FRLP rezoning hurdles veritable Sayre filibuster
By Roger Bianchini
Warren County Report
In an unexpected development Monday night – or should we say Tuesday morning – the Front Royal Town Council failed to authorize real estate and personal property tax increases as a means to make up a projected $1.2 million revenue shortfall for flat funding of the town’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget.
An anticipated replay of a Feb. 22, 4-3 first reading vote of approval was aborted when tax opponent Shae Parker abstained, leading to what initially appeared to be a 3-2 vote of approval of the proposed tax hikes.
However, Town Attorney Tom Robinett informed an initially surprised Mayor Eugene Tewalt that Parker’s abstention blocked the mayor’s required 4th vote of approval – or a “super majority” of the full council membership – on the tax increases. Robinett, who has found his own position mentioned for potential staff cuts to balance the coming town budget, said that by state code and the town charter the mayor could only cast the required 4th vote of approval to break a 3-3 tie.
Perhaps ironically as explained to us, Parker, who was appointed to assume Tewalt’s council seat when the latter was elected mayor two years ago, cannot legally cast a deciding vote in the affirmative on budgetary appropriations of over $500. However, Robinett said the issue at hand Monday night was a different statute than the one that resulted in a 2009 attorney general’s opinion that appointed municipal board members cannot vote on major budgetary appropriations.
During public comments at the meeting’s outset, 33 of 41 speakers urged council to do what it must to maintain exiting levels of service – particularly regarding law enforcement and the town’s share of public library funding – even if it took raising taxes on their homes and cars. – “I don’t want you raising my taxes either, but services aren’t free,” Meredith Evans told council of the public consensus expressed to council the evening of March 8th. Even a planned Tea Party tax protest evaporated with nary a whimper when movement leader Tim Ratigan urged citizen volunteerism to help make ends meet, rather than a blanket condemnation of taxes in the wake of a budget discussion with Town Manager Michael Graham. However, council’s vote at about 1:10 a.m. occurred in front of far less than the standing room only full house majority out in support of maintaining town staff and services.
The rejected increases would have been from 7 to 10 cents per $100 of assessed real estate value and from 60 to 74 cents per $100 of assessed personal property value. Neither rate has been raised in a decade.
“Thank you, Mr. Parker,” Chris Holloway, who was joined by Tom Sayre in voting against the increases, said after the motion to approves, defeat was explained.
Parker’s abstention appeared to be a legislative end run of the council majority’s will – Tewalt had sided with Vice Mayor Bret Hrbek, Tom Conkey and Carson Lauder in seeing the proposed hikes as preferable to a suggested dependence on luxury taxes, including meals, lodging and cigarettes – or cuts to town services and staff or pay rates.
In arguing against reliance on such luxury taxes, Conkey worried over their potential impact on already struggling town businesses trying to compete with national chains in the county’s 522 north corridor. Conkey also pointed out the full 3-cent hike in the real estate tax would equal about $7.33 per month – or $90 per year – on an assessed $300,000 home.
Hrbek worried that further raids on the already depleted town General Fund surplus would end up costing the town its Triple-A financial rating on a pending bond issue on federally-mandated wastewater treatment plant improvements. The difference between Triple-A interest rates of around 4.5 percent, compared to 7 or 8 percent on a $40 million bond issue could cost town citizens a lot more than the proposed tax hikes, Hrbek said.
But not to worry – Holloway, Sayre and Parker, the latter two up for reelection this spring, insisted the necessary cuts could be found in town services to couple with luxury taxes to balance the budget with minimal financial harm to the town and its citizens.
With all the budget turmoil, it was a somewhat anti-climactic 5-1 vote of approval after nearly two years of negotiations for the Front Royal Limited Partnership rezoning proposal on the town’s east side off Happy Creek and Shenandoah Shores Road. Only Tom Sayre voted against the rezoning to allow 320-residential units on 149 acres previously zoned for 99 units on one-acre lots.
Applicant David Vazzana’s proffer package totaled $7.36 million, including much sought after transportation infrastructure improvements for an already failing east side road system. Replying to a question from Sayre, Interim Planning Director Bruce Drummond pointed out there were 3,000 buildable lots in the county further east that would eventually dump traffic into town with or without the proffered road improvements.
Vazzana has offered to construct 4 of 5 phases of an East-West Connector Road from Shenandoah Shores Road to the Manassas Avenue Junction to Eighth Street. The town would be responsible for constructing the balance from the Manassas Junction Railroad tracks to Commerce Avenue. If it elected not to fund that final stretch of road, the transportation proffers would divert to Leach’s Run Parkway, a North-South Connector Road between Happy Creek and Shenandoah Shores to John Marshall Highway.