County’s Budget Fortunes Swing
After a banner budget year in fiscal year 2019, which began July 2018, the Board of Supervisors and county staff members are working on a much tougher budget year entering the new year.
In April, supervisors approved a $3.64 billion budget that included a 4-cent reduction in the county’s real estate tax rate; it was the first unanimous budget vote of the board’s term. That budget also sent $49.5 million more in local dollars to the school system than the previous fiscal year.
But this year, supervisors will face a number of budget pressures, not least fixing the county’s own staffing and pay scales, which have lagged behind as the county’s population has exploded, as recently detailed in a consultant study. County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said the cost of implementing that classification and compensation study’s recommendations could be as much as all new spending approved in recent budget years. Hemstreet said this is expected to be “the most challenging budget” of the Board of Supervisors’ term.
The capital projects side of the budget is also feeling a squeeze. That budget, which deals major debt-funded construction projects like new roads and schools, is under pressure from climbing construction costs.
Transportation Cost Balloon in Capital Budget
Loudoun’s years-long effort to fill the gap left by state transportation funding shortfalls passed a milestone in 2018, taking up more than 50 percent of the county’s six-year construction plan for the first time.
Loudoun is unusual among Virginia counties in the amount of money it spends on road projects—or in that it spends money on them at all. Roads are nominally a responsibility of the state government, but the previous Board of Supervisors decided the state wasn’t keeping up. Since then, Loudoun has dramatically ramped up its spending.
More than half of the county’s $2.4 billion six-year proposed plan, about $1.3 billion, is earmarked for transportation projects. That dwarfs the next biggest expenditure in the capital budget—school projects, at $484.3 million.
Supervisors have already begun preliminary work on the next county budget. Transportation projects will likely remain a major expenditure for the county for the foreseeable future.
Brower Retires, Johnson New Fire Chief
Longtime Fire-Rescue Chief W. Keith Brower Jr., who served in Loudoun since volunteering as a 16-year-old in 1973, retired in March after 45 years of service.
Brower took over after the retirement of former Chief Joseph Pozzo in 2009. During his time, he oversaw the county’s transition from separate fire and rescue organizations into one of the largest combined fire and rescue systems in the state. He has overseen massive overhauls and changes to the system and has been a statewide advocate for better fire safety and fire codes.
In May, Acting Chief Keith Johnson took over the job permanently. Johnson has served in Loudoun since 2014 when he joined as assistant chief of operations, shortly after the county reorganized its independent volunteer fire and rescue organizations and its career staff into one combined system. As system chief, he helms an organization of nearly 700 full-time employees and about 900 administrative and operational volunteer personnel.
Local Funding Boosts State Park Deal
Plans for a state park in far northwestern Loudoun, near Neersville and Harpers Ferry, have been underway since at least 2012, and 2018 ended with two major steps to make that park a reality.
Then-Gov. Bob McDonnell announced plans for the park in northwestern Loudoun just before leaving office in 2014. Since then, efforts have focused on transferring land on the Blue Ridge to the state government. That included a donation from the Bob and Dee Leggett foundation of 604 acres to the Old Dominion Land Conservancy, which then donated the land to the Department of Conservation and Recreation in 2015. In October, county supervisors agreed to buy another 280 acres from the Leggett Foundation for $2.9 million, below its assessed value. The Old Dominion Land Conservancy is holding the title until it can be donated to the state.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposed state budget, introduced in late December, would authorize the state to accept that land as a donation for a state park. And on Dec. 27, the deal for those 280 acres closed.
The state accepted the land at no cost, since the nonprofit Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship and two organic farmers will continue to maintain the land. If and when the state spends money to create the state park, it will take over land in a prime spot for parks, near Harpers Ferry, the C&O Canal and the Appalachian Trail.
Judgeship Funding Clears Way for Drug Court
Loudoun looks set to launch a new drug court in early 2019 after a yearlong delay when the General Assembly stripped funding for one of the judgeships on the Loudoun Circuit Court.
From 2004 to 2012, the county ran a drug court that provided some drug offenders treatment in lieu of jail time, but the program was dismantled after supervisors decided they weren’t getting their money’s worth, with some voting to close the program even though they initially supported it in concept.
Supervisors and other county leaders discussed reestablishing a drug court in 2016, but those conversations were cut short when in 2017 the General Assembly stripped funding for a judgeship from Loudoun’s already-overtaxed Circuit Court.
Drug court can be time-intensive for judges. But with the decision in May to restore funding to every judgeship in the state, the conversations around a drug court saw renewed life. In December, the county finance committee signed off on plans to start setting up a new drug court as soon as January. The Board of Supervisors is expected to take that up at their meeting January 2.
In that program, some Loudoun drug offenders may get a chance to avoid jail time after violating probation by going instead to an intensive outpatient treatment program. Offenders would be under intensive supervision and mandatory treatment, and if they fell off the wagon, they could wind up back in jail.
The state funding whiplash has had other effects. Among them: although Leesburg attorney Alex Levay stood ready to take a seat on the bench last year, he has since withdrawn his name and the General Assembly is now looking for someone to fill that seat. That has sparked controversy, as the Loudoun Bar Association has complained that Loudoun attorneys have been passed over by the General Assembly’s Courts of Justice committees in favor of Fauquier Commonwealth’s Attorney James P. Fisher.
Greenway Rates Up Again; Deal in the Works
Longstanding tension between Loudouners, their elected leaders and the owners of the Dulles Greenway saw the first change in years with the announcement of a potential deal in December.
The Greenway, which currently charges $5.65 for a one-way trip of any length during peak hours, is virtually guaranteed annual toll increases under state legislation expiring at the end of this year. Del. John J. Bell (D-87), said he, David Reid (D-32) and County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) announced in early December that they’re negotiating a deal with the Greenway to bring in distance-based tolling during off-peak hours capped at the current off-peak toll. The deal would need to be approved by the General Assembly.
However, some supervisors have already said they will oppose the deal, which is expected to enshrine the Greenway’s guaranteed annual toll increases through 2056.
Rockwool Worries Loudoun Leaders
Plans to construct a $150 million insulation factory nine miles from the county border in Ranson, WV, sparked rising concerns in Loudoun.
Danish company Rockwool melts rock to spin into mineral wool insulation, and is planning a 460,000-square-foot manufacturing plant. As West Virginians launched a massive resistance effort that has seen more than half of the Jefferson County Development Authority resign, Loudouners have also worried about the plant’s potential environmental impacts.
Here, the group Loudoun Against Rockwool has pushed local lawmakers to take action against the plant. In September, the county board voted unanimously to ask the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to assess the plant’s impacts on the county and to install an air quality monitoring station in western Loudoun. Since then, the towns of Leesburg, Hamilton, Hillsboro and Middleburg have passed resolutions opposing the project or calling for a delay while it’s studied, with Round Hill, Purcellville and Lovettsville expected to consider similar resolutions.
But Loudoun has little obvious leverage from across state lines. The plant is under West Virginia jurisdiction, and the only formal process available to the Loudoun County government appears to be asking the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to make a complaint through the federal Environmental Protection Agency—after the plant is operational.
According to Loudoun Against Rockwool’s data, Rockwool estimates that it will emit 478,000 pounds of carbon monoxide, 143,000 pounds of nitrogen oxide and 943,000 pounds of volatile organic compounds each year at its new location. The group also found that Rockwool’s Mississippi plant released about 425,000 pounds of pollution in 2017.
Loudoun Looks to Conservation Programs
As they prepare for their turn at the county’s next comprehensive plan, Loudoun supervisors have already started looking into ways to protect the county’s rural areas.
In December, they adopted Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge)’s proposal to help defray the cost to landowners of permanently protecting land from development by putting it into conservation easements. That $150,000 fund will help pay up to half the cost or up to $15,000—whichever is less—of putting land into conservation easement for landowners meeting certain income limitations. That process can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Supervisors have also asked for a study of a possible transfer of development rights program. That would allow landowners in rural areas to sell credit for the homes they could build on their land to developers in other areas. The county sets up sending and receiving areas for that development density.
Transfer of development rights programs have been implemented in Loudoun’s neighboring counties and elsewhere across the state and region, but rejected by the county Planning Commission as it works on Loudoun’s new comprehensive plan. Nearby Frederick County and neighboring Montgomery County, MD, both have versions of the program.
New Year Brings New Planning Leadership
2017 saw leadership changes in perhaps the two most important bodies for planning land use in Loudoun: the Board of Supervisors Transportation and Land Use Committee and the Planning Commission.
For the first time since she was first elected to the Board of Supervisors in 2011, Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) did not chair the Transportation and Land Use Committee. She was replaced by Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) by a 6-0-3 vote, with Volpe and supervisors Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) absent for the vote.
The committee’s membership remained the same.
At the Planning Commission, Commissioner Cliff Keirce (Broad Run) took over as chairman. He took over for Commissioner Jeff Salmon (Dulles), who as 2017 chairman also chaired the stakeholders committee that oversaw early work on the new comprehensive plan.