Purcellville Mayor Kwasi Fraser on Tuesday delivered his seventh State of the Town address and the first since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following nearly 14 months of economic drawbacks, the mayor assured residents “the state of the town is strong.”
During his 40-minute-long, in-person address May 4, which marked the first time the town hall had reopened for public meetings since April last year, Fraser highlighted the town’s financial, infrastructural and communal accomplishments in 2020—including debt refinancing, road projects and distribution of CARES Act funding—and outlined plans moving forward, including ideas for the distribution of American Rescue Plan funding, increased recreational programming and ideas to expand the town’s economy without expanding its geographic footprint.
The most tangible initiative the community realized last year was the distribution of $1.78 million in CARES Act funding, about $764,000 of which went directly and indirectly, through a voucher program, to businesses and $230,5000 to nonprofits. The town spent another $707,000 to keep the town operational.
Fraser also discussed a topic many residents have talked about over the past several years, centered on the town’s shrinking utility funds and recommendation from town consultants to increase water and sewer rates. In Fiscal Year 2020, the town’s water fund shrunk by 39% and its sewer funds shrunk by 16%. In Fiscal Year 2021, the water fund went back up by about 4% and the sewer fund increased by about 5%—increases attributable to investment income, transfers from reserves, and increases in water and sewer usage as more people worked and went to school from home last year.
Stantec, the town’s utility rate consultant, previously recommended the town implement water rate hikes by as much as 27% and sewer rate hikes by as much as 36% in Fiscal Year 2021. The Town Council did not adopt, nor did the town staff recommend, any rate increases in FY21. In his FY22 budget presentation, Town Manager David Mekarski recommended the council adopt 3% water rate hikes and 5% sewer rate hikes. The council is expected to adopt that budget next month.
Fraser acknowledged that the Town Council has been “kicking the can down the road,” but emphasized that it is doing so “intuitively” and in a “managed and assessed fashion.” He pointed out that refinancing of utility debt—which, he said, saved the town $45,900 in the water fund and $1.2 million in the sewer fund—along with utility debt restructuring—which, he said, saved the town about $800,500 in the water fund and $4 million in the sewer fund—has allowed the town to keep rate hikes minimal while still sustaining the funds.
Overall, Fraser highlighted that before he was elected mayor the first time in 2014, the town’s debt exceeded $60 million. By the end of the current fiscal year, he said, the town’s debt will be $53.89 million.
Fraser also said the town completed several infrastructure projects last year, including the installation of the 32nd/A Street traffic circle and the Loudoun Valley High School-to-Sutton Drive path, as well as improvements to Hirst Road. He also highlighted that the project to repair, clean and paint the Maple Avenue water tank wrapped up last year. That project was initiated bySuez Water Technologies in May 2018.
On the public safety side of operations, Fraser outlined that Purcellville was ranked the safest community in Virginia by the National Council for Home Safety and Security and noted that the Police Department updated its use-of-force and vehicle pursuit policies.
In the Parks & Recreation Department, Fraser noted that the town’s virtual events reached thousands of people; the Holiday Lights Tour reached close to 24,000 people on Facebook and the Art in Town Hall event reached more than 1,600 people. The town also received its 13th Tree City USA award and its 10th Tree City USA Growth award. And 15 films were featured during the fourth annual Cabin Fever Film Festival.
Moving into the second quarter of the calendar year and closer toward Fiscal Year 2022, which starts July 1, Fraser outlined plans for different projects town leaders are eyeing.
Perhaps the most pertinent of those is the distribution of American Rescue Plan funding. Fraser said the town would know within the week how much it will receive, between $2 million and $9 million. He said the town would use that money primarily to fund utility infrastructure and broadband projects.
“We are strong financially, but we still need that money,” he said.
Fraser also said the town would replace a 5,000-foot water main, replace the floor in the Bush Tabernacle, install a second cellular tower to improve cellular coverage in certain locations across town, advance the Rt. 7/690 interchange project to reduce traffic congestion, and advance a project to install a nutrient bank on the 189-acre Aberdeen property, which will see Wetland Studies and Solutions, Inc. plant 78,000 trees to net the town more than $700,000 in revenue from the sale of nutrient credits.
Fraser said the town would additionally work to increase programming at Fireman’s Field and advance a project to install a trail system connecting Purcellville with Hamilton.
“Myself and [Hamilton] Mayor [David] Simpson are committed to making that happen,” Fraser said.
Fraser assured the audience that Purcellville doesn’t need to expand its corporate limits to attract big businesses. He gave the example of Lands’ End, a clothing and home decor retailer with a close-to $800 million market capitalization that’s headquartered in the less-than 5,000-resident city of Dodgeville, WI. Comparatively, Purcellville boasts a population of about 10,000 residents.
“Purcellville’s charm and small-town character remain our competitive advantages,” he said. “… Our strategy of slow growth and rejection of annexation with high-density residential development is paying dividends by making our community inviting and highly desirable.”