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SoVaNow.com / October 10, 2013Since not that many folks actually attend the meetings of Halifax County’s governing boards — that’s what you count on us for, right? — the hissy fits that erupt from time to time when important people gather in the same room often get lost in the ether. If a cross word escapes when no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The Board of Supervisors sailed through a fairly routine meeting on Monday night, but not before some hearty damnations for this newspaper issued forth from Board member Doug Bowman and guest speaker John Cannon, chairman of the Virginia Coalition. Cannon attended the meeting to press the Coalition’s request for $10,000 to boost its anti-uranium lobbying and educational efforts. The Coalition has a big fund-raiser coming up Friday night, and the county contribution is important if the organization is to meet or exceed last year’s take of $100,000-plus.
Supporting the Coalition should have been an easy decision, and in the end it was, but County Administrator Jim Halasz injected a note of doubt in the proceedings when he penned a memo beforehand recommending that the supes nix the donation. Why? It turns out Halifax County has a wee computer-related dilemma on its hands that will cost a quarter of a million dollars to fix (in other words, a problem that’s not so wee; more on this in a moment). With Halifax stretched for cash, Halasz wrote, “I question the necessity of a continuing expenditure of tax payer dollars for [the Virginia Coalition] when adequate funds are not available for our schools, courts, emergency services, refuse disposal and animal control.”
Halasz’s memo formed the basis of a front-page story in Monday’s News & Record, over which Bowman and Cannon went, well, more or less berserk. Bowman accused your dutiful servant newspaper of engaging in “yellow journalism” by drawing notice to Halasz’s recommendation, and Cannon was no less condemnatory of our apparent act of journalistic apostasy. It was an interesting exchange. Usually when people bandy about accusations of yellow journalism, they support the change by citing both evidence and motive — in the case of the former, an inaccuracy or glaring mistake, in the latter, an obvious ax to grind. Bowman and Cannon were able to offer neither.
While I suppose we could have a little fun with this episode, there’d really be no point — despite being on the receiving end of the broadside, nothing about it changes our view that John Cannon, and everyone else who has devoted time, money and energy to combat the scourge of uranium mining, is performing heroic work on behalf of the citizens of Halifax County. As for Doug Bowman, he is one of the Board’s more valuable members in terms of providing a consistent, thoughtful point of view. It’s not a view I always agree with, but Bowman is better than most about doing his research and being reasonable in his judgments. Monday’s tour de farce notwithstanding, the Board is lucky to have him as a member.
So what’s with all the high dudgeon? On a purely nuts-and-bolts level, I guess it must be acknowledged that raising money is never easy — and negative publicity, fact-based or not, is no help. The Coalition has a big job cut out for it as it is. I get all that. But the episode also highlights something that anti-uranium proponents, myself included, may not like to talk about, but remains a fact nonetheless: There is a fair number of county residents who not only don’t fear the prospect of uranium mining upstream from us in Pittsylvania County, but would welcome it. I think this view is wrong and personally have no interest in ever putting it to the test, but you can’t just scrub a slice of public opinion out of the picture in the manner of a Soviet Union-era bureaucrat who falls out of favor after the annual May Day parade. Frankly, it’s a good thing for people to challenge the prevailing wisdom from time to time. If the wisdom is indeed wise, it shouldn’t be too hard to defend.
So here goes:
Halifax County would face an existential threat if a serious accident developed upstream at a uranium mine — a reality that Virginia Uranium Inc. cannot whitewash, no matter how many millions of dollars it spends to convince people otherwise. The National Academy of Sciences study certainly makes no bones about the fact that such a serious accident is conceivable, which right there ought to make the mere prospect unacceptable. Unfortunately, because we live in an imperfect society, there are times when one has to fight to get one’s point of view across. Especially when your opposite number is fighting, too, and spending a heckuva lot more money than you are.
A $10,000 contribution represents approximately .01 percent of the county budget. This is not an unreasonable sum to spend to protect Halifax County’s future. By the same token, how would a decision to reject the Coalition’s request sit with, say, Virginia Beach, which has much less at stake with the proposed VUI mine but arguably has done more than any locality to call attention to its tremendous risks? Virginia Beach singlehandedly funded a key study making the case against mining and has injected itself into the legislative debate, providing clout and votes that Southside Virginia on its own would be hard-pressed to muster. They are willing to do all this and we can’t muster a lousy $10,000 to hold up our end of the oppositional little-C coalition?
It’s our strongly-held view that the supervisors (and the town councils of Halifax and South Boston) are doing the right thing by supporting the efforts of the Virginia Coalition. Would the supervisors be as cognizant of their position without the advance attention paid to the contents to Halasz’s memo? It’s not like the supervisors have never been known to sleep-walk through an issue. If people were shocked to read a headline expressing the county administrator’s opinion that Halifax County can’t afford to take part in the uranium fight, imagine how they would have felt if the supervisors had voted in agreement.
One thing we do know: People would want to shoot the messenger regardless.
Lost in the dustup over the Virginia Coalition request is a second recommendation that Halasz made in his advance memo to the supes: He advised the board to pass up the chance to apply for a VDOT grant to extend the Tobacco Heritage Trail an additional two miles, a job that would cost just under $1 million. And this time, the supervisors went along. (See?)
File this one in the category of “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” Here’s the story: The VDOT grant would pay 80 percent of the cost of lengthening the trail, with Halifax County required to come up with a 20 percent match, or about $200,000. By coincidence, this is not far off the amount of money ($247,340) the county finds itself having to spend to replace computer software used to appraise real estate and send out tax bills. Why does Halifax County need new software? Because the vendor who sold the package to the county recently died, and there’s no one now to provide support and service. Which begs the question: Who the heck buys computer software that only one person in the world knows how to troubleshoot if something goes wrong?
It’s a shame that such a palm-in-face decision as this should stand in the way of applying for the VDOT grant — which, let’s not forget, would bring money into a county that desperately needs it and enhance the quality of life for all. Outside of the fact that the Tobacco Heritage Trail has built up a considerable local constituency, it’s a nice addition to the county’s marketing pitch for tourists, newcomers and retirees. No one beats the retirees-are-our-future drum more than our own Tea Party supervisor, Barry Bank, yet the rhetoric apparently leaves no room for doing things that, say, might make Halifax County more appealing to retirees (among others).
On the other hand, at least Bank is consistent: He also cast the lone vote in favor of turning down the $10,000 contribution to the Virginia Coalition.
Because nothing screams “Retirement Haven” quite like allowing a uranium mine a few miles up the road.