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Letter to state expresses frustration

The Lunenburg Board of Supervisors signed and voted to approve a letter for a state board expressing frustration about short notice to fund a mandated item during its meeting July 11. In speaking with the state board, its representatives said that the counties that would be affected by the item were notified. The letter was directed to The Commonwealth of Virginia Compensation Board.

The letter concerns a measure within Item 70 of House Bill (HB) 1700, which requires that counties that have police body cameras create assistant commonwealth’s attorney positions in order that the footage be properly reviewed. The rate would be one assistant commonwealth’s attorney position for every 75 cameras that are in use, according to the measure.

“On June 4, 2019, the Lunenburg Commonwealth’s Attorney received an email from the Compensation Board which was forwarded to the County Administrator informing the county that we had to create and fund this position prior to July 1, 2019,” the letter cited. “After some frantic phone calls to get background information on this issue, the matter was inserted onto the supervisors agenda on June 13, 2019. To say the supervisors were surprised and aghast at this directive is an understatement. The County budget had been proposed and adopted in June after months of hard work and public input, along with penny pinching measures in every department to make the budget balance.”

According from a news release from the Lunenburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Office that was published in The Dispatch, the county approved approximately $28,000 to make the current assistant commonwealth’s attorney position full time.

The assistant commonwealth’s attorney, Baxter Stegall, now works five days a week rather than three days a week, according to the release.

According to the letter, the funds were taken from the county’s public schools budget.

There are currently 26 body cameras in use in the county, according to the release. These cameras are used in the Lunenburg Sheriff’s Office, the Victoria Police Department and the Kenbridge Police Department.

Robyn de Socio with the Commonwealth of Virginia Compensation Board said that notification about the item was initially provided to localities on Feb. 25, found at www.scb.virginia.gov by clicking the link entitled “communications from the compensation board.”

The document sent in February concerned 2019 General Assembly Conference Amendments. The item was included under the heading “commonwealth’s attorney,” underneath headings for jails and all constitutional officers.

de Socio said that the policy document was also sent to counties concerning approved budgets for Fiscal Year 2020, which was sent in May. The item is included on Page 6 of the document.

In addition, de Socio said staff of the Virginia Association of Counties participated in the body worn camera workgroup last fall.

An associate of the Compensation Board provided an email list of localities that received the above information, citing that the Lunenburg County Administration office is included in their email list.

Lunenburg County Administrator Tracy Gee said she received the May 1 email. However, the outline of the item did not raise any concerns as the county already had an assistant commonwealth’s attorney.

A summary from the Virginia Association of Counties also did not raise concerns due to the language used. Gee said it was June 4 that the county received clearer details on the item.

“Our Board strives to keep expenditures low to avoid tax increases, and they viewed this as an unfunded mandate from the Commonwealth that then affected other aspects of the County budget,” Gee said in a statement Monday. “Many other localities were also taken aback by the notice sent out on June 4. I spoke to several other County Administrators who scrambled to address this at fiscal year-end.

“The letter by the County Attorney, signed by the Board of Supervisors, was about the Commonwealth’s disregard for the Board of Supervisors’ local authority and budget process. Regardless of the timing, the language in the legislation basically gives a Commonwealth Attorney authority to make a budgetary decision that should only be at the discretion of the Board of Supervisors and in the interest of the taxpayers.

“We are fortunate our Commonwealth Attorney is easy to work with and sensible with his budget and taxpayer funds,” Gee said. “He and the Board were able to come to an agreement that suited both parties, while meeting the legislative requirement. That is how local government succeeds, by working together.”

Brown’s Store District Supervisor Mike Hankins commented on the letter during the July 11 meeting.

“I think this was very well-written,” Hankins said, adding that he made numerous calls to state delegates about the item. “In my conversations, none of the people knew about this. They researched it. It was a line item. I emphasized that if something like this is going to cost the county money, especially if it comes on the last day available, then somebody needs to have the backbone enough to issue a bill to the House of Delegates … to vote it down or vote it up and be held responsible for passing these bills onto the counties. Because this is just not right.”

“I endorse this letter, but it’s a good thing I didn’t write it,” Hankins said.