Purcellville Candidates Debate Utilities, Growth, Revenue Opportunities

Purcellville’s two mayoral contestants and five Town Council candidates on the June 4 ballot have split views on how the town should achieve financial stability and how it should use the land it owns to contribute to that cause.

The candidates met in a virtual forum hosted by Loudoun Now on Wednesday night to discuss their views on how the town should bolster utility funds, use its properties, diversify its workforce and retain a small-town feel. They also talked about their views of the lingering effects of the 2017 turmoil that embroiled the town’s leadership and resulted in staff firings and suspensions, costly investigations and lawsuits.

The candidates include incumbent Mayor Kwasi Fraser, who is running for a fourth term as part of a campaign slate that includes Town Council candidates Christopher Bertaut, an IT project manager; Stanley Milan, a retired Navy trident submariner; and Mary Jane Williams, a Loudoun Valley High School teacher. That team is running on a platform of “slow growth, low taxes, innovative solutions and infrastructure improvement.”

Another slate is headed by mayoral candidate and former 12-year Town Councilwoman Beverly Chiasson, who is running alongside council candidates Mary Lynn Hickey, the vice president of The News Literacy Project; and Erin Rayner, the executive director of the Barbara Comstock Program for Women in Leadership.

One of the most pressing issues in town is the need to bolster water and sewer funds, which shrunk by 39 and 16 percent respectively in Fiscal Year 2020. Town consultants have recommended significant increases in water and sewer rates, offering several options, none of which the town will implement this coming fiscal year.

Fraser, Bertaut and Milan said the town needs to look at its $125 million in assets to generate revenue, rather than depending on revenue from utility payments.

“We must be able to find ways to monetize that,” Fraser said. “We want to go beyond fiscal stability, we want to prosper.”

Williams said the town could sell reclaimed water to the county to wash school buses.

Rayner said that “nobody wants their rates to go up,” but the town “has to do something now” to bolster its utility funds. Chiasson and Hickey said the town will have to raise utility rates, as consultants have urged the town to do beginning in Fiscal Year 2020, and that there is no magic bullet available to avoid that need.  

“Not one monetization project has come up that would make even a small dent in the rates that our consultants … have said we have needed over and over again,” Chiasson said.

Fraser later said the town should not listen so much to those consultants. “The consultants do not live in Purcellville. We live in Purcellville, we know our assets,” he said.

Candidates also talked about best uses for the 189-acre Aberdeen Property, which the town purchased in 2009 to increase water supply.

Chiasson said that because consultants last year indicated the town was short 100,000 gallons of daily water supply, the property should first be used for water. She said the Town Council in recent years has spent too much taxpayer money researching ways to generate revenue from the property—$5,000 in staff time looking into a hemp-growing initiative, $24,000 to pay a consultant for a study researching nutrient credit sales.

Fraser said a majority of the costs Chiasson listed were incurred by the Town Council as it used time to look into the ideas.

“Not all of these efforts are failures, some of them have not even been given an opportunity to get started,” he said.

Hickey agreed with Chiasson and emphasized that the property needs to remain available for water supply, even if the town also uses it for other initiatives. Rayner said that any project the town implements on the property won’t generate enough revenue to pay off utility debt in the coming years.

While Williams agreed with the need to use the property for water purposes, Bertaut said the town doesn’t need to use the wells on the property in the near term. Milan said the town could use the building on the property as a wedding venue, hunting lodge, equestrian center or something else.

“It can be anything that the town’s people feel [is] relevant to their purchase,” he said.

Asked about work on the draft Comprehensive Plan and efforts to retain Purcellville’s small-town feel, Fraser said that issue was simple: “say no to annexation.” Fraser has worked to paint Chiasson and her slate as pro-annexation, an assertion they denied.

Chiasson countered by pointing out that “there is no annexation in the pipeline” and that there isn’t much land suitable for annexation anyway.

Hickey said Fraser was using the term “annexation” as an “emotionally charged buzz word to get people upset,” and that Fraser was using it to label her, Chiasson and Rayner as being pro-development and pro-growth.

The candidates were also asked about ideas to diversify the town’s workforce, which recently has come under criticism for being mostly white and male. Each candidate said more can be done.

Fraser said the town needs to diversify because “talent comes in all shapes and forms and color.”

Milan said diverse employees would bring in “fresh, new ideas.”

“Diversity is the backbone of America,” he said. “We need to pursue that.”

Hickey said there are many other kinds of diversity other than race, such as age, sexual orientation, gender and military status.

Looking back a few years, the candidates were asked about their views on the events that took place in 2017, when an investigation into now-discredited claims of misconduct against the police chief turned out to be botched by the then-interim town manager, whom the Town Council hired following the retirement of the 24-year town manager just months prior—a retirement some, including Chiasson, claim was forced by the Town Council. The interim town manager, picked over the deputy town manager at the time, was found to be having an affair with a consultant hired to investigate the police chief. That all left the town with nearly $1 million in associated remedial costs, national attention and multiple lawsuits, one of which is still outstanding.

Fraser, the only incumbent from that period who is seeking re-election, said that no organization operates without risk and that the town hired the “best-in-class” experts to uncover the truth for the public and provided all costs to residents.

“We were able to focus forward and we continue to thrive and focus forward,” he said.

Chiasson said all the events could have been avoided if the town had not let its longtime town manager go just months before the events began.

“I think that’s where we went wrong,” she said. “Millions of dollars have been wasted—it could have been town taxes being reduced.”

Hickey called the time in which those events took place “one of the saddest chapters of Purcellville’s history.”

Other candidates said the town needs to focus on moving forward.

“If you keep looking backwards, you can’t see forward and you don’t know where you’re going,” Milan said.  “We need to look at what’s happening now.”

Bertaut said the Town Council needs to have greater oversight of the town manager’s duties to ensure he or she is acting in the best interest of residents.

Hickey later said she wants the town manager to feel more empowered to tell the Town Council when it’s “headed off the tracks.”

“That is his job to do that and he should be able to do that without hesitation or reservation and certainly not from any fear of reprisal,” she said.

Purcellville voters will head to the polls on Thursday, June 4 to elect a mayor and three Town Council members.

Because of COVID-19 social distancing efforts, residents are encouraged to vote by absentee ballot.

Apply online at elections.virginia.gov/casting-a-ballot/absentee-voting, in person at the Loudoun County Registrar, or by fax or mail. Voters may also vote early by voting absentee in-person at the Office of Elections and Voter Registration, 750 Miller Drive SE, Suite C, in Leesburg.

pszabo@loudounnow.com

2 thoughts on “Purcellville Candidates Debate Utilities, Growth, Revenue Opportunities

  • 2020-05-08 at 7:17 pm
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    Funny how the last slate of candidates the mayor ran with no longer align themselves with him. Same with the town manager he hired. Frazier math just doesn’t seem to add up to anyone willing to look at actual numbers.

  • 2020-05-11 at 11:18 am
    Permalink

    I say sell the water and sewer to Loudoun Water and lower our bills. What we pay for water is highway robbery!!!!!! This mayor has no clue.

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