This week in county government; Community members sound off on potential increase in real estate taxes; Firefly briefs board on county-wide fiber project
Engage Louisa is a nonpartisan newsletter that keeps folks informed about Louisa County government. We believe our community is stronger and our government serves us better when we increase transparency, accessibility, and engagement.
This week in county government: public meetings, March 27 through April 1
For the latest information on county meetings including public meetings of boards, commissions, authorities, work groups, and internal county committees, click here. (Note: Louisa County frequently schedules internal committee/work group meetings after publication time. Check the county’s website for the most updated information).
Monday, March 27
Finance Committee, Administration Conference Room, Louisa County Office Building, 1 Woolfolk Ave., Louisa, 1 pm.
Additional information about Louisa County’s upcoming public meetings is available here.
Interested in taking your talents to one of the county’s numerous boards and commissions? Find out more here including which boards have vacancies and how to apply.
FY24 budget: Community members sound off on potential increase in real estate taxes
Louisa County residents sounded off Monday night about a potential increase in their real estate tax bills. (meeting materials, video)
During the first public hearing of the Fiscal Year 2024 budget process, community members urged the Board of Supervisors to slash the county’s real estate tax rate in the face of home assessments that jumped nearly 14 percent this year. Many speakers told the board that the county should rein in spending and provide relief to citizens, some of whom are already struggling to cover the rising cost of gas and groceries.
“A lot of you on this board ran on a platform of being fiscally conservative and promised to seek ways of lowering taxes and keeping budgets low and keeping them balanced. It’s fair to say that we’ve all experienced costs associated with the current economic state of our country and having to battle inflation, however, adding to that continued pain and burden is unacceptable,” Louisa District resident Jesse Shupe said. “During times such as these, we find ways of saving money, cutting costs, cutting spending in order to lessen the impact on (the) people.”
As part of a proposed $208.6 million budget, supervisors advertised a level real estate tax rate for the coming fiscal year of 72 cents per $100 of assessed value. But because assessments on homes rose 13.9 percent excluding new construction and improvements, under a flat rate, many property owners would see their tax bills rise. The board would need to slash the rate to 63.2 cents to offset the rise in assessments. Supervisors haven’t raised or lowered the rate—which ranks as the second-lowest among surrounding counties—since 2015 when they hiked it four cents.
Board members are still in the process of finalizing the budget for the next fiscal year, which kicks off July 1. They’ll hold another public hearing on the proposed spending plan and tax rates at their April 3 meeting. Budget adoption is currently set for April 17.
Proposed FY24 budget
The proposed $208.6 budget includes about $148.2 million for operating expenses, a $12.8 million increase over FY23, and some $60.4 million in capital spending, a roughly $50 million hike over last year. Of the county’s operating expenses, about $89 million, or 60 percent, cover the cost of running Louisa County Public Schools. Another 14 percent, or $21.3 million, pays for public safety including the daily operations of the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s Fire and EMS Department. Both the education and public safety budget increased by nearly 10 percent over last year.
The $50 million hike in capital spending is primarily driven by infrastructure projects that will bring public utilities to several of the county’s designated growth areas including $18 million to complete the James River Water Project, a pipeline that will one day channel millions of gallons of water to development along the Interstate 64 corridor, and $27.5 million to deliver water and sewer infrastructure to the Shannon Hill Regional Business Park, a 700-acre industrial site just north of the interstate. The Shannon Hill project, $11.59 million of which will be funded by a state grant, is another step in the county’s effort to the develop the park into a home for distribution centers, advanced manufacturing, and other large-scale industry that could diversify the tax base and provide jobs.
To pay for its spending, the county anticipates $157 million in revenue, a figure that’s based, in part, on the 72-cent real estate tax rate. That revenue would well exceed the county’s daily expenses, leaving an $8.9 million operating surplus. Supervisors plan to tap $14.8 million in county and school capital reserves and issue more than $37 million in bonds—meaning barrow money—to pay for some capital spending. They’ll also use the operating surplus toward those costs.
But the surplus could provide the board some leeway to cut the tax rate or offer other forms of relief. Last year, supervisors expanded a tax relief program for income-eligible elderly and disabled residents and temporarily reduced the personal property tax ratio, only taxing vehicles at 90 percent of their assessed value. The latter move came after personal property tax assessments rose more than 30 percent. State law prohibits localities from taxing real estate at less than 100 percent of its assessed value, but the board could offer a one-time tax rebate or credit.
Supervisors didn’t respond to community members’ complaints during Monday’s public hearing. But Chair Duane Adams, who’s running for the Republican nomination in the 10th state Senate District, said during a March 16 debate that the board provided $1.2 million in tax relief last year and more could be on the way. Patrick Henry District Supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes mentioned during Monday’s meeting the possibility of again expanding the county’s targeted tax relief program.
Community members blast board
Eighteen people weighed in during the public hearing with most blasting supervisors because of rising tax bills. Some residents told the board, if they adopt a level rate, they’re approving a sizable tax increase. Several speakers criticized Adams for saying on the campaign trail that he’s never voted for a tax hike during his five-year tenure on the board, noting that assessments also jumped significantly last year.
Mineral District resident Chris Liles reminded the board that he urged a rate cut last March after assessments increased more than 12 percent, but the board only offered limited relief which, he said, didn’t ease the burden on most residents. Liles said that maintaining the current rate means supervisors are raising taxes again.
“It seems like someone had a hold my beer moment and now we are looking at an across the board real estate assessment increase of 13.9 percent for 2023,” Liles said. “We can discuss the finer points of wordsmithing if we want, but if the Board of Supervisors does nothing and maintains the existing tax rate, you’ll be doing exactly what you did in 2022, green-lighting a huge tax increase on every property owner in Louisa County for the second year in a row.”
Green Springs District resident Michael Yeatts agreed, telling the board that, if the rate remains level, his real estate tax bill will soar some 31 percent in just two years. He demanded that supervisors lower the rate to 63 cents.
“For anybody to think we haven’t raised taxes in Louisa County is just dishonest,” Yeatts said. “I’m going to have my house paid off in a couple weeks. But it doesn’t take me long to figure out that, in a couple years, I’m going to be paying a mortgage again in the form of taxes going to you guys.”
Some speakers said that they simply can’t afford their rising tax bills as they struggle to keep pace with other cost of living increases. Patrick Longerbeam, a Louisa District resident, described himself as a disabled combat veteran living on a fixed income. He said that since moving to Louisa several years ago, he went through a divorce and suffered other financial hardship, forcing him to weigh “wants versus needs.”
“In the last couple years, I’ve depleted most of my savings and I’ve watched the value of my property go up and I’ve had to sell some possessions that I cared about, but I had to make choices to provide for my family,” Longerbeam said. “Hopefully, you’ll consider the little people like myself.”
Jackson District resident John Anderson said he moved to the area from Hampton because of the lower taxes, but now rising costs are threatening to push him out. He urged the board to rein in spending, most of which, he said, doesn’t benefit residents like him.
“There are too many people that don’t get benefits off what y’all are spending. We don’t get anything from y’all. I think the spending should get under control before y’all start punishing us. It’s getting a little out of hand,” he said.
Other community members agreed, arguing that the county is spending too much on, as Jackson District resident Justin Purgason put it, “pet projects.”
“One of my pet peeves is pet projects and you guys have lots of them,” Purgason said, pointing specifically to the Shannon Hill Regional Business Park. “You’re spending millions of dollars taxing everybody in here for no good reason…what’s the return on investment for us, your constituents?”
Several residents said that they’re perplexed by how the county comes up with its real estate tax assessments with some expressing frustration about the limited answers they’re able to get from the assessor’s office.
Fred Streb, who owns a second home in the county and a couple lots on Lake Anna, said the assessed value of one of his lots jumped more than 40 percent since he purchased it for half its assessed value in 2021. He complained that the assessor’s office doesn’t evaluate parcels based on real-world criteria.
“If you went and looked at it…there’s no way this lot is worth twice or three times what I paid for it. It has a gully on it. It’s going to be very difficult to build on,” he said. “We shouldn’t just take a swipe with a pen and raise everything a certain amount.”
Click here to check out the proposed FY24 budget. Click here for a brief explainer of the county’s real estate assessment process.
Proposed FY24 Budget by the numbers
County officials proposed a $208.6 million budget for FY24. Here’s a quick breakdown of the spending plan.
$148.2 million Operating Budget: The county proposes to spend $148.2 million on its daily operations, a 9.5 percent, or $12.8 million, increase over last year. Of that more than $89 million, or 60 percent of the budget, is earmarked for Louisa County Public Schools and another $21 million, or 14 percent, is allocated for public safety including the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office and Fire and EMS Department. Driving some of the budget increase is a nearly 10 percent hike in school funding, 13 additional county staffers—eight new fire fighters, three new sheriff’s deputies, and two animal control attendants—and a five percent pay hike for staff.
$60.4 million Capital Budget: County officials propose more than 60 million in capital spending, meaning big-ticket items like infrastructure projects, new school buildings, and fire stations. The year’s CIP includes $18 million to complete the James River Water Project, which will channel millions gallons of water to growth areas along Interstate 64, and $27.5 million to bring wet utilities to the Shannon Hill Regional Business Park, $11.59 million of which will be paid for by a state economic development grant. Other big-ticket items include nearly $3 million for Firefly’s county-wide fiber project and $3.4 million for two turf fields adjacent to Louisa County Middle School.
72-cent per $100 of assessed value real estate tax rate: County officials propose a 72-cent per $100 of assessed value real estate tax rate, the same rate the county has had since 2015. Real estate taxes are calculated by multiplying a property’s assessed value by the property tax rate. A resident whose home is assessed at $300,000 would owe $2,160 to the county in real estate taxes for FY24. The county also proposes a level personal property tax rate of $2.43 per $100 assessed value. Both the real estate tax rate and personal property tax rate rank among the lowest in the area.
$157 million in revenue: Based on those tax rates, the county anticipates some $157 million in revenue, a nearly 20 percent jump over last year. The county derives its revenue from a variety of sources including more than 37 percent from state and federal funding. But the largest source is general property taxes, which contribute just over 50 percent of its income. While revenues outpace operating expenses by nearly $9 million, the board still has to cover its nearly $60 million in capital spending. To do that, the county will likely take on more than $37 million in debt to pay for the James River and Shannon Hill infrastructure projects and tap capital reserves and the operating surplus. An $11.59 million state grant will pay for a portion of the Shannon Hill project.
Note: County officials are still waiting on a final state budget, which could impact local spending and revenue.
BOS roundup: Firefly briefs board on county-wide fiber project
While the first public hearing of the Fiscal Year 2024 budget cycle drew the most attention Monday night, the board considered a handful of other items, hearing updates on Firefly Fiber Broadband’s effort to bring universal high-speed internet to the county by 2025, holding three other public hearings, adopting the five-year Regional Hazard Mitigation Plan, and more. (meeting materials, video)
Firefly updates board on fiber project: Representatives from Firefly Fiber Broadband, Dominion Energy, and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative briefed the board on their joint effort to deliver county-wide fiber broadband access by 2025.
Firefly CEO Gary Wood told the board that, due, in part, to a labor crunch, the project has “not gotten off to the type of start that we’d like.” But he said that his company is connecting some 200 customers a day to fiber broadband in Louisa County and it’s obligated to finish its work in less than three years.
“As far as whether we are going to make it by 2025, we don’t have a choice. The money runs out. We have to make it,” Wood said, referring to contractual rules tied to millions of dollars in state and federal grant money that’s helping fund the project.
Wood cited difficulty in finding crews to complete make-ready work—the time-consuming and highly technical task of preparing electrical poles for fiber installation—as the primary challenge the project has faced. He said Firefly was recently able to bring in additional crews and has identified other ways to speed up its work.
“There was some difficulty in finding enough make-ready crews early on. We weren’t able to get the number of crews and some of the materials due to supply chain issues and that held us up. We can’t put the fiber up until the pole is ready to have the fiber,” Wood said.
He added that Firefly was able to access crews to lay conduit underground, a step in the installation process that usually occurs after fiber is hung but can be done before.
“It’s a little backwards from the way we normally do work, but we’ve had a crunch of make-ready and we didn’t want to hold back when we had those crews available,” he said, noting that laying the conduit now saves time later.
In 2021, Louisa County partnered with Firefly, a wholly owned subsidiary of Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, and the area’s two other electric providers—Dominion and REC—to expand broadband access to the county’s unserved areas. Firefly is serving as the internet service provider and, outside of CVEC territory, connecting to infrastructure owned by its partners.
Firefly’s Regional Internet Expansion Project (RISE), an initiative aimed at bringing fiber to parts of 13 central Virginia localities, is the main vehicle the company is using to connect the county. The project is expected to install more than 1,100 miles of fiber and cost about $70 million in Louisa County alone. Supervisors committed $9 million in local funds to the effort in 2021—a second $3 million installment is included in the FY24 capital budget—and Firefly received a $79 million state grant. More than $22 million of that money will help provide broadband access to some 11,000 homes and businesses in Louisa.
In a separate initiative, Firefly has already provided fiber access to most of the 4,100 customers in CVEC territory, which covers a large swath of western Louisa County. The company has laid 320 miles of fiber and invested more than $14 million in that project aided by a $550,000 tax abatement from Louisa County and federal CARES Act funding.
With respect to RISE, Wood said that Firefly is currently connecting customers around REC’s Shannon Hill substation in south-central Louisa where there’s about 520 customers, also called “passings.” Fiber construction is underway around REC’s Mount Hope substation in the southeastern part of the county, Wood said, and connections are expected to begin in the spring of 2023, according to Firefly’s website. The Mount Hope station is REC’s largest in Louisa with more than 3,100 passings.
“We still have a good bit of work to do. We are finishing the first circuit and we have three more circuits,” Wood said of the company’s progress around Mount Hope.
Limited progress has been made at REC’s three other substations in Louisa: Buckner, Ellisville and Cuckoo. Wood said that make-ready and design work are underway in Buckner, home to some 2,600 passings in eastern Louisa and design work has started in Ellisville, which covers nearly 1,300 passings in northern Louisa including part of Lake Anna. Work hasn’t commenced at Cuckoo, which encompasses about 2,400 customers in the middle of the county. According to Firefly’s website, connections around Buckner could begin by spring 2024 while connection dates for Ellisville and Cuckoo are to be determined.
Outside of REC’s service area, Firefly will provide broadband access to customers in Dominion territory with Dominion handling make-ready work in that area. Garrett Braun, manager of Dominion’s rural broadband project, said that the company is currently installing middle-mile infrastructure in its territory, which includes some 1,160 customers in parts of central and western Louisa.
Braun said that Dominion would install 63 miles of middle-mile fiber, which he described as “longer strands of fiber that were previously cost-prohibitive for a lot of service providers.” The company has already hung about 12 miles, Braun said, and expects to finish its work by the fourth quarter of 2023. As Dominion completes those installations, Firefly will implement last-mile connections. According to its website, the company anticipates that connections could begin in Dominion territory later this year.
Wood directed residents to Firefly’s website for more information about the county-wide fiber initiative, noting that the site is periodically updated to reflect the company’s latest estimates for when connections could begin around specific substations. To learn more, click here.
VDOT updates board on Wares Crossroads roundabout: Virginia Department of Transportation Residency Administrator Scott Thornton updated the board of the department’s plan to construct a roundabout at the intersection of Route 522 and 208, one of the county’s most dangerous sections of roadway.
Thornton said that the project, selected for state funding in 2017, is currently in the right-of-way acquisition phase and is expected to be advertised for construction bids later this year. He anticipates that construction will begin in the spring of 2024 with a projected completion date within 12-13 months. The project is expected to cost $7.6 million, up from an initial estimate of $5.4 million.
Thornton also said that the Culpeper District engineer will soon issue formal recommendations on supervisors’ request for through truck traffic restrictions on four county roads: Chopping Road (Route 623), Chalklevel Road/Mansfield Road (Route 625/613), and Shannon Hill Road (Route 605).
Amid complaints from residents who cited safety concerns, the board asked VDOT last year to bar through tractor trailers from the curvy, narrow secondary roads. They said that large trucks, many of which are cutting through from Interstate 95 to 64, should instead use primary roads like Route 522, 33 and 208.
When the county initially proposed the restrictions, VDOT staff said they didn’t have the data to justify them, pointing to the limited number of accidents involving large trucks on the roads. The Commonwealth Transportation Board has the final say on whether to adopt restrictions, relying heavily on staff’s recommendation.
Board formalizes policy capping withdrawals from Zion wells: Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution that formalizes a 2019 agreement with the Louisa County Water Authority to cap withdrawals from the public wells that feed Zion Crossroads at 75 percent of their permitted capacity. The authority, which operates the wells, adopted the same resolution at its March 8 meeting.
In 2019, supervisors approved Crossing Pointe and Zion Town Center, two mixed-used developments that are expected to add nearly 1,000 homes and more than 410,000 square feet of commercial space to the Zion Crossroads Growth Area. Amid fears that the developments would strain the area’s water supply, supervisors adopted a policy that year to stop selling water when the wells hit 75 percent of their permitted usage, a threshold that’s slightly lower than the 80 percent cap mandated by the Virginia Department of Health.
During a March 6 public hearing in which the board approved 50 more dwellings at Zion Town Center, LCWA General Manager Pam Baughman told the board that its agreement with the water authority didn’t include a formal, written commitment. Louisa District Supervisor Eric Purcell, who serves as the board’s liaison to the authority, requested that supervisors pass a resolution formalizing the agreement.
VDH permits the wells to pump 624,800 gallons of water per day, up from 587,520 gallons following a hydraulic test conducted late last year. The system uses, on average, 205,000 gallons per day of that capacity, according to Baughman. The authority is preparing to bring two additional wells online this spring that will increase the capacity to 829,600 gpd.
LCWA’s system supports commercial and some residential development at Zion Crossroads. The agreement will remain in effect until the county completes the James River Water Project, its long-term plan to supply water to Zion and other growth areas along the Interstate 64 corridor. That project could be finished within the next three years.
Foundation for Lake Anna Emergency Services donates 76k for FEMS equipment: The Foundation for Lake Anna Emergency Services, a citizens’ group that initially raised $100,000 in support of the New Bridge Fire and EMS Station’s construction, donated another $76,235 to the county Monday night. Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution appropriating the money to the Fire and EMS Department. According to the approved resolution, the department will use the funds towards the purchase of a LifePak system and extrication equipment for the New Bridge facility.
Located on Route 208 just east of the Lake Anna Food Lion, the station is the first in the county built almost exclusively with taxpayer dollars. Supervisors invested about $3 million in the facility over the last three years including $2.3 million for its construction. The station is set to open this spring.
In 2019, Mineral District Supervisor Duane Adams challenged community members who were advocating for expanded emergency services in the area to show their commitment to the effort by raising seed money for a new station. He reminded residents that the county’s seven existing fire and rescue stations were built by volunteers through grassroots fundraising. In response, lake residents formed the foundation, which has raised more than $350,000 since in inception in January 2020.
FLAES President Patrick Gallagher said on Monday that the group plans to continue to support emergency services around the lake.
“The plan is for the community to continue contributing because that’s what the communities in the county have done in the past. Although this is a county facility, we feel this is our small part that we can play in that and we are proud to do it,” he said.
Board adopts Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan: Supervisors voted unanimously to adopt the Regional Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan. Updated every five years, the plan evaluates the likelihood that certain types of disasters could occur in the county and recommends strategies and goals for mitigating their impact. Developed by the Natural Hazard Mitigation Working Group, which operates under the umbrella of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission and includes representatives from the district’s six member localities including Louisa, the plan is required for eligibility for some federal disaster-related aid and grants.
TJPDC Planner Ian Baxter briefed the board on the plan at their July 6 meeting where he met pushback from some board members concerning the document’s real-world impact. County Administrator Christian Goodwin said on Monday that while those concerns are valid, adopting the plan has at least two key benefits.
“The plan does not dictate that the board do anything by adopting it. It simply states that these are what the hazards are and these are suggested strategies that the county may decide to employ going forward,” Goodwin said. “I think the plan has two major benefits. It gives you a potential blueprint to work from to the extent that the board wishes to follow every one of these mitigation strategies…and it does put us on solid footing if we do have a disaster like the earthquake that we had back in 2011 to ensure access to federal funds on behalf of our citizens.”
The plan ranks hurricanes, flooding and winter storms as the disasters most likely to occur in the county. It recommends 19 specific goals for mitigating the impact of natural hazards, ranking seven as high priority including enhancing broadband access in rural areas, installing backup generators at critical facilities, and ensuring that all schools have regular disaster drills, among others.
Read the plan here.
Board green-lights code amendments: Supervisors held a trio of public hearings and green-lighted several amendments to county code.
In the first, the board unanimously approved an amendment to the county’s dog running at large ordinance that removes a provision stating it must be enforced by animal control officers. The amendment essentially allows both animal control officers and other officials to enforce the ordinance.
County staff proposed the change after the magistrate refused to issue summons in response to citizen complaints about roaming dogs, citing the code section that stated an animal control officer shall enforce the rules.
Last year, residents repeatedly raised concerns about dogs running at large, prompting the board to tighten the reins on roaming canines. Under current rules, the county bars roaming dogs at any time and repeat offenders are subject to escalating penalties. Dogs engaged in hunting are exempt from the rules, per state and county code.
In the next public hearing, supervisors unanimously approved changes to a county ordinance that governs the operations of the Management and Oversight Group, a committee that advises the county on issues related to fire and EMS services. County Administrator Christian Goodwin described the changes as “housekeeping,” explaining that the amendments clarify who serves on the MOG and how citizen members are appointed.
In the final public hearing of the night, supervisors voted 7-0 to green-light an amendment to county code that allows any property rezoned to residential (R-2) between February 2019 and February 2021 to be subdivided and developed in accordance with the county’s minimum lot size prior to a 2021 rewriting of the zoning code. The amendment also applies to any adjoining R-2 property shown in the rezoning application as intended to be developed with the rezoned property.
In February 2021, supervisors adopted a significant overhaul of the zoning code that increased the minimum lot size in R-2 zoning from 40,000 square feet to 1.5 acres. So, any R-2-zoned property that hadn’t been subdivided prior to the rule change falls under the new rules.
Community Development Director Josh Gillespie said that when supervisors adopted the update, they established a “hard cutoff” by failing to include any provision to exempt projects working their way through the final approval process. He said that the Covid-19 pandemic impacted developers’ ability to complete plans for subdivisions, so the amendment allows R-2 subdivisions rezoned during the specified timeframe to adhere to the minimum lot size requirement in place prior to the overhaul.
Click here for contact information for the Louisa County Board of Supervisors.
Find agendas and minutes from previous Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission meetings as well as archived recordings here.
Click here for contact information for the Louisa County School Board.
Click here for minutes and agendas for School Board meetings.
Click here to access past editions of Engage Louisa.