Time To Move On

For the last 13 months, I have been heavily involved in the local tea party, Hampton Roads Tea Party.  My involvement started out simple enough.  I was contacted because my local chapter’s co-chairs were not well-versed in Facebook. and they needed help.  My position quickly morphed into “Social Media Maven” as I added Twitter and YouTube to the Suffolk Chapter.  Not long after, I wound up taking over the newsletter.  In mid-November, HRTP sent me to the VATPP conference, along with several others.  It was amazing! I learned so much, and tried to help our group incorporate the stuff I’d learned.

130914_3279Our little group became more and more active.  We talked to the Budget Director, issued a challenge to our city council, and even won some victories on the local level at budget time.  I met some really wonderful people, and had a blast!  We were making a difference! A small difference, but it was enough that the local government started to take notice of us.  The Mayor would search us out at events to talk to us.  One of our Councilmen came to a meeting to talk to us.  We began to learn so much about how our city really works.

By April, I had been made Vice-Chair of the Suffolk Chapter of the Hampton Roads Tea Party.  In June, I was tasked with designing a new brochure for HRTP to hand out.  I also joined the HRTP IT Team, and began to help the awesome volunteers there to transform the website into something so much better than it had been.  In July, our local chapter waded into the Sheriff’s Race & endorsed the Sheriff’s opponent, Jen Pond.

0820131945After that, things kind of turned into a blur.  I was working hard to keep educating myself and the rest of the group about the inner workings of the City of Suffolk, pitching in to help Jen Pond’s campaign whenever possible, attending all kind of events and meetings, recording HRTP’s now-defunct weekly radio show for the podcast, occasionally filling in on the radio show as a host, writing to the local paper, and trying to keep HRTP’s website fresh & relevant with news from around the state.  All while trying to homeschool my kids, and keep up with the house – which admittedly, I failed to do the latter.  My husband, God bless him, wound up doing the housework for the better part of the last year.  My involvement in the Hampton Roads Tea Party was burning me out, and affecting my family in ways I didn’t realize.

So after the election this past November, I tendered my resignation to the board.  It’s been a heckuva a year, and I wish the group all the best.  But I need to focus on my family.  It was a tough decision, right up until a conversation I had with my 8 year old.  He asked if I was really leaving the Tea Party.  When I told him that I thought I was, yes, he responded,

“Good. Because I missed you.”

That was it.  That cemented my decision to leave HRTP in ways nothing else would.  Good luck guys.  I hope you are able to build on the foundations we helped build, and grow.  But I can no longer be a part of it.  God Bless America, and God Bless Hampton Roads Tea Party.

VA State Legislators Tell City Council to Get in Line

“If you want to have the state involved … there’s a lot of projects that are in front of it,” Delegate Chris Jones R-76 said. “You have to get in line, and it has to be a priority.”

via Legislators discuss library | The Suffolk News-Herald.

Last year, I worked with the Suffolk Chapter of the Hampton Roads Tea Party, and we got the city to postpone the library project, a replacement of Morgan Memorial Library, a perfectly fine library near the heart of downtown.  They had planned to spend 1.5 million dollars buying up the land, for a library they were not projecting to build until sometime after 2019.  It seemed a ridiculous waste of money considering they were already planning to raise taxes, and did NOT have the full 9 million extra the school system was requesting.  So City Council was forced to defer the project.

This year, they’ve partnered with Paul De Camp Community College for 2 reasons.  First, to try to get grant money from the state to fund the project. Second, to make the Tea Party types shut up about it, because how could we possibly be against education?  /eyeroll

The new library will be on the corner of Lee & West Washington, where there are several houses & business right now, so that land would have to bought and taken off the tax rolls.  Also, it will cost $22 MILLION dollars!  That’s twice the cost of the new city hall!

Our illustrious mayor, Ms. Linda Johnson, has said in the past that she really wants this library project to go forward. She honestly believes that if we have a spiffy new library across from our spiffy new City Hall, that people will just love to hang out there.  Because, oh yes – when I think of where I want to go hang out and relax, I think City Hall.  /eyeroll   No, I am not joking. She actually said that.  You’d have to go through the archives of the City Council meeting discussing the project, but it’s there.

So the Council really wants this project, but they know they will face resistance again.  They joined up with PDCCC to try to circumvent the resistance by getting state money.  However, state legislators are telling them that the money won’t come from the state anytime soon.  LOL!

Dear citizens of Suffolk, be prepared, and start fighting this NOW!  Go to council meetings and speak up during the Non-Agenda Speakers time!  Start telling the council NOW that this project needs to stop, the city does not have the money, and the legislators have made it clear that the money won’t be coming from the state anytime soon.

The 7 Million Dollar Question

0905131613-questionThis election cycle has seen something that rarely happens in Suffolk. Sheriff Isaacs changed his campaign signs, specifically to target fiscally-minded people like yourselves. Starting September 5th, signs appeared all over town proclaiming that the Sheriff had saved this city 7 million dollars. The question that immediately follows is, how?

Well, the Sheriff himself answered that question on his resume.

The sheriff has cut training costs and has eliminated benefit costs by hiring retired law enforcement personnel (police officers, deputy sheriffs) as part-time deputies. The results saved the City of Suffolk over $7 million dollars the past 19 years.

He has since changed that phrasing to “certified retired law enforcement officers” or “Department of Criminal Justice Certified Part-Time Deputies.” The fact remains: The Sheriff is claiming that this money was saved by not paying benefits to these part-timers, and by not training them.

See for yourself how the Sheriff responded on Facebook when asked how he came up with the 7 million dollar figure:

IsaacsFB-Reply-censored

Notice how snarky the Sheriff got with a voter asking a legitimate question in the comment section? Remember folks, this is coming from a man whose has been an elected politician for 20 years. A tip for the Sheriff – just because someone likes a Facebook page does not mean they are voting for that candidate. The lack of respect for a constituent is stunning.

But back to the 7 million dollar question. You may be asking, “So where’s the money?” That question was asked at a Hollywood/Jericho Civic League meeting. How do you think the sheriff answered? Listen to the audio:

Click Here to Listen
 

Did you catch that? Sheriff Isaacs laughed at the question, then said, “I don’t know where it went, but I know we saved it.” Thing is, the Sheriff doesn’t know where the money went, because the money never existed in the first place!

It’s like going to the store, and seeing a great pair of $50 jeans on the rack, marked for clearance at $20. You have exactly $20 in your wallet, so you buy the jeans, then claim that you saved yourself $30. Thing is, you did not have that $30 in the first place, and you still don’t have that money. You can continue to delude yourself into thinking you saved yourself $30, but the truth is, you never would have bought the jeans at full price, because you couldn’t afford them, and now you’re out $20.

The Sheriff’s 7 million dollar figure is nothing but government math at it’s finest.

 

Budget Battle Starts Today!

Money-01The Budget Battle starts today!!! At the City Council Retreat (currently going on right now at the Health & Human Services building) The council is discussing things that will impact the budget in big ways. If you have a few free moments today and tomorrow, please pop over there and make sure they know we are watching!

Here is the agenda:
Thursday

8:30 to 9 a.m. — Breakfast
9 to 9:30 a.m. — Welcome, retreat agenda review, video
9:30 to 10:45 a.m. — Economic development accomplishments, public safety accomplishments, financial accomplishments
10:45 to 11 a.m. — Council-city manager form of government
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. — Lunch break
2 to 2:30 p.m. — Assessor update
2:30 to 3:45 p.m. — Capital Improvements Plan: Neighborhood, water and transportation projects
3:45 to 4 p.m. — Break
4 to 5 p.m. — Quality of life: Parks, Social Services and libraries

Friday

8:30 to 9 a.m. — Breakfast
9 to 10 a.m. — Southeastern Public Service Authority
10 to 10:15 a.m. — Break
10:15 to 10:45 a.m. — Goals and objectives
10:45 to 11:45 a.m. — Employee health, wellness and benefits
11:45 a.m. to noon — Break
Noon to 12:45 p.m. — Working lunch: Comprehensive plan
12:45 to 1:15 p.m. — Recap and wrap-up

Help Suffolk Take a Step in the Right Direction!

pondsign

Jen Pond needs our support! Contact her campaign with your name and address, and her team will swing by and leave a sign in your yard. It’s that easy.

Suffolk needs to change, this year’s Sheriff race is a small step in the right direction. Let’s do everything we can to help Mrs. Pond to win this race. Even just this one seat will turn City Hall on its ear. The folks in power in this city have been in power for far too long. Get your yard sign, and help Suffolk take a step in the right direction.

It’s All About the Budget, Baby! – City Of Suffolk Education Retreat

20130814-EdRetreat01Today the School Board and City Council got together for the yearly “Education Retreat.” Why it is called a “Retreat,” I have no idea. They have to have this in public view, and no one involved is in any way relaxed when it’s over, but whatever.

I was able to attend the beginning of the meeting, and saw most of the rest online later. There is an agenda available on the city’s website. What really got me was when near the end of the meeting, Councilman Mike Duman said that the “elephant in the room” was the budget, and how all this related to the budget. Mayor Linda Johnson shut down the ensuing debate by insisting that this was not a budget meeting, “That’s not what this is about.” Really Mayor Johnson? This meeting, where the better part of 4 hours was spent discussing the need for more money for teacher salaries, maintenance, and capital improvements, was not about the budget? Really? Really?

Chairman Debranski opened the meeting by saying,

“None of us take this [education of Suffolk children] lightly. We both have a distinct responsibility to those students. Ours is to educate, and provide them with the information they need to future their life’s endeavors, yours is to finance those endeavors, and our goals.”

That’s our School Board Chairman folks. Yup. By the way, he’s up for re-election in 2014. So…. who’s going to run against him? Anyone? Bueller?

The presentation slide for the School Board claimed that “30% of teachers leave,” and the presenters said it was because of low pay. But when Councilman Parr pressed for clarification, it was revealed that a total of 10% of Suffolk’s teaching force left the city. Of those, 21% gave no response as to why they were leaving, 16% retired, 31% were transferring out of the area, and 30% left the Suffolk System to teach at other localities. Those that left to teach at other localities are the ones that the School Board is claiming left because of pay, however, as Councilman Duman pointed out, there are many other factors that could have contributed to the teachers’ decisions to leave. Things like cost of living, transportation, work environment, paperwork, relationships with administration, and even parental involvement can play a role in the teachers’ decisions to leave the Suffolk Public School System. The truth is, the exit interviews do not include enough evidence to support the claims that 30% of the teachers who left did so because of pay. For the School Board to claim it was solely because of pay is disingenuous at best.

20130814-EdRetreat04During a discussion of health benefits, Vice-Mayor Brown said, “We have to find ways to think outside the box, do things differently, without saying, ‘tax increase.'” Of course, that’s not what he was saying last April when the city was facing a deficit, in part because of the huge 14% raise he voted to give to the City Manager. He’s saying things like this now, because he’s up for re-election in 2014. So… who’s going to run against him? Anyone? Bueller?

When discussing attendance, Councilman Parr asked why the kids from downtown were being sent to 5 different schools. He followed his question up by asking when was the last time the Suffolk Public Schools was rezoned. The answer, at least 24 years ago. Board Member Bouchard pointed out that racial balance in schools is a reason why our school districts are funky. Chairman Debranski agreed, and pointed out that Suffolk falls under a federal mandate to maintain racially balanced schools. But Superintendent Whitney admitted that we have several schools that are not adequately racially balanced. The School Board tends to want to build new facilities in growth areas instead of rezoning, but the Council wants the School system to use it’s existing buildings more effectively. Board Member Brooks-Buck made the point that Council needs to consider the transportation needs, but Mayor Johnson reminded the School Board that it takes A LOT of money to build new buildings, money we don’t have.

Under Shared Services, something that we brought up at the last budget go-round, it was disclosed that the while the city & school do share many services, the city has a tendency to nickel & dime the school system every chance they get. Things like demanding the school pay cost + overhead for parts for the buses, rental fees for space in the city garages, and even demanding the reimbursement of the salaries of the Police Officers sent to work as “Resource Officers.” Meanwhile, the School system allows the Registrar’s office to use school buildings for polling locations at NO charge, and only bills the city for maintenance & utilities when the various city departments use school facilities for whatever reasons.

One place the school system would like to be able to share services in lawn care, so far no response from the city.

During a discussion about the SOL scores and why the scores drop the first year that new SOL is being used, Superintendent Deran Whitney actually said,

“It’s not a matter of teaching to that test, as much as it is teaching that format and using that format throughout the daily lessons.”

So, we don’t teach to the test, we just modify our instruction to fit what is expected on the test. But that’s totally not the same thing as teaching to the test. Really, Superintendent Whitney? Really?

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Johnson played a slideshow of the “Goals of the Joint Meeting.” These were the items that each member of the respective bodies had submitted at the beginning of the session. The majority said things along the lines of working together, better communication between the two bodies, & mutual respect. It remains to be seen whether or not both the City Council & the School Board can put aside the perpetual pissing match over funds and truly work together on anything.

Suffolk City Busted Breaking Laws AGAIN

But the diesel-fueled incinerators can release pollutants into the air and require operating permits from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. That requirement has the city facing legal sanctions – the state recently discovered the city has been running its incinerators without permits for six years.

The city recently purchased two replacement incinerators – for $31,940 apiece – which also have no permits.

(Source: Suffolk waits to hear verdict on roadkill incinerators.)

So, because our Public Works Director Eric Nielsen, a man who has worked for the city since the 1990’s, “didn’t think the machines were regulated because of their size,” the city did not have the proper permits for the last six years! Wow. So just how much is this going to cost the city?

Upon receiving Suffolk’s application, Brandt will determine what type of permit is needed and whether to take enforcement action. Sanctions could include a civil charge, a consent order – which sets a timeline and steps the city must take to comply with environmental regulations – or both. Fines can reach up to $32,500 per day per violation.

“A civil charge like that could reach into the tens of thousands of dollars, which could be very difficult to settle, so it’s normally not that high,” Brandt said.

Lucky us, they will give us a break on the fines, but still no word as to how high the fines may be. According to the article, Suffolk has twice as many incinerators as VA Beach to deal with 2/3rds of the animal carcasses that VA Beach handles. But we don’t have permits to run any of the 4 machines we currently run. So what would a permit have cost us?

Operators are responsible for applying for permits, which generally are free for incinerators.

You’re kidding right? So now we are facing the possibility of huge fines because the Public Works Director chose to go with his own thoughts on the matter instead of looking up the regulations. But don’t worry folks. It’s a good time to be in Suffolk.

Questions Surround Nansemond Cold Storage Refund

When this story first broke last week, something seemed fishy. I am all for someone who was double-taxed getting a refund. I’m also all for saving the city money, but not when it means breaking the law to do so.

The city quotes a section of law saying the court must decide to justify bypassing the court, then tells us that the 3 years clause mentioned in the code limits their ability to get the rehabilitation credit back.

The city quoted a state statute reading in part, “When it is shown to the satisfaction of the court that there has been a double taxation … the court may order such erroneous taxes to be corrected.”

“We resolved a matter which the property owner had a right to bring to court,” said William Hutchings, deputy city attorney. (Source – Suffolk News Herald)

The relevant portion of the Virginia state code can be found in § 58.1-1820 – 1830, especially § 58.1-1825, § 58.1-1826, & § 58.1-1827.

VA State Code § 58.1-1825 says in Paragraph A that anybody who has issue with their taxes is supposed to file in court:

A. Any person assessed with any tax administered by the Department of Taxation and aggrieved by any such assessment, or aggrieved by an action by the Department with respect to a transferred credit or other tax attribute, may, unless otherwise specifically provided by law, within (i) three years from the date such assessment is made or (ii) one year from the date of the Tax Commissioner’s determination under § 58.1-1822, whichever is later, apply to a circuit court for relief. The venue for such proceeding shall be as specified in subdivision 13 b of § 8.01-261. The application shall be before the court when it is filed in the clerk’s office.

The most relevant paragraph in the VA State Code is:

§ 58.1-1827. Correction of double assessments.

Irrespective of the foregoing provisions, when it is shown to the satisfaction of the court that there has been a double assessment in any case, one of which assessments is proper and the other erroneous, and that a proper single tax has been paid thereon, the court may order that such erroneous assessment be corrected, whether the erroneous tax has been paid or not and even though the application was not made within the period of limitation, as herein before required.

Both of those sections of State Code specifically say that the court is an integral part of the equation, yet the City Assessor approved of the refund, and the City Treasurer cut the check on March 19, 2013, with NO involvement from the City Attorney, City Manager, or City Council. The worst part, according to City Spokesperson Debbie George, there are no settlement documents.

“There was no settlement document,” George stated. “The city attorney and the city manager were not aware of the refund until after it had been issued.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, we also found out that Nansemond Cold Storage was receiving a rehabilitation credit they there were not entitled to receive. But according to the city, we can not recoup that money at all.

The city now says the same three-year rule it claims it lawfully circumvented to issue the costly refund also drastically limited how far it could back-charge Nansemond Cold Storage for lost revenue from the erroneous rehabilitation credit.

Maybe, if they had taken this to court like the law says, maybe the court would have been able to decide that the Rehab Credit erroneously given, should be deducted from the amount refunded, since Nansemond Cold Storage already had that money. But we will never know, because the CITY DID NOT OBEY THE LAW!

Obamacare’s cost to our schools: $180,000 the first year.

For a school system that is already strapped for cash, Obamacare is a budget-buster.

When the mandate does go into effect, the district can either not offer coverage and pay $2,000 per employee annually, or provide coverage but pay a penalty for any qualified employee who uses the exchange the act requires states to establish, where individuals and businesses can select affordable plans.

This comes from the Suffolk News Herald. Ms. Wendy Forsman has been in charge of making sure the Suffolk Public School system is in compliance with the Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare. You remember, the bill we had “to pass, so we could find out what was in it.”

The cheapest option would be for the school system to drop coverage & pay each employee 2 grand a year to find their own coverage. Problem is, 2 grand doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of health insurance, especially not for a family. Losing that benefit will surely drive most of the teachers in our school system away, and make it very hard to attract new, quality teachers. That is precisely why the school system has chosen the other option, despite it’s high cost, and potential for fees:

Suffolk Public Schools appears to be going with the “play” option, requiring it to offer insurance covering at least 60 percent of average medical costs to employees working at least 30 hours per week for at least 90 days, Forsman said.

Also, the cost of coverage for employees making less than four times the federal poverty line cannot exceed 9.5 percent of their household income, and that poses the greatest risk for the district penalty-wise, Forsman said.

“We have no way of determining household income, so we have to look at individual income and assume that’s all they have,” she said.

If the assumption is wrong, the penalty kicks in.

“If we offer insurance and the employee goes to the exchange and are eligible for the exchange, we have to pay $3,000 as a penalty,” Forsman said.

On top of that, there is the problem of part-time employees (AKA Substitute Teachers). If any part-timer creeps over 30 hours a week, the school system could be in trouble for not providing them with benefits. The solution: a whole lot of subs are going to find their hours cut.

The requirement to extend coverage to all employees working 30 or more hours a week, known as “fair access,” also could be problematic when it comes to substitute teachers, whose hours can creep above the threshold.

The district has taken steps to ensure employees working 30 or more hours a week and exceeding the income threshold are getting coverage, Forsman said.

Software handling substitute placements can also be set to ensure employees don’t exceed 29 hours, she said.

“We feel like we are in a good position to not pay that penalty,” she said.

But the kicker is, even with all these steps, the school system will have to pay $180,000 in fees to the Federal Government, on top of the costs of implementing all the changes, and ensuring the penalties don’t kick in:

Despite its efforts to avoid penalties, the district will still have to pay Transitional Reinsurance and Insurance fees to the Department of Health and Human Services, and Patient Centered Outcomes Research fees to the IRS, with an estimated annual cost of $172,500 and $5,476, respectively.

And that doesn’t even account for the cost of staff time to implement all these changes and keep track of everything to avoid penalties.

It will also have to devote extra staff time generating several employee notices about the new options, Forsman added.

Clerical Error, Not Voter Fraud

Chris Dove claimed voter fraud at the last city council meeting. Turns out, there were about 15 houses on his street that were sent registration cards with the wrong precinct name on it.

I must disclose, I’ve met with Susan Saunders. She is a nice woman, and does not strike me as the kind of woman who would sabotage her career just to keep someone in their council seat, as Chris Dove alleged at council meeting.

Dove did tell the paper that he was glad to hear it was just a clerical error, and since neither of those districts have had a district-related election since the redistricting, no election outcomes are in question.

Thanks to a big heads up from Chris Dove, the error is being corrected, and new cards issued.

Read the whole story at the Suffolk News Herald.