Jail, school budget issues raised at forum

MOUNT JACKSON – Candidates running for local offices in Shenandoah County spoke at a forum  Saturday.

The Shenandoah Valley Constitutional Conservatives hosted the forum during a meeting in Mount Jackson and allowed questions from the audience. Some of the questions reiterated arguments that came up during the election season two years ago, including criticism of the county’s involvement in the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail, open since summer 2014.

Richard Walker is running as an independent candidate for the District 3 seat on the Board of Supervisors. Walker is trying to unseat longtime Supervisor David Ferguson. Ferguson declined the organization’s invitation to the forum.

Barbara Bliss is running for the District 2 seat on the School Board. Bliss is challenging current School Board member Rick Koontz and Joanie Hovatter. Koontz and Hovatter were not at the forum. All three candidates participated in the forum held Oct. 5 by the Shenandoah County Chamber of Commerce, the Shenandoah Forum, the Shenandoah County Education Association, the Friends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah and the Farm Bureau. Ferguson and Walker participated in a forum held for their district on Wednesday.

Walker said he and Ferguson differ on how much debt the county has incurred by participating in the regional jail. Walker said the debt is closer to $71 million while Ferguson has stated it is about $61 million. Walker said Ferguson’s decision to support the move has put the county in financial risk. Walker argued that the county is spending 3½ times on a regional jail than it did running the local facility.

Walker commented that while the state has agreed to cover half the cost of the regional jail, the funding still comes from taxes. He argued that the county supervisors sought moral obligation rather than general obligation bonds for the jail and other, multimillion dollar projects to avoid having to put the matter on the ballot as a referendum.

“I feel that if you’re going to be spending millions of dollars, you should have the public support and realize the need,” Walker said. “Mr. Ferguson doesn’t want to be bothered with it.”

Obligation bonds carry a higher interest rate than general obligation bonds, Walker said.

Bliss then spoke and responded to questions. Bliss cited her experience as showing a balance between education and finance. She sought a teaching career early on but then switched and became a certified public accountant.

“You can’t solve the problems of the schools by increasing the taxes, just by increasing the funds, giving a blank check to Superintendent (Jeremy) Raley,” Bliss said.

Bliss added that the school system keeps asking for more money but no one is scrutinizing where the funds are being spent. Bliss said the county can’t afford to increase taxes.

Bliss added that she wants to make the School Board and the administration more accountable. She said the oversight function of the School Board is missing. Bliss said the School Board is supposed to serve in that function for the voters.

“What I think has been happening over the last several years the School Board abdicates its responsibility and looks to the Board of Supervisors to cut (funding requests) and then you come back and revise the budget,” Bliss said. “These budgets should never have made it to the Board of Supervisors in the first place because they need to be looked at in much more detail.”

One person asked Bliss if she felt it would be ethical for her to sit on the School Board if her brother served on the Board of Supervisors, referring to the fact that one of her opponents, Joanie Hovatter, is the brother of District 2 Supervisor Steve Baker. Bliss said that would be a conflict of interest.

John Massoud, Republican Party candidate for District 6 on the Board of Supervisors, also spoke even though the organization did not plan to hold a forum for the people running for the office. Supervisor Conrad Helsley is seeking re-election as an independent candidate. Strasburg Town Councilman Robert B. “Bob” Baker and former Councilwoman Sarah Mauck also are running independent campaigns for the seat.

Neither candidate for the District 2 seat on the Board of Supervisors – Steve Baker or challenger Michael Wakeman – attended the forum. Steve Baker is seeking re-election to a third term as the Republican candidate. Wakeman is running as an independent. Wakeman has received support from some of the same people who helped Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz win election two years ago, beating out Republican candidates. Bailey and Shruntz also have been outspoken critics of the county’s choice to participate in the regional jail.

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