By Pauline Hovey
Despite initial hesitation from three supervisors at Tuesday night’s (1/25) public hearing, the Greene County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved moving forward on a base $4.7 million proposed school athletics and performing arts facilities project. Supervisors authorized the schools to apply for the loan from the Virginia Public School Authority (VSPA) by the March 11th deadline, with the possibility of increasing that amount to the full $5.3 million requested if the financial concerns of some supervisors are allayed.
For the nearly 11 years this reporter has lived in Greene County and attended public hearings, this marks the first time 100 percent of public comments favored a proposal. No public hesitancy or negative comments were expressed at the hearing held at the Raymond C. Dingledine III Performing Arts Center at William Monroe High School. From business leaders to coaches, from parents to seniors with no children in the school system, every one of the 25 individuals who addressed the board fully supported the project, many of them expressing concern about the safety and condition of existing facilities. Still, three of the five supervisors hesitated for financial reasons, citing uncertainty about future financing from the state and the county’s ability to address other anticipated department needs and expansions.
During the Board discussion, however, Supervisor Jim Frydl (Ruckersville) revealed the county has a 20-percent cash reserve, based on a recent auditor’s report. “For most counties, having a 10-percent reserve is good, and an accountant’s conservative recommendation is to have a 15-percent reserve,” Frydl said. “We have money above and beyond that, so we have the ability to make this decision.”
Chairman Steve Catalano (at-large) questioned Supervisor Frydl’s comments, which resulted in a request for County Administrator Barry Clark to provide further confirmation from the auditors regarding the actual amount of cash held in reserves. Although the exact amount may be questioned, what is evident is that supervisors have been making fiscally responsible decisions, and some residents expressed their appreciation for such decisions, which have put the county in a position to afford the project without raising taxes.
“The cost of the project would fit into the county’s existing budget,” Frydl noted, adding that the state projections for economic growth are positive, which equates to the potential for budget growth as well. In addition, the county is retiring a school project debt service of $374,000 in the 2011/12 school year budget, and the annual loan payments for the proposed project would be less than the debt that’s being retired.
“This is a county facility as well as a school facility, and it is the core responsibility of government to support this type of facility and the standards for safety,” Frydl stated before offering his support for the entire project, which includes upgrades to baseball/softball fields and stadium area, as well as rebuilding the high school track, which is severely cracked and hazardous.
This project has been discussed, debated, and revised with many opportunities for public input since it was first proposed last summer. In fact, Chairman Catalano, known for his conservative views, said he was pleased with “the transparency of the project,” even though “my #1 concern is savings in debt service.” Catalano expressed concern with the Virginia General Assembly possibly cutting state funding to the schools, producing a “state shortfall” in next year’s budget. “I agree the facilities enhance the package of Greene County, and I agree something needs to be done,” he said before opening the floor for board discussion.
“Financing is as good as we’ll ever get. The timing is good. Our budget has been honed for this,” Supervisor Carl Schmitt (at-large) offered. “We have the opportunity to do this now before we get other, more pressing school needs coming down on us. In terms of revenue, I’m seeing positive results. Our reserves are up. And we have a good chance of this not being as difficult a revenue year as in the past. In my view, this is a well-defined project, we can afford it, and I urge the supervisors to vote for it.”
“My #1 concern is safety,” Supervisor Mike Skeens (Monroe) said, indicating he supported the base bid but was concerned about the county’s financial standing in lieu of the inability of the former treasurer to reconcile reports monthly. He proposed waiting to receive an updated treasurer’s report before determining whether to support the entire project at $5.3 million.
Citing a sluggish economy and concerns about meeting current financial obligations and the expected continued increase in student enrollment, Supervisor Buggs Peyton (Stanardsville district) noted he was against the project, given “the size and scope of the total proposal.” He suggested “the project should be revisited” and not be considered “an all or nothing proposal.”
Schmitt stated that what’s being proposed for upgrades and improvements to the facilities is “at the bottom of the heap,” meaning the school administration is “asking for basic facilities that bring us up to at least an acceptable level.” He added that the project involves facilities “not just for the schools, but for the community,” noting that the Performing Arts Center is “in constant use” by the community, and numerous citizens attend sporting events. “The facilities and programs our schools support are important to the fabric of our community,” he said.
Concerned the county would miss the loan application deadline, Schmitt offered a motion to authorize the schools apply for the VPSA loan for the base bid and the supervisors revisit their financial situation at their March 21 meeting, at which time the Virginia legislature will have met, the treasurer’s revenues will have been reconciled, and their financial situation should be more certain going forward.
The project’s six-member steering committee, which included and encouraged public input in all meetings during the planning process, established priorities by breaking up the project into “must do,” “should do,” and “would do” items. On the “must do” list are items that unquestionably need upgrading, rebuilding, or replacing. The steering committee was appointed by the Board of Supervisors specifically for the project. Serving on the steering committee were School Board members Darcy Higgins and Michelle Flynn (board chair); Superintendent of Schools David Jeck; Bob Burkholder, a member of the Ruritans and longtime resident; Katie Brunelle, athletics director; and Supervisor Frydl.
Pauline Hovey is the Greene County Field Officer for the Free Enterprise Forum a privately funded public policy organization. If you find this report helpful, please consider supporting the Free Enterprise Forum. To learn more visit www.freeenterpriseforum.org