No Magic Bullets, Just Hard Work

goochland_county_courthouse

Goochland County Courthouse

by S.E. Warwick

The fiscal perils of Petersburg are not unique. Five years ago Goochland County was in similar disarray. Then ten citizens, serving on a newly elected board of supervisors and school board, stepped forward to transform the county government from a dysfunctional mess into a model for the region. The turn-around, a great untold story, shows what everyday people can accomplish when they put their minds to it.

In late 2008 irregularities appeared in the Goochland Department of Public Utilities. Checks found stuffed in drawers and a safe, rather than deposited in the proper accounts, raised the first red flag. Utility billing was erratic at best.  In a public utility system with fewer than 3,000 customers, water meter records were unreliable. Forensic accountants called in to audit departmental records found widespread irregularities but no behavior that rose to the level of criminal. The director of public utilities departed.

The county administrator “retired” suddenly following a ham-fisted attempt to gag county employees. An interim county administrator recommended that a new auditor be retained to complete the FY 2009 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which uncovered 40 material restatements. The accounting firm used by Goochland for more than a decade was found to have closed the county books then audited its own work.  Internal accounting controls were few and not well observed. The actual general fund balance turned out to be half of its assumed value.

The school board refused to present budgets based on available revenue and demanded that the supervisors raise taxes.

Then the county treasurer was caught embezzling public funds, which brought more official scrutiny of Goochland’s fiscal matters.

Citizens were increasingly outraged as good old boys, in power for decades, used the “whistle past the graveyard” approach to the growing problems faced by the county.

In November, 2011, voters elected an entirely new school board and four new supervisors. They campaigned together listening to the concerns and complaints of the citizens, and had common goals—make Goochland government work for its people and restore public trust.

Even before taking office, the “new broom” as many called the new team, crafted strategies to reverse years of lackadaisical government. Relations between the supervisors and school board became collaborative instead of contentious. Budgets were trimmed with surgical precision to address falling tax revenues and cut out dead wood.  Some functions were consolidated, others eliminated.  The tax rate held steady at 53 cents per $100 of valuation because the supervisors believed that government must live within its means, and higher taxes would discourage badly needed economic development.

The world did not end.

Core services got priority. The budget process added a look-ahead provision to anticipate and plan for extraordinary costs. Public meetings were live-streamed using a free service.

Massive debt was restructured to a manageable level. A policy to limit debt service to a small percentage of the annual budget was adopted.  Financial professionals were added to the county staff.  Goochland County earned a AAA Standard & Poor’s Bond Rating in 2015 and now regularly receives accolades for its budgets. Schools rank at or near the top in the area. Economic development, which was dead in the water under the old guard, is, thanks to a new attitude and streamlined procedures, picking up.

A skilled county administrator, working in concert with the supervisors, transformed local government from a collection of fiefdoms that often worked at cross purposes, into a team whose primary goal is to provide excellent and efficient service to citizens.  Citizens are encouraged to “grade” interactions with county government.

Why did the “new broom” team do it? Certainly not for the modest salary, nor for personal gain. They could easily have turned a deaf ear to the county’s problems and enjoyed their lives. In the best traditions of citizen leaders, Goochland’s supervisors and school board pledged their time and talents to reform local government.  They rolled up their sleeves to ask hard questions and seek remedies for insoluble situations. They have high personal standards and understand that they answer to the citizens and are accountable for their actions.

In Goochland, the right people stepped forward when voters were looking for people to fix a badly broken organization.  These citizen leaders spent untold hours looking for ways to do things smarter, better, cheaper. Good government, they contend, is common sense in action. They have been in office for five years and are not done yet. No magic bullets here, just hard work and commitment to the citizens who put them in office.

S.E. Warwick, a Goochland resident, publishes the “Goochland on My Mind” blog. For years, she has been the only journalist regularly covering Goochland board of supervisor meetings.

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8 responses to “No Magic Bullets, Just Hard Work

  1. S.E. Warwick – thank you for that story and report.

    I suspect the mismanagement and misconduct on the local level that you describe is, in varying degrees, far more prevalent than most of us realize. For whatever reason, however, more and more Americans are withdrawing from local civic affairs. I suspect in Virginia it’s somewhat cultural as well. As opposed to say the New England Townships historically built around well attended Town Halls meetings that looked into and ran most everything.

    Goochland sets a great example of what needs to change in a lot of places in Virginia, most likely.

    • It’s a 2 edged sword that is choking democracies across the globe. Look at our Presidential election…

      How can you get “good” people with sound minds and pure motives to run when we have created a media culture that immediately looks to spew venom on any and every thing that government does? Local, state, and federal…the media is obsessed with “gotcha” and “waste” and whatever they can report on that draws clicks. Writing stories about good government is “boring.”

  2. looks like the West Creek Business Park is the franchise… for a county that is 1/10th the size of Henrico.

    Capital One. Farm Bureau? CarMax, Federal Reserve?

    lord!!!

    and the timeline for West Creek was way back when the bad … good old boys were in charge, no?

    You need water/sewer, and other infrastructure for a business park like that.

    someone had to do it .. back in …when?

    History of West Creek
    1988 Assemblage and rezoning by original owner, NCNB
    Holdings
    1995 Motorola purchases site for semi-conductor plant
    2000 Remaining property sold to West Creek Associates
    2001 Capital One purchases 316 acres for campus
    2003 CarMax purchases 100 acres for headquarters
    2004 Route 288 opens
    2005 Pruitt Family becomes an equity owner with West
    Creek Associates
    2006 HCA purchases 60 acres for a regional hospital
    2006 Brandywine Realty Trust purchases 25 acres for
    speculative office space

    so all of this happened before the “broom” took over?

    hey… there’s got to be a whole lot MORE to THIS story besides “good conservative government”.

    😉

  3. West Creek today still looks more like a nature preserve than office park. A very oddly structured bond issue based on an assumption of 11 percent annual growth with very limited early redemption provisions was on target to swamp the county. Construction of the water and sewer system generated more lawsuits than customers. There were so few users that Goochland regularly dumped water it purchased from Henrico because it got stale from sitting in the lines too long. The county is just now resolving “smelly water” issues resulitng from alleged desgin flaws in the system.

  4. It sure looks like Capital One, CarMax, Farm Bureau, Fed Reserve and HSA are the big employers, no?

    I would surmise that a good number of county residents work there, no?

    what other economic development is occurring? If you buy water/sewer from Henrico what is your own utility serving – the homes?

    The budget is oddly done also… with respect to the transfer to the Schools – The Schools are shown as generating revenues…. from transfers from the County… odd…

    page 25 http://www.goochlandva.us/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/765

    the seem to ADD (2017) 39,691,400 in county revenues then add State and Federal to get the total County Revenues 47,946,216

    then the School “revenues” below it to come up with 95,997,920 then unspecified interfund transfers below of (23,116,122)

    inexplicable why it’s represented that way

    VDOE shows this for 2016

    GOOCHLAND required local effort – 11,905,754
    actual local expenditures 19,455,361
    local – above required 7,549,607

    the school budget itself is clear… so Goochland generates about 40 million in revenues and the schools get about 20 of it but trying to get that out of the County budget is a real chore but it must be kosher if you earned AAA – so congrats!

  5. The Tuckahoe Creek Service District was created on an “if you build it they will come” basis to attract corporate headquarters. One of its features was an ad valorem tax levied on property in the TCSD to help with debt service.

    When growth did not materialize to keep up with debt service, the old guard was facing a multi dollar increase in this tax, on top of the real estate tax. That would have priced Goochland out of the economic development market. Also, the old guard refused to allow higher residential density and floor area ratios that would have made development in the TCSD more manageable. The financial scheme was so convoluted that the county dipped into the general fund for several years to stay even.

    One of the first things the “new broom” team did was approve multi family housing for a limited number of acres in West Creek. Apartments in the Notch off of Broad Street Road and another project near the Hardywood Park Craft site near 288 are in various stages of development.

    While some county residents do work at Capital One, Car Max and so forth, rush hour traffic suggests most live elsewhere. The new apartments may change that.

  6. when you say Ad valorem tax you basically mean a supplementary tax in the district to pay for the infrastructure improvements in the district, right?

    so if West Creek had a bunch of yet undeveloped land within it’s district why would a second district be created?

    did the West Creek district also have an Ad valorem tax to pay for it’s infrastructure?

    more than that – if West Creek was a private sector effort – why would the county want to get into that game especially if it would be in competition with the West Creek AND at a tax disadvantage?

    some advice from a guy living in a county that went from 15K to 130K .. and much of it residential commuters – be careful – houses do not pay in taxes what their services costs – especially schools but fire, rescue, libraries, law enforcement, roads, etc… it’s a losing game unless the residential is high end 400K and up.

    Don’t become the lower cost alternative housing solution for Henrico’s pricey housing!

    DO GROW – but make sure that growth pays for itself.. no easy trick especially now that cash proffers have been gutted.

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