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More on the Dirty Alpha Coal Building Deal

by Lewis Loflin

"It's a little-known fact that roughly 20 percent of the children in Southwest Virginia live below the poverty line and go hungry every night." Kevin Crutchfield, President Alpha Natural Resources, January 15, 2009

The Washington County Board of Supervisors voted 6-1 to pay $7.55 million for the 48,000-square-foot building that houses Alpha Natural Resources' corporate headquarters in Abingdon. They are moving to new a building in Bristol, VA. that will cost taxpayers almost $9 million in corporate welfare. Total costs to taxpayers is over $16 million if we include this little deal that let them unload their old building in a bad market.

Supervisor Thomas Taylor complained a new building has been in the county comprehensive plan (which they never follow anyway) since the 1970s. To quote, "It may be nice to look at the national headlines and say, 'Woe is me' but things are going on in this county that are positive and that are putting people to work. I think it's time we put our positive head on and start looking toward the future." And what positives is that Mr. Taylor? Just because we have a lot of wealth in Abingdon doesn't change the poverty problem.

According to the Kids Count report (BHC 6-22-2003):

...two groups of children were left out of the boom times of the 1990s. The robust economy did little to help children in the inner cities and in rural communities like those of far Southwest Virginia, according to the report. A local political science professor believes he knows the reason for the discrepancy. "It all comes back to jobs," said Steve Fisher, director of the Appalachian Center for Community Services at Emory & Henry College. "With the decline of the coal industry, a lot of the good-paying jobs have disappeared."

A string of factory closings has affected the economy in counties along the Interstate 81 corridor, particularly Smyth County, Fisher said. And, many of the jobs that have replaced the ones in the coal mines and factories generally have been lower-paying and less likely to include benefits, he said. "Even two minimum-wage jobs together won't take a family above the poverty line...the numbers for Washington County (VA) are misleading. "There are pockets of wealth in Abingdon and Emory, but in general, it's a pretty poor county..."

Alpha will pay $60,000 a month to rent the building from the county until it moves into its new office building, which is under construction in Bristol and will be finished in 2011. Yet some members of the industrial development authority thought the building was over-priced while County Executive Mark Reeter claimed it was too good to pass up and made endless excuses when this issue was brought up.

My supervisor told me earlier in the day they weren't supposed to approve it Tuesday night, but they did anyway with no public input or discussion. The building and 10-acre parcel is in the Stone Mill Business and Technology Park at Exit 14. The structure was built in 2005 and was bringing the County $50,000 in property taxes.

The only no vote was from Nicole Price who just took her seat this month. This mother of two young children was worried such a massive expenditure in a recession could impact schools and didn't want residents straddle with tax increases. To quote Nicole,

"From the average taxpayer's standpoint, do they want their taxes to go up, do they want their services to decline, but do they want to be able to go pay those taxes in a much nicer building with better access. I do think there's a perception that this was a deal brokered behind closed doors."

Mrs. Price is the only person there to show any concern for residents while the others were concerned about the blowback against themselves. Sadly I believe Nicole will end up ignored and locked out of the process unless she learns to go along with the group. That is the way it has always been here.

Chairwoman Dulcie Mumpower claimed this "decision was a tough one, made not for the county employees or for the board, but to meet the needs of the citizens." I guess we are that "progressive" community she talks about so much when she and fellow supervisors helped evict 50 poor families from a trailer park to make way for a shopping center the County paid the developer $10 million for. Posted January 20, 2010


Update January 30, 2010

Besides the $7.5 million office building, the county's other questionable projects include $10.2 million for school system building and renovations, a $5.9 million industrial park road and a $2.5 million building acquisition and roof renovation for the sheriff's office. A new $900,000 library for Mendota and a $600,000 renovation to another county building across from the courthouse. The total projected tax impact of those projects is 4.6 cents by 2015. Officials are hoping that the economy will turn around by 2013 so they won't face voter wrath over another property tax increase.

Supervisor Nicole Price continued to voice concern over these massive deals: "This recession is being called the worst in 70 years. It's being called a bleak, dismal forecast for state revenues, for local revenues, for our budgeting process. So my concern is not knowing what our reductions are from the state. If you don't know how much money you're going to have, how can you make this kind of commitment?"

County Supervisors got blasted for their back room dealing and fiscal stupidity during the comment session later in the week. One lady said, "When you look at the county, we're in a recession and headed toward depression, and I don't think we need to be spending any money for anything that isn't absolutely necessary. (Residents) are having trouble putting food on the table, and these clowns are buying property that they can't afford." Others at the original meeting and the public comment section said the building should be used for industry and that the price was too high.

Board Chairwoman Dulcie Mumpower again admitted "the timing of the purchase is unfortunate," but believed was a great deal anyway. Other supervisors pointed out they need a fancy building to impress business leaders and give the residents a nice place to pay their new, higher tax bills.

As Mrs. Mumpower stated, "Our board members that supported it were looking to the future, and I think they were trying to make a good business decision that wouldn't immediately directly affect the taxpayers, that they would not have to face a tax increase for two or three years down the road. Hopefully at that time the economy will have changed, and may be it won't even have to be a tax increase." In other words they are using budget gimmicks to put off raising taxes right now.

At the joint meeting where they voted on this nonsense, they didn't even know what budget shortfall they faced due to state budget cuts. Now we find out.

The County school system could face a $5.8M budget shortfall (January 25, 2010) proclaims the Bristol Herald Courier. To quote, "In addition to $4 million in direct state budget cuts, Washington County schools are anticipating a series of increased costs, including: $1 million more in health insurance premiums; an extra $600,000 in state retirement system contributions; and $380,800 of increased utility costs...The bottom line for the school system, which has an annual budget of more than $80 million and makes up more than 65 percent of the county's total budget, is a $5.8 million shortfall. (even then) The bottom line for the county is still unclear, said Supervisor Tom Taylor, one of two county board members who sit on the joint budget committee."

Nicole Price warned them again: "This is exactly what I was talking about on Tuesday night. I think what is most scary about it is that this is the best-case scenario."

Yet Supervisor Taylor who led the charge for the new office building and the millions in pork spending noted, "If the general assembly of Virginia doesn't step up to the plate and do what it should do, then the likelihood is that services will be cut." And they still don't know what is going on. To quote the press, "Specifics won't be known until firmer numbers are available, but right now the school system - and possibly the county - is looking at a gaping budgetary black hole that nobody knows how to fill."

Our leaders constantly proclaim we are a "progressive community" and they will damn well do what they want "for the people."