Mayor Dave Butler on Tuesday either revived an old tradition or created a new one by delivering a State of the Town address.
His message was decidedly upbeat, spotlighting the town’s work to lower taxes, success in luring new businesses and providing services sought by town residents.
He also highlighted challenges, including how to continue attracting more commercial development and creating jobs; how to improve the quality of life as the town grows; and how to support the town’s increasingly diverse population.
Butler was appointed mayor last month to fill the seat long held by Kristen Umstattd, who was elected to the board of supervisors. The address was part of his community outreach efforts, which also include mayor’s hours on Fridays in Town Hall. “As far as I know, this is the first State of the Town address in at least the last 20 years, and maybe ever,” he said.
“I see great things in Leesburg. I see it in the crowds at the Village. I see it in the bands and sports teams that roam our fields. I see it in the passion surrounding all the businesses on First Fridays, and I see it in all of the people that love living here because of our historic downtown,” Butler said. “That’s why I can say, unequivocally, that the State of our Town is strong, and I’m proud to be your mayor.”
Full Text of Remarks:
Good evening, fellow Leesburg residents. I’m Mayor Dave Butler, and I’m honored to be delivering a State of the Town address to you. As far as we know, this is the first state of the town address in at least the last 20 years, and maybe ever. Being the first one, I’m here tonight to tell you what we’ve been doing lately, what we’re trying to achieve, and why Leesburg is a fantastic place to live. I’ll start out with a bit of history, some information on the budget, some personnel changes we’ve had, and then three major questions for the future.
In 1758, the Virginia Assembly established the town of Leesburg. By 1950, Leesburg had grown all the way to a population of 1,700. Since then, we’ve grown at least 50% each decade and are now approaching 50,000 people! We’re the largest town in Virginia, just ahead of Blacksburg, and, if you don’t count college students, we’re twice as big as second place Herndon. We’re larger in population than 70% of the cities in Virginia, and larger than 75% of the counties. In short, we are a serious part of this commonwealth!
Our budget, though, has been pretty Spartan over the last 10 years. In 2007, our total spend, including the general fund, utilities, the airport, and capital projects was $115 million. Since then, we’ve grown about 30%, but the proposed budget for 2017 is $95 million, a reduction of close to 20%. All this with 22 fewer employees. This shows how efficient and well-managed our budget has been. And the three major ratings agencies, Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch, agree! All have given us a triple-A rating, the only town in Virginia with this distinction.
When talking about the budget, what people mention most is the real estate tax rate. There are a few surprising facts that I thought you should know:
- Most of our revenue comes from meals and cigarette taxes, money from the state and the county, fees from Ida Lee and the airport. Real estate taxes account for less than ¼ of what the town takes in.
- At times, people look at their real estate tax bill and say “What do I get for this?” “What am I actually paying for?” You would expect your Town taxes to pay for services over and above what other county residents receive. And this is true. Real estate taxes essentially pay for two things trash & recycling, which is paid for individually outside of the town, and our police force which is a level of public safety over and above what most of the rest of the county enjoys. Everything else that the town does is paid for by the other revenue sources I mentioned.
- Since 2008, taking inflation into account, the average tax bill has fallen over 30%. Eight out of the last nine years, we’ve given our residents, on average, a tax cut. I say average, because Leesburg does not control assessments, and assessments can vary across different neighborhoods. If our tax rate this year ends up lower than 18.72 cents, then it will be nine out of the last ten years that we give a tax cut.
- Our tax rate is 20%-30% lower than Vienna, Purcellville, Blacksburg, and Herndon.
A significant factor in our budgets, especially our future budgets, is our relationship with the County. A couple of weeks ago, I reached out to the entire Board. I’ve had discussions with about half of them, and am looking forward to hearing from Chairman Randall soon. We’re looking at possible efficiencies around the police force and sheriff’s department, Fire & Rescue and Balch Library. We want to do what makes sense for both the County and the Town.
As is inevitable at some point for all organizations, there’s been a significant change in personnel for the town over the last 18 months. We have a new Town Attorney; a new Town Manager; a new Mayor. And we’re in the process of searching for a new Police Chief. All of the previous occupants of these positions did fantastic jobs; we were sorry to see them go, but they’ve all either retired or gone on to bigger and better things.
As part of these changes, there is a new focus on customer service. A few examples: We all know that letting a toilet run, or getting a leak in a water line can really blow up your water bill. It can make an enormous difference. Now, you can sign up for high usage alerts. You set a level and the town staff will let you know if your usage exceeds it, so you can minimize the amount of water that gets wasted.
We have a person at the Town Hall counter that speaks Spanish. This is not coincidental, it’s now a requirement for the job.
And we have Mayor’s Hours in Town Hall where you can come and see me and talk about whatever is on your mind.
If you want to pay a tax bill, which nobody likes, but we all have to do, you can do that at the police station, 24/7. Or if you want to get rid of old or unused medications, you can drop them off at the police station at any time. Speaking of police, thanks to Council Member Tom Dunn, we’ve started an annual Police Appreciation Day each fall.
Moving forward there are three main questions that we need to continually answer:
- How do we attract more commercial development and increase employment?
- How do we continue to increase quality of life as we mature as a town?
- How do we support an increasingly diverse population?
For the first question, no one on the Town Council has been a bigger advocate of commercial development and employment growth than Council Member Katie Hammler. She pushes us all the time, and in the recent past we’ve done some great things. The Mason Enterprise Center has exploded. It now has 72 companies as clients, 41 with offices in the building, representing about $40M in revenue last year. It’s graduated 24 companies, 17 of whom have stayed right here in Leesburg.
The Oaklawn area near the airport has also really taken off. The south side of town finally has a gas station outside the bypass. Gas stations were a prominent item in the Economic Develop Commissions “leakage” report. That is, what goods and services do we not have enough of in town? So the addition of a gas station is a win for everybody. K2M, a medical device manufacturer, will be staying in town and expanding to 400-500 high-paying jobs. With a negative vote on Council, all of those jobs would have gone to Maryland, but fortunately, we voted to allow them to stay. Poet’s Walk Memory Care is approved for Oaklawn and former delegate Joe May’s company Electronic Instrumentation and Technology, or EIT, is moving there. Oaklawn is becoming quite a success story.
Both Lowe’s and Cornerstone Chapel are under construction. Lowe’s is not far from the Village at Leesburg, and Cornerstone is at the corner of Sycolin and Battlefield. With Lowe’s comes the connection between Battlefield and Russell Branch Parkway behind the Village to Cobb Theater.
The airport is going great as well. We’re the first airport east of the Mississippi to pilot (no pun intended) a virtual control tower. This technology allows air traffic controllers to monitor an airport’s airspace from anywhere, and will enable smaller airports like our own, to have controllers when before it would be cost-prohibitive. Our challenge now, is to see if we can figure out how to keep the virtual tower once the pilot program is over.
Talking about jobs, I think we can agree that they’re often very tough for our high school and college students. But! We have our fourth annual Youth Career Expo coming up soon. This was started by Vice Mayor Kelly Burk, and it’s been a great success. Please remind students you know. It will be on April 9th from 11-2 at Tuscarora High School.
Regarding economic development, there is one major cloud on the near horizon. It’s the recent bill passed by our General Assembly that will make it much more difficult to accept any re-zonings that include houses. This will be true all across Virginia. Some of you may be thinking “Great! No more houses! They don’t pay for themselves, anyway,” but that’s not necessarily a good thing. For the Town, houses almost always pay for themselves, and the most environmentally-friendly way to build houses is “urban infill”. That is, filling in spaces within a town like Leesburg rather than creating more sprawl. But this bill could cause more people to live and commute from West Virginia, Maryland, and even southern Pennsylvania. Route 15 north and Route 9 could get even busier.
The biggest problem with this bill is its effect on mixed use developments. Almost all of us like the Village at Leesburg, and we like what Crescent Place is going to be. Crescent Place is the development going in where the old Barber and Ross factory was on Harrison Street. With this law in place, we may not have been able to approve either of those developments. Being against this bill was one thing that the Town and County absolutely agreed on! This seems to be one piece of governmental regulation that will help no one. I know Senator Jennifer Wexton worked hard to defeat it. I hope next year the General Assembly can see that they perhaps made an error and move to correct it.
The second question is “How do we continue to increase quality of life as we mature as a town?” As far as I’m concerned, the quality of life in Leesburg is outstanding. Just over the weekend I heard from more than one person that “Leesburg has everything!” But for all localities, continually making improvements is essential. We have to continue to make things better, and give residents more opportunities to relax, enjoy, and play. One way to improve quality of life is to keep people’s basements from flooding! Over the last 10 years, we’ve spent millions of dollars on this. As the town grew fast, we made decisions that, while perfectly normal for the practices of the time, caused unforeseen problems later. We’re not completely done yet, but we’ve fixed most of them and with modern regulations, new development shouldn’t cause more of these kind of concerns.
We’ve added two brand new parks recently. Mervin Jackson park in front of the parking garage on the west side, proposed and spearheaded by Council Member Marty Martinez, and Potomac Crossing Park at the end of Shanks Evans Rd.
The last leg of Battlefield Parkway will be under construction this fall, between the Greenway and Route 15. I remember, say, 15 years ago, there were a number of Battlefield Parkways, none of which connected to each other! We’re getting close to the finish line here.
We’re also trying to get money from Richmond to pay for interchanges at the Bypass and Edward’s Ferry, and Battlefield Parkway and Route 7. Those are our toughest intersections to travel through.
But moving around Leesburg is not just about cars! We’ve added a number of bike trails, and a bike lane down Plaza Street. We’ll complete a small “Leesburg Loop” in town with signs showing how to get around on a bicycle. The Council also is planning to complete a larger loop and to try to create bike lanes all around town, wherever they’ll fit.
Crescent Place, we mentioned earlier. Its primary advocate was then-Mayor, now Supervisor Kristen Umstattd, and will provide a lot of boutique retail shops as well as high-end residential town homes full of people to go downtown.
Across the street from Crescent Place, we’re making exciting improvements to Raflo Park. As a town matures, there is often a greater emphasis on art in its many forms. Through efforts of the Commission on Public Art, there will be statues along a new trail through the park.
By far, the biggest change downtown, though, is the expansion of on-street dining. On the west side of King St. between Loudoun and Market St’s. the restaurants are now able to put tables on the street and serve their entire menu, including adult beverages. We’ve been working towards this for over eight years, and it’s wonderful to see it come to fruition. If successful, we can look at expansion in other areas as well.
Going forward, based on the urging of Council Members Suzanne Fox and Bruce Gemmill, the Council and Town Staff will be defining and reviewing major service levels for residents. This could include how we pick up leaves and brush, how often we collect trash and recycling, how quickly we plow everyone out from a storm. Based on input from everyone, we can decide to spend more money to improve service levels, or, in some cases, save money by looking at better ways to get the job done. All of these are ways that we are trying to improve quality of life in Leesburg.
Our third question, how do we support a diverse population, is in many ways both the trickiest to answer, and the most important. The change in race and ethnicity over the last 15 years has been dramatic. In 2000, Leesburg was 83% non-Hispanic white. In 2010, it was 71%. Now it’s less than 62%. So over 38% of our population is classified as a minority.
About two years ago, we reviewed the racial and ethnic makeup of the Town staff, and we found that the percentage of non-Hispanic whites was far higher than the population of the town as a whole. So much so, that it was a legitimate concern whether the staff could adequately provide great customer service to the entire town. We commissioned a Diversity Task Force to look at this problem. The task force provided a list of recommendations for our recruitment practices that could help provide the town staff with a more diverse applicant pool, from which to hire the best people we can find. This has started to help! I’ve already mentioned the Spanish-speaking front desk person at Town Hall.
One of the recommendations from the task force was to form a Diversity Commission, which we did. This commission, while not involved with recruitment or hiring practices, is working on ways to bring us more together as a town, so as we continue to grow, we can sidestep some of the issues that other towns have endured. I’m sure you can think of examples without me pointing them out!
Just recently, the Loudoun Freedom Foundation made us aware of an abandoned grave site off of Sycolin Road. This was an African-American cemetery that almost certainly includes many slaves from the 1800’s. I had an opportunity to visit it with Dr. Fred Snowden and Pastor Michelle Thomas of the Freedom Foundation, and I can tell you it was a much more moving experience than I expected. In the last month, the Town Staff has jumped into action, clearing dead deer away from the site, mapping the graves, cleaning up much of the dead trees, and opening up trails to it. They’ve found at least 58 likely graves, and once its drier, they’ll clean up other debris and, eventually, together, we can fully preserve this important piece of our cultural heritage.
In summary, I see great things in Leesburg. I see it in the crowds at the Village, I see it in the bands and sports teams that roam our fields, I see it in the passion surrounding all the businesses on First Fridays, and I see it in all of the people that love living here because of our historic downtown. That’s why I can say, unequivocally, that the State of our Town is strong, and I’m proud to be your Mayor. Thank you.