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Board of Supervisors candidates in James City County all faced their respective opponents for the first time in a public forum Wednesday night.
Each pair of candidates – incumbent Mary Jones (R) and challenger Ruth Larson (I) in Berkeley, incumbent John McGlennon (D) and challenger Heather Cordasco (R) in Roberts and incumbent Jim Kennedy (I) and challenger Sue Sadler (R) in Stonehouse 2 were permitted an hour to respond to questions from WYDaily Managing Editor Nicole Trifone and Virginia Gazette Deputy Editor Robert Brauchle, as well as audience questions presented by Linda Rice, president of the League of Women Voters of the Williamsburg Area.
All candidates responded to questions pertaining to partisan politics, the property tax increase and Dominion Virginia Power’s proposed switching station at Skiffes Creek. Nearly 200 people came out to the forum, which was held at Legacy Hall in New Town and hosted by the Virginia Gazette.
Jones and Larson both called for expanding the tax base in James City County but each offered different views on the effects of the 9 percent property tax rate increase, which was passed with the county’s budget in June.
Jones, who cast the sole vote against the rate increase last spring, said the board needs to prioritize spending when making budget decisions.
“We didn’t need to cut. We needed to re-prioritize, because we did have adequate tax collection coming in from the citizens of James City County,” Jones said.
Jones said lowering business taxes would allow small businesses and manufacturers to expand their operations, which she called a “much more sustainable” way to expand the tax base.
Larson said the tax increase was “modest” but said the board needs to look at efficiencies in the budget to avoid raising the tax rate again.
“We can’t continue to depend on our homes for our tax revenue. We need to try to build our economic base,” Larson said.
To attract businesses to the county, Jones recommended speaking with businesses already in the county about ways to support and retain them. She also encouraged a more welcoming business climate for entrepreneurs.
“James City County is the birthplace of America and the birthplace of free enterprise,” Jones said. “I think that’s an amazing thing to have here that really adds to the quality of life in James City County.”
Larson suggested consulting cities across the commonwealth to attract new businesses and repurposing retail space for different uses, such as manufacturing.
“Ms. Jones has been in office eight years. If it’s not a friendly business community, there have been eight years in order to correct that,” Larson said. “I want an opportunity to help do that.”
When asked about Dominion’s proposed power line, which could cross the James or the Chickahominy rivers, Larson said the board needed to discuss power needs sooner and argued “unrestrained growth” was culpable in the county’s current situation.
“If you approve the growth, which Ms. Jones has done, then you have to provide a clear plan to provide the necessary services,” Larson said. “I think unfortunately we’ve got ourselves behind the eight ball here.”
Jones said she would not make a decision on zoning for the proposed Skiffes Creek switching station until the end of the public hearing process, but she emphasized the need to support the power grid, which she said serves energy consumers along the East Coast, not just in James City County.
“It’s a much larger power grid that is being looked at here as far as providing services to the citizens. I think that’s something that needs to be recognized,” Jones said.
McGlennon and Cordasco, who previously participated in a debate at Williamsburg Landing, took on many of the same questions posed to them last week.
In response to her perspective on the property tax increase, Cordasco asserted the rate increase was not necessary for fiscal 2016 and the board was in a position to wait.
“I don’t like to play games with other people’s money,” Cordasco said. “We have to determine ‘What do we need?’ And we have to base our income on what we need, not on speculation. You don’t pick five initiatives, raise taxes and then do a strategic plan. That’s not how it works.”
McGlennon defended his decision to vote in favor of the tax increase, noting the need to rebuild capital reserves and fund school and county facility projects that were deferred during the recession.
“I think what we did with this budget is position ourselves well for the future to make sure we will have the resources to allow us to do the things we need to do,” McGlennon said. “Citizens in this community appreciate what we’ve done to position us for the future.”
In response to Dominion’s proposal to build power lines over the James River, Cordasco referenced Larson’s comments, categorizing the power line issue as a result of the state’s heavy energy importing, rather than uncontrolled growth.
“I’m in favor of more revenue coming from businesses, so if it is a matter that we have no choice whether or not it comes across the water, I would certainly wish to have the revenue in the county,” Cordasco said.
While McGlennon also noted Virginia’s energy importing, he maintained his opposition to the power lines and towers and questioned the conclusion of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that building power lines underground was not feasible.
“It’s just the wrong thing to do for our historic vistas. The opportunity for people to stand at the river and see what John Smith would have seen 400 years ago can never be replaced,” McGlennon said.
The candidates also argued for and against the merits of purchasing land for preservation. McGlennon said land conservation efforts have saved taxpayers money and protecting places like Mainland Farm, the first farm cultivated by English settlers, is an investment in the county’s history.
“What it really means for our community is that when we reach that 137,000, 140,000 residents at some point in the future, there will still be some place they can go to experience the rural atmosphere, the small-town quality that brought them to this community in the first place,” McGlennon said. “I’m very proud to be associated with those efforts and I will continue to support them.”
Cordasco said she believes the board has made poor decisions when it comes to the land it has preserved and argued the county is not looking toward its future by putting permanent restrictions on its available land.
“My concern with the [Purchase of Development Rights program] is that it changes the nature of the land for perpetuity,” Cordasco said. “How are we to know what the needs of our grandchildren are going to be if we’ve given away land that can never be used again?”
While Sadler campaigned as a candidate for change, Kennedy reflected on how he has changed ideologically while also remaining committed to fiscal conservatism.
When asked about their views on partisan politics in local government, Sadler said she is committed to “standing on her principles” and believes she would work well with all board members.
Kennedy, who is running as an independent, said he still personally identifies as a Republican in many ways but aspires to represent “all voices, all people.”
“I was part of party politics at a local level. I was an ideologue. I didn’t like it,” Kennedy said. “I’ve changed course. I no longer represent a party. I represent a community.”
Kennedy later pointed to his 2001 proposal to share services with the Williamsburg-James City County school division as an example of his commitment to collaboration. Sadler said she would extend that commitment to neighboring localities and to the citizens, whose ideas she felt have been “besmirched” and ignored.
“I think it’s imperative, since the Board of Supervisors works for the citizens, that they should in fact collaborate with the people,” Sadler said.
Kennedy said he has previously voted against tax increases and suggested 21 items that could have been reduced or eliminated in the fiscal 2016 budget. Although he ultimately supported the tax rate increase, he said his record firmly shows he is a fiscal conservative.
“How can you on one hand say that we’re an AAA [bond rated] community and you’re proud of that and on the other hand say I’m not being fiscally responsible?” Kennedy said. “You don’t get AAA bond ratings across the board by being fiscally irresponsible. You get those for being good.”
Sadler affirmed her opposition to the increase, arguing the county “put the cart before the horse” by approving the tax rate increase before completing a strategic plan or a facilities master plan.
“There are folks in my district who are not in a position to even pay an extra $20 a month for an increase,” Sadler said. “Overwhelmingly people are telling me we need to repeal this.”
When asked about Dominion’s power line proposal, Sadler supported the project’s revenue potential but said she did not favor lines over the Chickahominy River.
“If we’re going to be getting them anyway, we might as well bring in the extra revenue,” Sadler said. “We can’t afford to be having rolling brownouts.”
Kennedy said he could not support the project solely on its tax revenue, asserting the power lines have to be "a right fit" and the board needs to carefully consider the project before granting or denying rezoning for the switching station.
“The Army Corps will be the one to dictate to us what type of towers we have, but we do still hold one chip, and that is the zoning of the site for the switching station,” Kennedy said. “We have to listen to a lot more that’s coming forward. I can see both sides of this argument. I can’t wait to hear this case.”