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Budget legal notice for tax rates approved by supervisors

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By John Barnhart

    Bedford County’s budget adoption process is still on schedule.
    Monday night, the supervisors voted to approve the legal notices for the budget and tax rates and a public hearing on April 9. The hearing will be held at the Bedford Science and Technology Center on Edmond Street in Bedford at 7 p.m.
    The advertised tax rates will be the same as the current rates. This means that, while the supervisors could still lower the rates, they will no longer be able to raise them above what they have advertised.
    “You can’t advertise lower and go higher,” Interim County Administrator Frank Rogers told the supervisors.
    The real estate tax rate remains 50 cents per $100 in assessed value. Rogers said that every cent of the real estate tax rate yields $711,000 in revenue.
    “The economic climate is very bleak right now,” commented District 1 Supervisor Bill Thomasson, explaining why the tax rates should not be increased.
    The good news that Rogers had for the supervisors is that the county will start the new fiscal year with a beginning cash balance of $5 million. The supervisors chose to use $290,000 of this to shield county employees from changes in the Virginia Retirement System.  They   also   chose   to   add $1.1 million to the capital improvement fund. That leaves about $3 million that’s uncommitted.
    That uncommitted balance may be needed. The Virginia General Assembly has not adopted a state budget, leaving state funds to localities, including to school divisions, in question. The Bedford County School Board has yet to make its official budget request. The advertised budget calls to fund the school division at the same amount as last year’s allocation.
    The budget will contain $30,000 to fund a request by the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office for inmate work details to pick up trash along county roads. This money will come out of funds originally budgeted for the Blue Ridge Regional Jail. Rogers told the supervisors that the jail had reduced its request to the county. Taking the $30,000 from that, the amount budgeted for the jail will still leave a $100,000 cushion in case the jail ends up with more inmates from Bedford County than anticipated and comes back for more money.
    This met some opposition.
    “Are we creating another line item?” asked District 5 Supervisor Steve Arrington.
    “This is a new program,” Rogers replied.    
    “I don’t think we should add anything new until we know what we’ve got from Richmond,” commented District 3 Supervisor Roger Cheek.
    Thomasson defended the request. He said that Henrico County has a similar program that works. He said inmates there have picked up 36 tons of trash.
    “For years we have been asking for this,” said District 4 Supervisor John Sharp. Sharp suggested giving it a try and cutting the program out if it turns out that the county is not getting value for the money.
    A proposal to include the supervisors in the county’s health insurance coverage was also adopted, with only Board Chairman Chuck Neudorfer voicing opposition.
    “We are increasing our benefits and I don’t agree with that,” Neudorfer said. “Now is not the time to be doing this.”
    Others said that, although they don’t plan to use it personally, they want it to be available.
    “I would like to have the opportunity to use it as an option,” commented District 6 Supervisor Annie Pollard.
    The supervisors moved $10,000 from the contingency fund to pay for this.
    At the end of a work session, Rogers reminded the supervisors of some expensive challenges in the near future including an upgrade to the regional radio system. The supervisors got a presentation on this later.
    “This is a much needed upgrade,” said Jack Jones, the county’s chief of fire and rescue.
    A representative of RCC Consultants, the consulting service hired by the Region 2000 Local Government Council to handle the technical side of the upgrade, explained why. Most of the equipment in the existing system has reached the age at which the manufacturer will soon no longer support it. In addition, it’s possible to build a system that gives better coverage. The current system provides 87 percent coverage for mobile radios and 73 percent for portable radios. The proposed system will give 96 percent coverage for mobile radios and 89 percent for portables.
    Ted Cole, of Davenport Corporation, explained the costs. Davenport has been hired as the financial adviser for the project. According to Cole, the Regional Radio Board has to borrow between $12.5- and $13.5 million to finance this. This amount covers the infrastructure for the system. Each locality will have to make sure its radios are compatible with it. This means that Bedford County will need to buy an estimated 300 radios for a total cost of $900,000. The new system is expected to go live in the first half of 2014.
    In other business, the supervisors approved a rezoning request by James and Sandra Ramaker. The Ramakers have 101 acres in Huddleston that is currently zoned R-2 — medium density residential.  Rezoning it to AV — agricultural village center — will allow them to operate a winery. They currently have a vineyard on the land, a grandfathered nonconforming use, and sell the grapes to other wineries.
    The Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of the rezoning in February and the supervisors unanimously voted to rezone the land. After the vote, Sharp noted that all the surrounding land is zoned R-2 and mentioned a rezoning, last year, in New London that cleared the way for a shooting range on land that was zoned residential but had a grandfathered agricultural operation on it. Sharp said one of the Planning Commission’s biggest issues in that case was spot zoning. He expressed surprise that there had been no discussion of spot zoning in this case. However, Sharp said that he supports the Ramakers’ ability to use their land as they choose.