Henry Turnage, the activist who sparked the demands to have a statue of a Confederate soldier moved from the Franklin County Courthouse grounds, spoke one more time to the county board of supervisors ahead of the Nov. 3 referendum.
Turnage told supervisors during Tuesday’s evening session that they’re being wrongheaded if they believe the controversy over the statue will go away so long it stays where it is now. “Those two things cannot coincide together in the future.”
Nationwide protests in the wake of the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died while pinned by Minneapolis police officers, led to calls to remove Confederate monuments from public grounds. In July, new Virginia laws empowered localities to remove, relocate, contextualize or cover up Confederate monuments under their jurisdiction.
Franklin County is one of six Virginia counties that chose to let voters weigh in on what happens to their courthouse monuments by putting the issue on a referendum. The board of supervisors will not be bound by the results of the vote. However, critics of the decision have repeatedly pointed out that the county’s populace is overwhelmingly white, meaning that those Black residents who perceive the statue as a symbol of slavery and oppression will only represent a small percentage of those voting.
Turnage staged a one-man protest in June, walking laps around the statue, that led to repeated demands during the board’s public comment sessions that the county’s Confederate statue be moved to a historical site or museum. Turnage was the last person to speak at Tuesday’s meeting, warning supervisors that the referendum won’t end the matter. “In the past, nobody had a voice to speak up,” he said. “Now they do. Now it’s in everybody’s mind when they walk in that building.”
Supervisors did not respond to Turnage’s pointed comments.
The seven-hour meeting began with an address about another controversial subject: the construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline through the county. An October 2019 stop work order prohibiting further construction of the natural gas pipeline was lifted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission earlier this month.
Speaking on behalf of North Carolina-based Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and a Franklin County group, Preserve Franklin, organizer Ann Rogers implored the board to demand that MVP submit erosion and sediment control and stormwater management plans specifically for Franklin County sites to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Rogers asserted that considerable damage has already been done by the pipeline construction and the continuation risks tons of excess sediment washing into the Blackwater River and Smith Mountain Lake. In a Wednesday phone interview she said she believed an attempt by MVP to come up with specific stormwater plans for the county would show that the potential problems could not be managed.
At the meeting, board members were on board with her. “When we have all these rains, it seems like our rivers and streams are a lot more dirty, a lot more mud running through those,” said Blackwater District Supervisor Ronnie Mitchell. “Everywhere you see the pipeline, it’s bare ground. There’s very little vegetation growing on it.”
Rocky Mount District Supervisor Mike Carter pointed out flooded pipeline sites that drain into the town’s water system. “I do not understand why Mountain Valley cannot get this route under control,” he said.
A resolution requesting exactly the things from DEQ that Rogers advocated was already included in the meeting’s consent agenda in response to the letter Rogers sent Oct. 6. However, officials expressed skepticism that the measure would help, and also vented their frustration.
County Administrator Chris Whitlow noted that the county made a similar request in 2015, which was not fulfilled. Assistant County Administrator Steve Sandy explained that the county has no enforcement power over MVP’s erosion control measures.
“This board has done this in the past,” said Boone District Supervisor Ronnie Thompson. “They’re not doing what they promised they’re doing, and our hands are tied, and it’s very frustrating, it’s very aggravating.”
The board passed the resolution unanimously.
Those presentations took place in front of a considerably smaller audience than usual, as the county’s rising numbers of COVID-19 cases led county staff to put more stringent social distancing measures in place, with chairs placed 12 feet apart instead of six, admitting less than 30 people into the chamber.
Before that sparse crowd, the board voted on several measures, with Union Hall District Supervisor Tommy Cundiff absent.
• The board approved on a 5-1 vote using $63,000 to pay for a software update that will allow the county to collect real estate tax in two biannual payments rather than one payment at the end of the year. Supervisors approved changing over to a twice-a-year billing system in March.
Finance director Brian Carter told the board that the schedule involves testing the new system in 2021 and switching over completely in 2022, with the first bills under the new system going out in June 2022. Thompson cast the no vote.
• Supervisors unanimously approved a plan to give year-end bonuses to all teachers and staff in the county school system as a reward for their efforts during the COVID-19 crisis. Under the proposal outlined by Superintendent Mark Church, the system’s 1,238 full-time employees will each receive a $1,000 bonus, and the 65 part-time employees will each receive $500. The funds for the bonuses come from a 2019-20 school budget carryover resulting in part from expenses reduced by the spring school shutdowns. The full $1.78 million appropriation that supervisors signed off on also included $410,000 to complete repairs to the Ferrum Elementary School cafeteria air conditioning system by next summer.
• During an afternoon work session, supervisors took an unscheduled vote to use about $810,000 in carryover funds from the 2019-20 budget to give one-time bonuses to county employees. For the sheriff’s office and fire-EMS first responders and the office workers for those departments, the bonus will be $2,000 for full-time and $1,000 for part-time employees. For all others the bonuses are $1,500 for full-time and $750 part-time employees.
• Later in the work session, during a discussion about how to spend a total of $1 million in fiscal year-end carryover savings, supervisors were presented with a request to use $35,000 to complete a walking trail in Summit View Business Park. The board instead chose to move that money into capital project funding, with an explicit request that it go toward finishing the renovations and cleanup work to the old farmhouse and pair of silos at the business park’s north entrance, where county officials meet with business prospects.
Thompson complained of unsightly mold in the farmhouse. “With this business park, we’re trying to make a statement in Franklin County,” he said. He suggested the silos and the roof of the house should be painted the same green as the recently-constructed water tower. “I think we we need to spend a couple dollars and really put up an image there for the county.”
• In response to a request that the county change its zoning code to allow the construction of duplexes in agricultural districts, the board unanimously voted to allow the proposal to move ahead. The next step will involve scheduling a Nov. 10 public hearing on the matter before the Franklin County Planning Commission.
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