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Byers, O'BrienThe only contested race for the Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors unfolds in the Rivanna District, where challenger Darrell Byers (R) is taking on incumbent Supervisor Tony O’Brien (I) for a four-year term to represent Lake Monticello.

Supervisors Mike Sheridan (Columbia) and Don Weaver (Cunningham) are running uncontested.

The Fluvanna Review asked the candidates the following questions.

Tell us about yourself: your education, work experience and family life.
Darrell Byers: I am the son of Mary and Donald Byers. My mom was the associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Covesville, Va., and my dad is now retired from the Albemarle County Police Department (ACPD) where he was a detective. I am a graduate of the National Criminal Justice Command College. Being a servant leader was instilled in me from a very early age. I have been serving the community for 18 years as a law enforcement professional. Also, over the years I have volunteered for numerous community activities mostly focused on shop with a cop, mentor with Y.E.S. (Youth Empowered for Success) and I performed fundraising for the Special Olympics. I currently serve as a police captain for the ACPD. My wife, Lisa, and I have lived in the Rivanna District for 15 years.

Tony O’Brien: I grew up overseas and moved to the U.S. just prior to starting high school. I have lived in Virginia since. I graduated from the University of Virginia (U.Va). I started my IT services firm, Helix, 20 years ago and I employ 12 people. I have not looked back since.

My wife and I moved to Lake Monticello 17 years ago with a toddler in hand, now a Fluco graduate who is a first-year student at U.Va. My full integration into the vibrancy of the community began five years ago, when the chaos over the potential mothballing of the new high school and the deep budget cuts proposed led to a public hearing with over 600 attendees. As our daughter, Bella, was about to enter the new school, after having spent many of her years at the elementary and middle school being taught in trailers, I attended the hearing. There I saw 70 residents speak passionately about the impact of the cuts on the schools and on other county services and nonprofits the county had traditionally supported. Despite the outrage the Board proceeded with an eight-cent cut below the advertised rate.

I began studying and advocating for the county to set forth a true commitment to a long-term water solution. Elections were around the corner and when Joe Chesser decided not to run, I reached out to him and asked for his advice and support for my candidacy. 

What qualifies you to be a supervisor?

O’Brien: I believe that leadership is the art of listening and finding long-term solutions, backed by commitment, drive, creativity, and educating oneself on challenges and potential solutions while building consensus.
Political leadership also means being willing to make the tough calls, and to do what is right and not what gets you elected or re-elected. If you cannot keep your promises, you are doing a disservice to your constituents. I have worked hard to follow this path throughout my career, and especially over the past four years as I recognize the responsibility the voters have entrusted upon me.

Byers: I have 18 years as a leader in the public sector. I am a local government employee and police officer. I have worked my way from the ground up to a senior level, where I now serve as the Blue Ridge district commander. I am well versed in the issues of staffing, scheduling, budgeting and working within the constraints of the budgets handed to our department from our local leadership.

In my role as captain, I currently oversee roughly a third of the patrol operations within the ACPD. My leadership skill set, coupled with the ability to build consensus among people by finding common ground and working for the greater good, and the earnest desire to affect change, qualifies me to be a supervisor.

Name one program, service or budget for which you will pursue increased funding, and tell us why.
Byers: Of course I would work with the sheriff’s department, the School Board and fire and rescue to make sure we are allocating the proper amount of funds for their needs. We must ensure that resources are going to the classrooms and that we are delivering effective law enforcement to all citizens of the county. We must certainly ensure that the funds that have been allocated are being used effectively, so that we can reduce taxes and attract more business ventures to the county. Obviously, we need to look at all the needs of the county and ensure that those needs are being met. I would also work with the private sector to see if we can create incentives to revitalize some areas of the county and ensure that these areas have the appropriate resources to meet the needs of all of the citizens. I’m concerned about Columbia and I would like to see a more comprehensive economic plan for growing the economic base in that area so that it contributes to the overall success of our county’s economic goals.

O’Brien: I will continue to bring a laser focus on smart, planned economic development, to ensure that Fluvanna’s services, property values and quality of life are competitive with our surrounding counties. This is key to reducing the burden on the homeowner by balancing the tax base through additional revenue and state taxes. Otherwise, we will doom ourselves to a perpetual cycle of increasing taxes and decreasing services.

To do this we need to ensure our infrastructure, economic team, incentives, taxation, zoning and ordinances are business-friendly and promoted aggressively. We also need to show that the county’s word and follow-through can be counted on.

Several times over the past four years I have seen our county come close to failing. The Louisa-Fluvanna partnership almost fell apart with three of the sitting Board members having voted against it in some form or another and delays that added unnecessary million dollar costs. I was the dissenting voice on the approval of a solar power plant at Zion Crossroads, believing it to be waste of the potential use of prime real estate, and that it could be better located in other areas of the county. I promoted a modest $10,000 promotional and advertising budget in my first year, only to have it eliminated the following year.

Investing wisely on the long-term benefits of economic development will remain my priority.

Name one program, service or budget you intend to eliminate or significantly cut, and tell us why.
O’Brien: I love this question! During our last budget season one supervisor suggested saving something like $200 on postage. That is how tight our budget is. Before the budget even comes to our attention, the county administrator and his staff spend weeks reviewing departmental budgets and assigning priorities. His staff then provides a budget proposal with all the line items broken down into a master budget sheet that allows us to perform on-demand analysis . He also provides the cost of the fully funded department requests, his recommended budget, which so far has always been lower than the department requests, and a column that allows for our rate. It is at this point that we as supervisors work together toward consensus based on our priorities. We then advertise that rate, and seek public feedback prior to setting the rate.

Because this process is so rigorous, we have had a unanimous vote in one year and a near unanimous vote this past year. I think taxpayers recognize that Fluvanna has come a long way and is headed in the right direction. I believe in the last four budget cycles we have had less than a dozen total voters speak publicly to suggest that our budget was fat or wasteful.

So rather than look for cuts, because there are so few to take, we have been focused on collections, joint ventures to share expenses and services, reducing debt payments, and finding alternative revenue sources, such as cost recovery. Combined with a continued promotion of the positives in our county and an improving economy and housing market, we have been able to curtail the pressures on the tax rate while improving services. By the way, the budget materials are online, and line item summaries of our accounts payable are included in every Board packet. And if one ever attended a meeting, they would almost certainly have observed Supervisor Don Weaver’s keen review of our monthly expenses.

Byers: The two things that need to be cut are our exorbitant real estate and personal property tax rates.

For Byers only: One of your recent ads states, “As supervisor, I will reduce the tax rate without reducing core services... [and] provide better support for our teachers and first responders.” How specifically will you accomplish this?
Byers: My opponent insists this is impossible because “we are operating on a lean budget.” My opponent’s recent ad in the Fluvanna Review is a comical cartoon showing a can kicked down the road. Well, there is nothing funny about our government administration, who reports to our Board, playing a shell game with revenue so that they have money for later pet projects. Our citizens know there is something amiss when they see their taxes being raised because they are told “more tax revenue is needed,” yet there are surpluses several years running. Over the past two years, local government has recorded a surplus of $1 million-plus. This fiscal year, local government and the schools will have a combined surplus of $2.5 million. This money should be returned to the taxpayers in the form of a reduced tax rate. This will not have an adverse effect on core services and could reduce our tax rate as much as eight cents. My opponent will have some well phrased narrative about this being a one-time situation and that he is part of running some sort of well-oiled machine. From the meetings I have had with department heads and from the research I and my consultants have performed, we know this is not the case. Certainly people in our government, as well as my opponent, have a lot at stake in maintaining their positions. We can be assured they will balk at what I am saying but know that I can back up my assertions and – bottom line – there is room in our budget for a tax cut for the citizens.
For Byers only: How many Board of Supervisors meetings have you attended during your candidacy? Please explain.
Byers: My understanding is that Board of Supervisors meeting attendance as an observer is not a prerequisite for running for the Board. What is more important is to be engaged, study the Board packets before meetings, and review their actions after each meeting. I have, over the past several years, met with department heads and elected officials as well as external municipal finance experts. I have been asking the tough questions and have learned quite a bit that would be of interest to my fellow citizens. I am disappointed to see that in the four years that my opponent has been in office that he has followed a narrative of needing more funds when right in front of him was the truth that for several years running we have had surpluses and that this most likely has been by design.

What I have done is studied the actions of the Board and more specifically the actions of my opponent. I have also consulted with municipal finance experts to answer the tough questions about how to stem our ever-increasing tax rates. In a March 2014 edition of the Fluvanna Review my opponent stated, “When economic development starts to pay its dividends we’re going to be able to see that tax rate really stabilize and in fact go down.” I would argue that with the government surpluses for the last three years that we should have seen a reduced tax rate over these last four years instead of the 14 percent increase that we have seen. My opponent continues to argue that the tax rate cannot be reduced.

In addition, after being elected, any board or commission I am appointed to as the Board of Supervisors representative, I will be in attendance. My opponent, who is paid to be the Planning Commission liaison, has been absent close to 50 percent over the last four years, yet he has accepted full compensation from the county for this role for only half the service. This paid position is one that requires, by Virginia code, a special course to be completed within 12 months of appointment. My opponent has yet to complete the course or any continuing education conferences to give a better understanding to his position.

For O’Brien only: Where are the businesses that Fluvanna has tried to attract by spending millions on water plans?
O’Brien: There is actually really good news in this area. But first, let us make sure our expectation is realistic. We are almost at the point when we will be awarding contracts to put the pipes in the ground. This is already happening on the Louisa pipeline, and both projects are anticipated to be completed in early 2019. The news is getting out and developers and business see the potential. If you travel up and down Routes 250 and 15 you can see the expansion.

During our last meeting, our economic development director gave the latest quarterly report along with other upcoming opportunities that are “in the pipeline.” Many of these projects are bigger than your average mom and pop stores. Among new and expanding business, just in the past quarter, we have Wilson Concrete, Lynchburg Roofing, Greenberry’s Coffee, Stonegate Rentals, Local Eats, and we are in the final stages of closing project Déjà Vu. All told this adds up on the conservative end to:

  • 155,000 square feet of commercial or industrial use;
  • 100 new jobs to Fluvanna; and
  • $15.7 million in investment.

Being “in the pipeline” has the potential for another 85-plus jobs and $8 million-plus in investment.
In my opinion, these numbers are just the start and a recognition that Fluvanna really has changed.

For O’Brien only: Taxes have gone up each of your four years on the Board of Supervisors. Is a vote for you a vote for higher taxes?
O’Brien: If only life were life so easy that I could promise the delivery of quality services and economic development, while cutting taxes. If I said that I would probably be in Congress. If I did it, I would either be a statistical anomaly or a sought-after genius.

Look, all kidding aside, at present our tax rate is 21 percent below 1990 dollars. Regionally, we have the lowest government spend rate in the area; our per pupil spending is near the bottom; our overall tax burden is the second or third lowest; we have one of the least diversified tax bases; and due to lack of economic development an unhealthy 93-7 percent ratio of revenues from homeowners over businesses. On top of that, overall budget increases have been in public safety and welfare costs, and our fund balance is down to its lowest level in a decade or two.

So basically, we do not have the tools or economic strength to cut taxes at this time (no matter what a municipal financial expert, who likely is a retired bond trader from New York, has to say) unless we cut services thereby reducing overall quality, safety and progress. Teachers, deputies, staff and social service workers would have to be let go, programs would have to be cut, maintenance and investment put off, economic opportunities would be turned away.

We have been doing the bare minimum for decades and it has not taken us very far. My focus is on ensuring the quality of our core services, being a careful and dedicated steward of the taxpayers’ dollar, while promoting economic development to ultimately reduce taxes on the homeowner. Every budget cycle brings new challenges and opportunities, but by focusing on the long term, we can maintain a sustainable tax rate.