By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
KING GEORGE, Va. — King George County, a rural enclave of 25,000 people, has racked up $100 million in debt with a spending spree on new public buildings.
The “Gateway to the Northern Neck” is a tale of two communities. Average income ranks high, thanks to the presence of wealthy landed gentry and a Naval weapons center Dahlgren.
On the other hand, a third of King George’s subjects subsist at or below poverty level. Downtown consists mainly of broken-down homes and struggling businesses.
Overseeing the county is a Board of Supervisors, the majority of whose members have been in office for decades. In recent years, they have spent millions to construct a new library, animal shelter, football stadium, sheriff’s office and other public buildings.
The capital improvements have saddled the county with one of the highest per-capita debt loads in Virginia — $4,230 for every man, woman and child in King George. The Virginia average is $2,693, according to the state Auditor of Public Accounts.
County’s edifice complex
The high-school football stadium replaced “The Pit,” which former school board member Renee Parker called “a wonderful venue that was well known all over the area.”
Built as a bowl with seating all around, the home of the Foxes was showing its age, however. The press box, lighting and circuity were shaky, even dangerous. Parker said the venerable field could have been upgraded for $1.3 million.
Instead, supervisors spent more than $4 million on a new stadium for the campus of fewer than 1,500 students. Despite its price, there isn’t enough seating to accommodate all-district games, and a planned running track wasn’t included.
The new sheriff’s office stands as a hollow Potemkin Village, critics contend. After county officials spent millions on the structure, patrols go shorthanded.
“King George has only one deputy per district per shift,” says community activist Mary Trout.
“If there is an illness or vacation, each district may not even have one deputy. If more than one crisis or need arises, then they prioritize and others have to take a number,” Trout said.
A supervisor steps forward
Boasting some of the lowest property tax rates in the state, King George’s biggest cash pile is its landfill. But even with its high fees, the dump barely covers the interest costs of the county’s debt.
“The credit card is tapped out. We’re bonded to the max, and payments are coming due,” Parker says.
So a new guard is emerging to push for private solutions.
Supervisor Ruby Brabo, elected in 2012, criticizes King George for failing to market itself to tourists.
In one of her first official acts on the board, Brabo accused colleagues of raiding the county tourism fund.
“I told them they were in violation of the law as they had simply been putting (hotel excise taxes) into the general fund and spending it as they saw fit,” she recalled.
Linwood Thomas, the county’s economic development director, acknowledges that tourism “has been a gray area.”
“We need to do a better job,” he told Watchdog.
Brabo keeps hammering away. Though she voted for an $8,000 concert series, Brabo complains that the county promoted it poorly. “I went to one. It drew six people,” she said.
She also derides the strategy of advertising events in the local weekly newspaper, which has virtually no readership outside the county. “How does that help get the word out?” she asks.
Energizing the public
The purpose of the tourism fund — a modest $85,000 outlay this year, but a slight increase nonetheless — is to draw more visitors to hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in the town of King George and Potomac River-front communities such as Colonial Beach.
Brabo said hotel/motel owners are frustrated because “they are the entities who pay the tax, and yet their input is not solicited.”
Brabo’s inquiries on other subjects run up against a bureaucratic wall. For example, she recalls that board colleagues rebuffed her efforts to obtain regional comparisons on water/sewer service.
To empower businesses and citizens, Brabo conducts regular town hall meetings to encourage local civic involvement. Her semi-annual candidate workshops, co-conducted with the registrar of voters, attract up to 200 people in a county plagued by political apathy.
King George officials have taken notice.
Since Brabo started disseminating news in a monthly newsletter and on her website, Rubyscoop.com, the county has expanded postings on its sites. Two years ago, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government gave King George a D-plus for lack of budget transparency online.
Warren Veazey, president of the Citizens for Nonpartisan Good Government, said too many local candidates have run unopposed since he moved to town in 1976.
“We want to change that and get out of the inbred, plantation mentality.”
Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward