Thursday, March 31, 2016

When is something more than what is seems?

When Bob Lazaro and his propaganda machine is behind it. There has been far too much misinformation about Fireman's Field. Former Mayor, Bob Lazaro, wrote a Facebook note about Fireman's Field filled with distortions. He has since either removed or limited the access to the post. 

For ease, I have posted quotes from his post in red italics and my responses are listed after each one. 

It is crystal clear. On October 27, 2015, the Town Council voted 5-2 It is crystal clear. On October 27, 2015, the Town Council voted 5-2 (Patrick McConville II and Joan Lehr voting no) to begin the process of attempting to sell Fireman’s Field to the County. No public input whatsoever was received on the proposal.
There is no requirement to hold a public hearing for something that is merely being explored or discussed.  There was no action taken to actually sell the property, therefore no public input was required.  The discussions were held at a public meeting and reported on by the local papers.  The public could have responded by writing and coming before the council in October.  In this time, the council has gotten no emails against this proposal and most importantly we received no communication of opposition from our former mayor who has decided to be publically defensive of it without any substantive action behind it.  

 In fact, the Town’s own Parks & Recreation Advisory Board was not even made aware of the proposal until after the fact.
The Town Council is tasked with legislative authority.  Our responsibility and authority involve the following:  Legislating for the town, setting and interpreting the governing rules and delegating those powers. Transacting the town’s business, conducting the town’s intergovernmental affairs, protecting the town’s welfare and its citizens, providing community leadership.
Directly from the Purcellville Town Code, the following are the powers and duties of the Park and Recreation Advisory Board:
Sec26-34. - Powers and duties.
The parks and recreation advisory board shall have the following powers and duties:
(1) Adopt rules governing the conduct of its business and meetings.
(2) Make general policy recommendations to the public works committee regarding park development and recreation opportunities.
(3) Identify and pursue grant funding for park and recreation purposes.
(4) Review proposed annual budgets for town expenditures related to parks and recreation development and make budgetary recommendations to the public works committee.
(5) Recommend policies for the expansion of the town park system and the provision of an array of active and passive recreation opportunities.
         (6) Help identify possible improvements to community services, both public and                      private, which enhance the residential and business community

The Parks and Recreation Board is NOT tasked with managing the debt service of our recreational facilities.  They are not tasked with making sound financial decisions on behalf of the citizens. The P&R Board did not increase town taxes a few years ago by 17% with a Fireman’s Field tax. Our town code does not dictate that any financial decisions made by the council should be put forth to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. They report to the council, not the other way around.

Perhaps in hindsight, we should have provided the P&R Board with a summary and kept them more apprised. Regardless, I have my druthers that if there was a different Mayor seated that this would have never been made an issue. 

 With 88% of residents approving of the improvements to the facility (according to the last Town survey) it absolutely makes no sense.

This statement is disingenuous. In the 2015 Survey, residents were not asked if they were satisfied with all of the upgrades and debt service, tax increase, and additional funding to constantly rehabilitate the facility.  The question was if they were satisfired with the parking accommodations and improvements.  From the survey, "Overall Citizens are 88% satisfied with the parking accommodations/improvemnts at Fireman's Field."  It was a misleading question and poorly phrased.
Creating fiscal sustainability should drive our decisions and not just emotions.  Everyone agrees that Fireman's Field is a treasure and no one on this council and in this community earnestly believes that this council would take action that will put it in peril.  

Let me be clear; at no time should the Town ever relinquish local control of Fireman’s Field.
We have already relinquished control.  The County leases the field and manages the schedule and most every aspect of the facility.  We have an outside contractor who manages the skating rink. Both are great stewards of the property and the arrangement, at this time,  is the most sustainable option we have.  
Why would we put the facility in the control of the Board of Supervisors where Purcellville residents have only 1 District representative out of a body of 9? 
There are numerous facilities in Loudoun County that are located within the various towns that are owned and operated by the county.  A revenue sharing arrangement with VDOT dictates we allow control of our roads to be governed by an outside agency. 

Municipalities chose what is economically viable and what isn’t. Often, it is based on economy of scale. 
It is no different than your personal finances.  You either can afford the car of your dreams, or you can't.

Council member Lehr feels that our debt is rational and acceptable, stating at a meeting that it reflects the average household's debt.  According to her statement of financial interest, her personal debt is tens of thousands more than my own and what personal finance managers would likely recommend for a household, even if she made double the average household income in Purcellville. Perhaps the people of Purcellville should look more closely at the financial acumen of those who govern them.   

 Purcellville was fortunate for several decades as the property was owned by our Volunteer Fire Department who were very good stewards. The Department, however, in the long run realized the future of the property would be better off in other hands as the Department worked to meet its own organizational goals.

According to the August 2009 issue of the Virginia Municipal League Magazine, the Fire Department could no longer afford it. “Maintaining the property, however, became more expensive and time-consuming…..Looking after the property not only was proving expensive, it was cutting into the volunteer fire department’s primary mission –  providing fire services and rescue assistance for a large portion of western Loudoun County.”
This Washington Post article also confirms that increasing cost on an aging facility was a factor: "The fire department decided to sell the 12.5 acre property because it could no longer afford the upkeep....and the building needed constant work. One year....the department had to pay $240,000 for a new roof." 

Ironically, Mr. Lazaro led the preservation and purchase of the old Purcellville Baptist Church that was known by all to be decaying and in desperate need of reapirs the church could not afford.  The Town took on the liability and paid three time the assessed value for the building and to date has sunk in excess of $8,000,000 into the project. This year, the town is spending more than $100,000 to replace and fix a critical HVAC system and more than $50,000 to replace the cupola.  Loudoun County representatives made a recommendation against the purchase of the building. 
The Town purchased the property for $1.7 million (1/2 of its value) from the Department with a 0% loan for 20 years (the Department did not want the cash all upfront).
Further, the Department with the consent of the Town placed a scenic easement on the property which protects it from development. A good deal all the way around for all parties.
The Fire Department placed the property in Conservation Easement to get the monetary benefit before it was sold to the town.  Selling it to the Town below assessment was made possible by the amount earned by placing it into Conservation Easement before it's sale to the town.
Fireman’s Field is a great model of a public, public, private, private partnership. The Town owns the facility, a private sector vendor runs the Tabernacle returning $50,000 per year to the Town…

Fact: The annual lease to the Purcellville Teen Center is $31,200 and far below the annual cost to keep and maintain the facility.  The lease amount had to be lowered because the tax-exempt bond that was used to finance this property limits the amount that the town can receive in revenue from private entities and that was discovered during a review of the lease process this past year.  The Bond structure does not restrict the amount the Town may charge a governmental entity, such as the County.    

...the County maintains the main playing field at no charge to the Town and volunteers maintain both Haske Field and the tot playing field. A total win-win-win-win.
The County earns income from the various entities they allow to use the field.  They don't charge a fee to the town because they lease the field for zero dollars. 

Fireman’s Field is not only an important historical and recreational asset to our community (literally tens of thousands of children have played on the fields over the decades), but a critical economic development one as well. When you take into consideration the number of visitors to the Bush Tabernacle, plus the special events and the sporting events 75,000+ visitors annually use the facility. 
When this town council was tasked with our first budget, it became clear that many of the events that Mr. Lazaro started, albeit great for tourism and community events in Purcellville, cost the town far more than the benefits touted by Mr. Lazaro.  The Purcellville Wine and Food Festival was costing the town in excess of $50,000 to run and the tax revenue and a study showed that visitors were not having much of an impact on the businesses in town.  If our town had little debt, no traffic issues, a police force (that at the time had no updated tasers and upgraded technology) and public works department that had no needs, sure, spend the money on some fun town events.  This town council decided to prioritize the people of this town and respect their hard-earned tax money, taxes that are used to fund the town. 

Despite the rhetoric by some, the Town’s finance are very strong with more than $5 million in the Town’s Rainy Day Fund (undesignated reserve) and a Triple A bond rating. Purcellville is the smallest government in Virginia to achieve that result. While of course there are always challenges, the Town is well positioned.
Here is where Mr.Lazaro (and Council member Lehr) needs an economic lesson. The Town has $60 Million in debt obligations.  With an estimated population of eight thousand, that is $7,500 debt per person. In 2012, the national average for local government debt was $5,137 per person.  Purcellville’s is 32% higher than the national average. Should we dismiss this amount?  I personally don't believe so. If we ignore it, how can we possibly lower the tax burden on our residents?    

When debt is used in excess, it steals from our future since it has to be repaid.  A dollar borrowed today requires that a dollar plus interest be repaid in the future.  This reduces the amount of money available for future spending.  If the amount of the debt accumulated is significant and the period of accumulation is long, the required debt payments will have a negative impact on economic growth.

As a member of the Town Council and then as Mayor I took hundreds of votes and hold myself accountable for each and every one. Not once did I pawn an idea off after voting for it as a staff proposal.
 The Town Council was presented with a staff report in October 2015 (page 195) outlining the concerns about the facility and the continuing high expenses for its upkeep. From the report:  “Over the last nine years, the Town has put over $5,378,972 into the facility and complex and that does not count the County’s grant funding of $658,485. The Town’s existing outstanding debt service is $3,630,864 with annual debt service of the facilities running at approximately $286,000."  The County leases the facility for no cost.

Because of the age of the facility and the challenges of operating a heavily used recreational project, the Town will be facing large capital expenditures on a frequent basis and that could put additional fiscal strain on the Town. At this point, the public, Town Council, staff and County have discussed multiple options on how to best move forward to ensure that this gem of our community is preserved for public use and recreational opportunities for years to come. While there are many different options and solutions, the Town has received suggestions on the following alternatives that Council should review and  provide input and direction to staff as we begin the upcoming preparation of next fiscal year’s budget.” 

Let it be noted that Council member Packard made the motion and of the five who voted, Council member Packard and Nave voted in favor of it, both who were candidates Mr. Lazaro supported in their elections and during their tenures. 

 No surprise some of the loudest noise criticizing Sam is coming from folks who don’t even live in Town -- respectfully, please butt out.
Ironically, most of the praise for Mr. Chapman is from those who do not live in town, nor in Purcellville.  I am disgusted that candidates and others are trying to make this a campaign issue with the May elections coming up.  It is sad that they are trying to use false pretenses to drum up support. This didn't work in 2014 and I hope the people don't fall for it in 2016.  
A private citizen is promoting this sticker online. 

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters” ― Albert Einstein

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Funding of Youth Sports

A new candidate for Town Council recently lambasted Mayor Fraser and me on social media for our vote against the approval of the Sports League Funding Program.  

This Council candidate stated: 
Purcellville Facts -- Several years back our Council set aside a small amount of money ($4-5K) in the Town budget to support youth athletic organizations. I don't need to elaborate on the importance of youth sports. This is a no brainier, right? Last night I witnessed the Council vote 5-2 to support this effort. Yes, two Council members did not support this action. Today, we should all say thank you to Joan Lehr, Patrick McConville II, McCollum, Fuller and Nave for supporting this effort. Some of the best memories I have link back to Fireman's Field and Haske Field.

And our former Mayor Bob Lazaro also chimed in:
Interesting to read about Town politicians talk about their concerns for youth, but when they have a chance to support our kids they vote against their interests. Several years ago we put small amount of funds ($5K) in Town budget to support youth athletic organizations. No doubt of the importance youth sports has in keeping our children out of harms way. Last night the Council voted 5-2 to support this effort. Thank you to Council Members Joan Lehr, Patrick McConville II, McCollum, Fuller and Nave for supporting this effort. Actions speak louder than words.

The Purcellville sports funding program started in 2008 and has allocated typically $5,000 per year to leagues who requested funds through an application process. This past week, the majority on Town Council voted to spend $5,200 towards this program, to include $300 to both Woodgrove and Loudoun Valley High School's athletic scholarship program. [Note: Mayor Fraser initiated a fundraiser volleyball game to raise funds for school athletics.]  

I wanted to take an opportunity to explain the rationale behind my no vote. 

Sports programs are one of the most practical activities that promote youth development. These programs are unique in their ability to impact health, educational, and behavioral benefits. Our kids have sporting opportunities through private organizations and school athletics. The big question for sports is, who should pay and what should we pay for? 

An estimated 70% of all of youth sports programs are operated by parent-led interest groups, which use public facilities that are provided by our community tax dollars.  Purcellville residents pay taxes that support Fireman's field and some recreation activities. These same Purcellville residents also pay taxes to the Loudoun County, which supports playing fields and citizen's need and desire for recreation and leisure activities.  

Loudoun County Tax Breakdown. Purcellville Residents pay Town and County Taxes. 

Communities don't build or maintain fields to make money and turn a profit; we do it so that our citizens can play sports. Private individuals and private sporting organizations cannot build and maintain sports fields on their own because they’re just too expensive. That is why these facilities have become the responsibility of local government.

How tax dollars are spent on public sport and recreation facilities in the U.S. 

In April of 2008, the Town of Purcellville purchased Fireman's Field and Bush Meeting Grounds to preserve and protect the facility and grounds. Everyone agrees it is a wonderful resource and treasure, but no one wants to confront the economy of scale that burdens the 2800 households in Purcellville with a facility that cost millions to restore and funds to maintain while the vast majority of users and visitors for team sports to this facility are county residents. 
The debt service covers the cost to refurbish and purchase parks and recreation properties. 

Services which benefit everyone, or, at least, the majority, can be paid for with a fair tax instead of high fees. Public agencies supply many services that benefit the vast majority of the public. When we grant $5,000 to a sports league, that money helps a few.  Parents, on average pay an estimated $671 a year to cover the cost of uniforms, fees for registration, lessons, and coaching, and at least 1 in 5 parents spend over $1,000 per year, per child. No one doubts that the cost to participate in sports has skyrocketed, but the real question for sports is how should communities pay for kids to take part in private youth sports?

One of my council colleagues stated that even though many families look like they are doing well, they can't afford sports for their children or are may be going through financial hardship. No one argues there are folks in our community who are in need. But what defines needy?  

If someone appears to be doing well, my first impression is perhaps that they should reevaluate their personal priorities and spending. Why should their neighbor pay for their child's sports involvement when they probably bought too much home or stretched themselves to look like they are doing well? A family who suffers a layoff or a financial devastation or who lives in poverty is an entirely different situation, and many teams have grants to offset the cost of participation.  

Loudoun County now has roughly 350,000 people living here. Of that amount, just over 100,000 are children (person under 18 years old), and the percentage of children living in poverty in Loudoun County is estimated to be between 20-30%.

This sports funding program, however, is NOT going directly for the benefit of children and families in need.  The Town can't control how those funds are directed. Private sports programs remain essentially unaccountable to public scrutiny. Most of the kids that benefit from this funding do not live in Purcellville. Most of the children participating on these teams have families able and willing to pay for their participation. We are now subsidizing families who can afford team sports. There seems to be little concern about taking money from struggling Purcellville residents who contribute their taxes to this program and get no benefit from it.   

If we wanted to expand sporting opportunities, we would be looking at bringing sports to those who are shut out due to finances. I expressed this at our meeting last Tuesday night. I would rather the money be spent toward a dedicated scholarship for Purcellville families who cannot afford to participate in these sports leagues.  

When making a choice, something always has to be given up. When a municipality chooses to use taxpayer dollars on anything, we must consider what the alternative uses of those funds could be. 

Both the Council candidate and our former Mayor referred to this grant funding as "a small amount of money."   

Keeping the $5,200 in our town coffers would not make a significant dent in our structural deficits and spending -- but if we were to put together all of the "small amounts of money" that exist in our budget, pretty soon we are talking real money. Most budgets don't identify, track, and measure wasteful practices. That's why the waste occurs. Little things add up.  "Small amounts of money" add up to significant sums of money.  

Poll after poll shows that most Americans think our government is too big. Many of us would agree we should be realistic about what local government can and should do with our tax money. Concentrating on the basics will create a more sustainable community and perhaps help our Town debt from growing.  

Follow Up (9:30 pm Friday):
The use of semantics along with dishonesty is once again being used to make a judgment about my decision.  Our former Mayor had this to say on the subject: 

The Parks and Recreation Committee reviewed the process, and it was presented to the Town Council at our December 2015 meeting.  Here are the minutes from that night:

I can support changes, and I did so. The Council was not asked to grant the funding or to discuss the merits of the program, even though at the time I had my doubts about it. There is no conflict with voting for the changes. It wasn't an approval to create the funding or to disperse it. 

Mr.Lazaro is incorrect in his conjecture that we were looking for a return on investment.  Discussion centered on whether or not the teams and the players were from Purcellville, if the money was going specifically towards needy children (which could not be substantiated or accounted for), and if the teams were charitable organizations as opposed to some that operate in Loudoun as for-profit businesses (only two of the organizations marked their applications as charitable non-profits).

There is an important distinction between changing one's mind, changing direction, and being a flippant flip-flopper.  Being able to alter your course means you want to move ahead with prudence. Do you expect anyone to charge forward without ever making an adjustment? Leadership is about making tough decisions even when everyone else wants to go in a different direction.  

Mr.Lazaro seems to subscribe still to the notion that "there's nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it."  

I got a nice note from a former Council member today in response to this blog post.  It included this blurb:  
One time there was a motion to provide a donation in memory of a citizen...... I remember the Town Manager saying that citizens pay taxes to the Town to provide the necessary infrastructure for living in Town.  They do not pay taxes so you can donate to the causes you choose.  If they want to support those causes they will.

I think that pretty much sums it up! 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Purcellville's May 2016 Election

All Politics is local and local elections matter.

Our country is focused on the 2016 presidential candidates and voters may not realize the high stakes in the thousands of local elections taking place across the country. Many Purcellville voters are still unaware that we have an election on May 3. This year
, citizens of Purcellville will vote for Mayor, three town council members, and one interim town council member to fill the seat left vacant by Mr. Ben Packard.  

Local governments decide on a broad range of issues that affect your daily lives. Purcellville elected officials make decisions about transportation, business development, zoning, law enforcement, and taxes. Working together, people can demand better lighting on their streets, increased police patrols, or better roads. Voters who succeed in affecting local government policy and electing their preferred candidates often feel more empowered in the direction of their community. 

Voters have an opportunity to send a message that they have a right to chose our elected officials, but we need choices to make that happen.  And this year, we have plenty.  

Ryan Cool and Kelli Grim are qualified candidates as of March 3, 2016. 

Of course, this wasn't always the case.  In the 2004 Election, there were only four candidates on the ballot for Town Council. When fewer candidates run, voters don't necessarily have choices that reflect their preference. They lose out on having an opinion on election day, which is the entire point of voting in the first place. For many years, town leadership was successful in thwarting any real competition for council seats and discouraging the participation of citizens who wanted change.  

The result of non-competitive races is voter apathy.  When few residents make the initiative to vote or become informed about the candidates, civic engagement falls and leads to even fewer candidates interested in running for office since the odds are further against them. For many years, few candidates showed up to provide real competition.  Only competition solves this issue.  

In 2008, there was a 4% increase in voter turnout from the 2006 election, and six candidates were running for the three town council seats. The main draw was the town's lawsuit against Loudoun County involving Woodgrove.  

In 2012, 867 Purcellville voters cast a ballot (17.58% of eligible voters) and in 2014, 1,381 voters voted, comprising 27.21% of the eligible voting population. In sharp contrast, in 2000 only 923 people voted but with the smaller population it was 47% of the town.  

In the past twenty-five years, the rate of voting participation has dropped significantly. This lack of voting has exacerbated the lack of civic engagement which further leads to less candidate interest.  It also brings us to leadership that is not accountable or representative.  

When a candidate is uncontested, it is like you showing up to a job interview and because you were the only applicant you got the job by default.  Hardly a hearty endorsement.

Without a challenger, Purcellville residents in 2012 likely didn't get a full overview of what these individuals believed was important to their community, what their views were for Purcellville's future, and how they intended to guide the town.  An election is only a selective process if it is also an interview for those seeking public service.  

The result of low voter turnout is an unrepresentative government. The timing of our elections in May is the result of thinking decades ago to get the national election politics out of local elections but the true result is a narrower segment of population voting and the election of a select few.  

The people who are voted into office under these low voter circumstances and uncontested races are not only in the minority, they form an unrepresentative minority. In these low turnout elections, the local leadership is incentivized to cater to the interests of a small portion of the general public. 

Many policy decisions in Purcellville over the past decade have been for the benefit of a few at the cost of the many. For many years, Purcellville had only one local newspaper reporting their particular viewpoint. Naturally, many argue about what each newspaper prints and the slant they each take. But like the increase in voting helps elect better candidates, the increase in reporting provides information.  

The rise of the internet has led to people having more access to information at their fingertips than ever before.  It gets harder and harder for politicians to hide from their record.  

In 2016, with seven candidates vying for three council seats, and three candidates seeking the one interim council seat, our electorate has more choices.  Go vote. 

“Elections belong to the people. It's their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”