Mathews supervisors will hold public hearings on the county’s 2020-2021 proposed budget and its accompanying tax rates, beginning at 6 p.m. Monday.
While three of the board members will be in attendance at the meeting in the historic courthouse, two others will join remotely. Additionally, while the public will not be able to physically attend the meeting, provisions have been made for members of the community to view the proceedings and address their comments and concerns through electronic means and by phone.
Residents will be able to view the meeting live on the county’s Facebook page and listen to it on the meeting portal of the county’s website. No Facebook account should be needed to access the video. In addition, the public will be able to participate in the meeting, including commenting on the proceedings, via telephone.
The $28.88 million recommended draft budget includes a total of $15.8 million for the school system, $2.36 million for Social Services, $8.69 million for the general fund, and $1.18 million for New Point Comfort Lighthouse, which is a grant-funded project.
There are no recommended increases in any tax rates this year. Current tax rates proposed to continue include $0.645 per $100 of assessed value for real estate and mobile homes, $3.70 per $100 of assessed value for vehicles, $1.45 per $100 of assessed value for boats, and $2.14 per $100 of assessed value for other classifications of personal property, machinery and tools.
County Administrator Mindy Conner said that because of economic uncertainties at the state level due to the pandemic, there is no question that after the budget is adopted it will have to be amended before it can be appropriated.
“Until the state budget is ready and we know more about the duration of the shutdown, we don’t know what amendments will be needed,” she said. “But we have a responsibility to move county business forward.”
The county is trying to go through the budget process within the statutory time frame, said Conner, “otherwise, we’ll face significantly more problems.”
Conner said revenue projections will need to be revised, but because the county’s revenue is largely dependent on real estate taxes, there will be less of an impact in Mathews than in localities that are largely dependent on revenue from sales and other taxes.
How the meeting will be conducted
The public hearing will be conducted on the Zoom platform, which allows for multiple people to be connected to a meeting by dialing a number and entering the meeting’s access code. This information will be provided to residents who request it either by email or telephone.
To request the information electronically, email email@example.com before 5 p.m. Monday. Identify the public hearing in the subject line of the email. To request the information by telephone, call 804-725-7172 during normal business hours.
According to Conner and County Attorney Andrea Erard, conducting the meeting in this fashion is an effort to replicate as normal a meeting as possible while still protecting the public’s health and abiding by the governor’s orders.
A number of alternatives for holding the meeting were discussed, said Erard, including allowing people to enter the building individually or in very small groups to offer comment. However, it was determined that providing such access would require at least one other person to handle the entry and exit logistics, while also requiring that additional people wishing to speak remain outside to await their turn.
In order to conduct the meeting electronically, the board of supervisors must adopt an emergency ordinance allowing for the continuity of government operations during the pandemic, as permitted by state law, according to an opinion provided by Attorney General Mark Herring.
Unless it is repealed first, the ordinance is set to expire after 60 days, but may be re-adopted, if necessary, after public notice. However, it cannot remain in place longer than six months. Once the ordinance is repealed or it expires, regular government operations will resume.
Under the proposed ordinance, materials associated with the meeting must be made available to the public at the same time that they’re made available to board members, and the normal meeting rules will apply, including the requirement that a person commenting provide their name and home address, limit comments to those related to the hearing, and abide by any time limit set.
Other ways to provide public comment will be by leaving a voicemail on a dedicated phone number, emailing the comments, or mailing them via the postal service.
According to a list provided by Erard, localities across Virginia have adopted a variety of alternative ways to handle public meetings during the crisis, from allowing people in meetings but discouraging them from attending to receiving comments only by email to holding fully electronic meetings. In the town of Culpeper, the town council met outside, sitting in their cars arranged in a circle in a parking lot, to pass the budget. Nearly two dozen localities adopted policies similar to Mathews County’s.
Erard said staff had picked “what we thought was the most workable solution” for holding a public hearing. “But if it doesn’t work,” she said, “we’ll try something else.”
On Thursday, the county released the following guidelines for participating in the meeting:
Speakers who want to provide public comment should type *9 on their phone to indicate their hand is raised to speak. The meeting facilitator will unmute each speaker in order, allow comment for a period up to three minutes and then mute the caller and move on to the next one.
Speakers are limited to one opportunity of three minutes per person; each speaker shall open his or her remarks by giving their name and locality of residence for the public record. The purpose of these public hearings is to solicit public comment on a matter brought before the Board of Supervisors. Board members will not address the public’s comments at this time. If a speaker uses his or her three minutes, but still has additional comments, the additional comments can be submitted in writing.
Speakers cannot assign time, in whole or in part, to other speakers.
Speakers’ remarks should be on topic and related to the purpose of the public
Some citizens have submitted comments in writing. Those comments have been provided to he Board and are available for public review on the Mathews County website.
NOTE: This story has been edited to include information on meeting guidelines.