and possible fund balance shifts to make up the approximate $700,000 revenue shortfall.
According to staff, a 10-cent cigarette tax would provide $250,000 of revenue (if people keep buying their cigarettes in town); each penny of meals tax, $300,000 (if town restaurants don’t lose business or go under, under the added weight of additional town costs to their product), and each penny of lodging tax $50,000 of revenue.
Among operational costs mentioned for potential cuts by council is the advertising budget for the Visitor’s Center. However staff has pointed to the potential negative impact to town and town businesses’ revenues from tourism as another consequence of such budget balancing methods (there goes the already problematic lodging and meals tax revenues).
Front Royal, VA Police Chief Richard H. Furr held a press conference Monday, March 22, 2010 to respond to criticism of his department for sending an email urging recipients to support a tax increase to fully fund his department and against charges he and another top police official may have intimidated some tax opponents from speaking at a town council public hearing by appearing at the hearing and supporting the tax increase while in uniform and armed.