I’m often told by fellow citizens that Pulaski County just doesn’t have the money to spend on things like schools, because “where would that money come from?” So after spending some time with the County budget, I sent the County a few Freedom of Information Act requests to clear up some of my confusion about certain items of the budget.
One item that was brought to my attention is the County’s efforts to build a road into the ShaeDawn Industrial Park in Dublin from the intersection of Bagging Plant Road and Route 100. You might be asking yourself, what industrial park? And for good reason. Even though the project was announced in 2011, and construction begun in 2014, there isn’t a single industrial, commercial, or even built structure of any kind at that location. However, there has been a new road built, ShaeDawn Parkway (“Phase I”). The initial Virginia Department of Transportation (“VDOT”) grant was for $650,000, the County promised $150,000, and the property owner, Diversified Developers, Inc. another $75,000. VDOT then required that the County make appropriate improvements to the intersection of Bagging Plant Road and Clebourne Boulevard (“Phase II”), and the County received another $548,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s Local Access Road program (“ARC-LAR”).
Now you might be saying, why all the bother, the money to build that road came from the Virginia Department of Transportation in the form of a grant? Well, here’s the part I myself was surprised about. Grants normally come with lots of strings attached about how you use them and in what timeframe, but normally do not require you to repay the grant unless you break the rules. This VDOT grant requires the county to refund the entirety of the grant, so the County is actually on the hook for the entire $800,000 to build the road. Actually, from the documents submitted to VDOT, the cost to the County for about .33 miles of road is closer to $898,000. The Virginia House of Delegates had repeatedly placed a moratorium on repayment of these VDOT funds for all localities in the state, from 2010 to 2016, but just recently the County paid back about $130,000 of the $650,000 grant. After the payment, the House of Delegates passed another bill that placed a 48 month moratorium on repayment, regardless, all the money will have to be repaid to VDOT at some point. Also, from an economic perspective there is an opportunity cost to any project choice, these are funds that could have been spent on another project that might currently be generating new economic activity.
Diversified Developers, the real estate company that owns the ShaeDawn Industrial Park, has granted the County a Letter of Credit for the full $650,000 to offset the County’s liabilities towards VDOT. A Letter of Credit is a guarantee from a bank to another entity that a payment will be made by a borrower, or the bank will make up any and all differences. However, I have not been provided any evidence that Diversified has paid even its initial $75,000 share of the project (which was updated to $175,000 when the intersection improvements were added). Since the project is now in its 3rd year, and there does not appear to be any construction of buildings on the site, I’d hate to be the bank that issued that Letter of Credit. While I’d love to see new businesses, both industrial, commercial, and retail open in any location in the County, I’m wondering if this was the best way to spend almost $1.4 million dollars (whatever its source).
The ShaeDawn project, and other ongoing projects like it, should be discussed in public just like any update about school, business, or public works construction projects.
The part that I found the most confusing about the whole project is how removed from the public view any discussion or information about its progress. When I first submitted my FOIA request, I was told that the Board of Supervisors would not release any documents besides a report on Contingency Funds, because they had a closed session on February 27, 2017. Virginia law allows a closed session, and the withholding of documents discussed therein, only in circumstances such as if there is discussion of the “expansion of an existing business or industry where no previous announcement has been made.” (VA Code 2.2-3711 (5) emphasis mine). Since we all know that ShaeDawn was announced in 2011, I’m not sure how that could be a “no previous announcement” situation. In fact, I was told in response to my questions about the closed session that “the Contingency Funds Report is unrelated to the ShaeDawn project” but the document reads “Refund VDOT/CTB Shae Dawn Project $130,000.” So either the Board of Supervisors is getting bad advice about Virginia law regarding how a closed session works, or they are attempting to hide the financial cost of this project from public view. How many other projects are similarly behind schedule or overbudget, and hidden from public view? I cannot find a “Contingency Funds” line item on the budget, so I’m not clear where that comes from or how large it is at any point in time.
While all of this has me scratching my head, more than anything, the lack of transparency around the project confuses me. The ShaeDawn project, and other ongoing projects like it, should be discussed in public just like any update about school, business, or public works construction projects. If our elected representatives and paid staff hold themselves to such a standard it will give greater confidence that decisions are made for all of the County’s residents, and not just the few.