Lovettsville Council Discusses Town Office Renovation, Governmental Transparency

Just past the first month of the fiscal year, the Lovettsville Town Council has its priorities in order and is working to set a few crucial projects in motion.

Council members convened for a planning retreat Sunday in the Lovettsville Volunteer Fire & Rescue Station’s bingo hall to discuss the most prominent challenges facing the town. During the seven-hour meeting, the council engaged in team-building exercises and discussed its vision, fiscal policy, the proper relationship between council members and the staff, and town projects—a topic that prompted a lengthy debate on the long-talked-about town office renovation.

The core of the talk about the renovation of the town office, which was built in the 1970s for a town with a population of about 600 residents, centered on which of three solutions the town should advance—replace the 11-year-old single-wide trailer that houses two staffers behind the town office in the short term while discussions of a more long-term solution continue; renovate the Quarter Branch Park barn to house additional offices; or renovate the town office by converting the council chambers into additional offices.

An action item to vote on an up to $35,000 trailer replacement is on the Aug. 22 Town Council agenda. Mayor Nate Fontaine said that if that vote is tabled, the council will need to take action in September.

Fontaine said that if the council votes to direct the staff to renovate the existing office, that would force the town to find another venue to hold its Town Council and committee, commission and board meetings. He said that while council members are “onboard with doing something,” the council “can’t continue saying ‘something.’” 

“We have to make a decision very quickly,” he said.

Other projects discussed included the $425,000 water meter replacement project, which has already seen the replacement of nearly 300 meters across town; and $376,000 set aside in the 2020 budget for phase two of the Broadway improvement project and the Church Street/Pennsylvania Avenue improvement project. The council will vote Aug. 22 to authorize design work that could cost up to $797,660 for Broadway and up to $459,261 for Church/Pennsylvania in the coming years.

Fontaine said another major discussion item focused on the Town Council’s vision. He said council members have agreed to not drastically change the vision statement but have directed staff members to write in language that emphasizes the council’s desire to preserve Lovettsville’s small-town and community-oriented character for years to come.

As for the fiscal policy update, the council heard a presentation by the Virginia Municipal League and talked about ways to simplify the policy and make it, according to Fontaine, “a little more digestible” so that residents can better understand what the town is doing with its money. The council could vote to approve the policy at its September meeting.

Discussions of the council vision and fiscal policy were done as part of the council’s ongoing effort to increase transparency and community engagement.

The discussion of the council-to-staff relationships focused on tips for council members to follow, such as understanding that town work is done by the staff and not council members, setting clear goals and policies, putting the community first in all matters and not directing staff to complete tasks.

The council also discussed a tentative Fiscal Year 2021 budget planning schedule that should see Town Manager Rob Ritter present next year’s proposed budget on Jan. 9 and see the Town Council hold a public hearing on Feb. 20 and adopt the budget on March 12.

Sunday’s retreat was the first time the council convened in such a collaborative meeting since Oct. 28 last year. During that four-hour retreat, the council discussed many of the same projects, including the water meter replacement and town office renovation.

Before last October, the council convened on Jan. 6, 2018, when the only two current council members on the dais were Fontaine, then a councilman, and Vice Mayor Jim McIntyre. At that retreat, then-mayor Bob Zoldos made it a point to discuss a goal for the town to take the brunt of the tax burden off homeowners by increasing the commercial tax base to 20 percent.

When asked about that 80-20 tax base ratio this week, Fontaine said the town is moving closer toward it, with a “large number” of new town businesses opening their doors this year. “That is a big driver of council,” Fontaine said.

Fontaine said the next Town Council retreat would most likely be toward the beginning of the next fiscal year, but that he would like for the council to consider scheduling two each year moving forward.

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