By Staff Reports
Henry County residents had a chance to voice their concerns at a recent town hall meeting hosted by Joe Bryant, representative of the Collinsville District for the Henry County Board of Supervisors.
Bryant was joined by Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner, Sheriff Lane Perry, County Attorney George Lyle, Director of Parks and Recreation Roger Adams and Virginia Department of Transportation Resident Engineer Lisa Price-Hughes.
Among the concerns expressed was the desire for more transparency during the reversion process.
“We were basically under a gag order,” Bryant said.
Ray Reynolds, who is running for the Collinsville school board seat, quickly added “they voted to keep them (the meetings) private. That was not the law.”
Lyle said the decision was a legal negotiating strategy.
“You’re in a room and you’re talking about tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues and how they are going to be impacted,” Lyle said. “My advice to the board, which was followed, was that they needed to have these meetings in private and discuss it because we don’t want to reveal our strategy in our negotiating.”
Additionally, Lyle said the final decision will come down to a court order, but the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was a settlement agreement to get the best outcome for the county.
“It was deemed early on that the most negative impact on the community would be for the city to annex land in the county and start taxing any more residents, any more businesses and eroding the revenue of the county,” Lyle said. “We felt that the best outcome was to restrict for as long as possible annexation. And the longest restriction in the history of Virginia is 12 years. We negotiated for 10 years.”
Specifically addressing the point made by Reynolds, Lyle said “we could have had these meetings in public, but I don’t think it would have been a wise decision on our behalf to discuss our strategy before the public, before the people. The part for local input will come before the Commission on Local Government and the courts which will put forward the detailed settlement agreement and take public input before they make their recommendation.”
Following the discussion about reversion, a representative from the Blue Ridge Regional Library spoke to request more funding.
“We did ask for a 1.2 percent increase in our budget this year,” said Margaret Caldwell, representative of the Collinsville District. “The Henry County Board of Supervisors are going to be giving us level funding again. We’ve had level funding since 2019. Before that, there was a tiny increase and before that, we had level funding for another four years.”
Caldwell said that Henry County provides 42 percent of the total budget for the library system with three branches in Collinsville, Bassett and Ridgeway.
Without an increase in funds, Caldwell said she fears the library won’t be able to offer competitive salaries for its employees.
“I tell people that I’m only one supervisor so if anything gets done then three of us have to go with it,” Bryant said. “But I will make sure that we do discuss the library when it comes time to do so.”
Reynolds also raised the issue of proposed improvements to the Smith River Sports Complex.
“We only have 500 seats to watch the soccer games,” Reynolds said. “If we had 1,000 seats then we could bring a state championship game here to this community and we would bring revenue to our hotels.”
Reynolds said the additional seating also would be an alternative to hosting the games in Blacksburg or Salem.
“The next thing is that the design was built poorly,” he said. “We have no showers for college teams to come here and participate. We could make thousands in revenue if somehow we could figure out how to get showers down there for the college kids to change.”
Another concern Reynolds raised was taxpayer funds for the Commonwealth Centre for Advanced Training (CCAT).
“I know we needed a training center, and I’m happy for it, but there’s a lot of taxpayer money that went into that and these companies get to use it for free,” Reynolds said.
Bryant noted that the building was mostly paid for with grant money.
“Very little money was taxpayer’s money,” he said.
Wagoner said the building was made available for new industries to use once they relocate to Henry County so training could be conducted while the buildings were being constructed.
“The ultimate goal for that building is that once Commonwealth Crossing is built out, we will sell that building to another industry,” Wagoner said. “So, at some point in the future, it would no longer be owned by the government. It would be owned by an industry that would be making a product in it as well.”
Other issues that were discussed by residents were the redevelopment of the former John Redd Smith Elementary School, recent spending by the county, deputy pay, and cars speeding on Daniels Creek Road.
During the first hour of the town hall, Bryant discussed strides made by the county since he became a board member.
According to figures presented by Bryant, the unemployment rate when he was elected in 2010 was 16.9 percent. The rate dropped down to 2.8 percent before the coronavirus pandemic. Due to the economic effects of the pandemic, the rate rose to 13.8 percent before returning back to 4.8 percent, according to the most recent data.
Bryant also noted the amount of economic development that has happened during his tenure.
“If we would not have had the foresight to see that we needed an industrial park in Henry County and worked together to try and secure all of the surveys and everything that we need to get this done, Crown products would not be here,” he said of the largest single investment in the history of Henry County.
Crown Holdings and the expansion locally of other existing industries like Monogram Food Solutions and Laminate Technologies were all part of growing the local economy, Bryant said.
He added that since 2012 there have been 2,893 jobs announced with $491.7 million in capital investment.
During Bryant’s tenure, the general fund balance has increased from $22.5 million to about $46.7 million. The unassigned general fund balance, more commonly understood as the county’s savings, has risen from $16.9 million to $33.3 million during the same time frame.
In addition to economic development, Bryant also discussed efforts to enhance the quality of life locally.
Some examples included investments made to construct a new school with Meadow View Elementary School, and to enhance recreation with the Henry County Fair and Philpott Marina.
“Sometime back, the board of supervisors meetings allow each of us a little time to speak. Well, I made the mention of ‘why don’t we have a county fair?’ And it went off like a rocket as soon as I said it,” Bryant said.
The fair is now slated to take place at the Martinsville Speedway from Sept. 22-25.
Like the fair, Bryant said the marina also is popular.
Adams said there are 58 boat slips at the marina currently, along with a 15–year waiting list.
Another decision made by the county to enhance the quality of life locally was to construct the new jail on the former DuPont property, according to Bryant.
The current jail was built to house 67 inmates, but Perry said the day before, it held 204 inmates.
“We’ve been averaging 105 (inmates) housed out to other jurisdictions,” Perry said. “With that, the least that we pay to house an inmate out is $35 a day. Sometimes it is as high as $50 per day. So, every time the cash register hits, $50 per inmate per day times 30, we are hitting some pretty big bills. We are going around $1 million and sometimes over $1 million a year to pay other people to house our inmates.”
In addition to the cost of housing inmates in other jurisdictions, Perry said transporting them eats away a lot of manhours that the deputies could spend being of service locally.
Bryant said that he wasn’t onboard with the idea for the new jail at first but after visiting the current jail, he became convinced of the need.