Board candidates weigh in on taxes, spending

EDINBURG – Candidates vying for the District 3 seat on the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors weighed in on issues at a forum on Wednesday.

Supervisor David Ferguson is seeking re-election to his board seat. Richard Walker, a certified public accountant, is challenging Ferguson, a Republican, for the position as an independent candidate.

The Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce, the Shenandoah County Education Association, the Shenandoah Forum, the Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and the Farm Bureau of Shenandoah County are hosting a series of forums for candidates running for local and state offices. The District 3 forum was held at the Charter House School in Edinburg.

George Daugharty moderated the forum and read questions submitted by attendees. Candidates gave introductory and closing statements and then had two minutes to respond to questions. Daugharty also offered candidates 30 seconds to give rebuttal to their opponent’s responses.

What are the top three issues facing the county?

Ferguson said the issues are keeping the budget in line with what the county can afford; economic development and its aging infrastructure.

Walker said the county first needs to take care of its aging population; resolve conflicts with volunteer fire and rescue agencies; align economic development with the agricultural base.

Ferguson responded in rebuttal by saying the county provides financial support to the volunteer organizations.

Do you feel the county provides too much or two little funding to the school system?

Walker said the county provides enough money to the system and noted that the division’s most recent request was excessive. Walker said he takes issue with the fact the Board of Supervisors took money from savings in part to fund schools – an amount that would equate to a 4-cent increase on the real estate tax rate.

Ferguson said the county hasn’t fulfilled the school system’s entire funding requests and they need more money. Ferguson said each year the supervisors cut the school’s budget to what members feel the county can afford. The tax increase approved in 2013 went to pay for the school system’s required contribution to the state retirement system.

What steps would you take to ensure farming remains viable in the county?

Ferguson said the county does this through land-use taxation and conservation easements and by defining growth areas around towns. Ferguson added that the Comprehensive Plan indicates that farming should remain important in the county.

Walker said he served on the panel that created the plan several years ago.

Walker said there were goals in the plan that Ferguson refused to implement, such as cluster zoning. Walker said the county’s rules are too restrictive and certain rights are taken away from the farmers.

Ferguson rebutted Walker by saying that the committee as a whole decided to make the recommendations on the plan. Walker contested Daugharty’s offer of rebuttal to Ferguson. Daugharty noted that Walker had made a comment directly referencing Ferguson, thus prompting the offer.

What would you do to improve the relations with the Sheriff’s Office?

Walker said the board and sheriff need to cooperate. Walker said claims the regional jail would save money were bogus. The sheriff, who opposed the push to build the facility, feels he isn’t given a fair shake even though he has ideas to save money, Walker said.

Ferguson said that claims the sheriff and the board don’t work together are not accurate. Ferguson said the board has allocated funding for the Sheriff’s Office. He questioned Walker’s data on per prisoner cost.

Walker rebutted by saying that his numbers come from a report created by the consultant hired to investigate costs of building a regional jail.

Daugharty then asked Ferguson if he wanted to add any more comments in response to Walker’s rebuttal, saying that he didn’t think the audience was following the numbers presented. However, some audience members voiced concern that allowing Ferguson another chance to speak was unfair. Ferguson explained that the figures he gave represented the cost per inmate.

Were you or would you have been in support of the creation of Charter House School and what is your opinion about the use of the facility?

Ferguson said he supported the renovations to the old Edinburg School for use by the Charter House School and the community. He added that the facility allows the county to educate certain special-needs students here rather than in other localities. Ferguson noted that the facility has been used for hundreds of activities since opening.

Walker said he would not have supported spending $4.5 million to renovate a rental property. The voters should have weighed in on the spending, Walker said. Walker added that he has no problem with its use now though he questions the numbers Ferguson provided.

Ferguson responded by saying the teachers assigned to the school in 2014 were already included in the budget and have since returned to other facilities in the county.

Do you think a tax increase will be needed given the falling property values and would you support an increase?

Walker said taxes are based on over-assessments performed in 2010. Walker said the state requires the county to increase the rate if assessments decrease. Walker said he would not support a tax increase without providing protections for the elderly. The county would not have a choice to raise taxes if the assessments fall.

Ferguson said he doesn’t generally support tax increases but sometimes it’s needed. Such increases occurred three of the last eight years. Reassessments, including the one performed last time, have passed certain state guidelines, Ferguson said. He added that he feels the assessments won’t drop and there will not be a tax increase.

How would you rate the performance of the county’s attorney and why, and would you do anything to change that relationship?

Ferguson said the county spends less for legal council than other localities and the attorney helped win lawsuits filed against the government.

Walker said the debate centered on the fact that the county had no written agreement with the attorney explaining his responsibilities. Walker said he thinks the county needs a new attorney that works better with the board and that members should be able to communicate with each other.

Ferguson rebutted by saying a memorandum of understanding between the county and the attorney existed that outlined legal service fees.

How would you ensure that people in your district and county are informed and able to give input on major decisions?

Walker said board members need to communicate with the residents, including one-on-one discussions. Walker said he would always be open regardless of a person’s views. Walker commented that he tried unsuccessfully to meet with Ferguson several years ago while serving on the Comprehensive Plan committee.

Ferguson said he communicates very well with people and makes an effort to do so. Ferguson noted that some people only hear what they want to hear.

During a brief break Daugharty told candidates not to make comments personal. Daugharty then allowed rebuttal from Walker, who then explained his efforts to try and communicate with Ferguson, noting that the supervisor wouldn’t respond. Daugharty gave Ferguson a chance to rebut again. Ferguson said he did respond to Walker.

What is your opinion on providing a bounty on coyotes or having hearings on the idea?

Ferguson said county officials heard from experts who said a bounty doesn’t work. Ferguson said he’s not in favor of a bounty.

Walker said he has no problem with a private group working with an outside agency to set up a bounty program but not one through the local government.

What would you do with the money the county received from the insurance claim on the Alms House?

Walker said he would support putting some of the money toward the historic aspect of the site but the county should take a look at funding and see where it is needed.

Ferguson said the money is part of the county’s reserves not yet earmarked for any purpose and he has no plans to spend it either.

Are there any plans to use the old jail and, if not, would you have any suggestions for its use?

Ferguson said he has no suggestions but has ideas on how the county could go about deciding how it should be used. Ferguson said it could be used to help the Circuit Court clerk’s office expand or other uses, perhaps ones that could provide the county with revenue.

Walker said the sheriff has no plans for the old jail. Walker said he believes part of it would need to be used as a holding area for the courtrooms. But renovating much of the space would be costly, Walker said.

If county funding is stagnant or decreases, what specific changes would you recommend to the budget?

Walker said he expects the budget to be stagnant. Walker said the budget assumes an increase in revenue as a result of the reassessment but that likely won’t happen given falling property values. Walker said he expects the county will need to look at places to cut in the budget.

Ferguson said he’s not convinced revenues will remain stagnant because in other years the county was still able to absorb the debt for large projects without tax increases. Ferguson said he expects the county to see more revenue, in part because businesses are investing.

Walker tried to rebut Ferguson’s debt figure. The moderator at first would not allow Walker to rebut. Walker ultimately responded, saying that his calculation put the county debt at closer to $70 million.

Should multimillion capital improvements go before the county voters and, if so, why?

Ferguson said if the community puts such projects on a referendum out of a distrust of the elected leaders then they wouldn’t move forward. Ferguson asked if the county should put the possible construction of a new Sheriff’s Office to the voters.

Walker said he feels strongly that whenever the county obligates itself to such spending, subjecting the community to high debt, then it should put it to the voters.

Daugharty then allowed Ferguson to rebut. Ferguson commented that a lawsuit filed against the county over recent loans was frivolous.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com