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Dinwiddie supervisors practice social distancing during business meeting

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DINWIDDIE – While those working inside the Dinwiddie County Government Center sought to maintain business as usual, the effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its continued spread around the Commonwealth could be felt inside the municipal building, all the way to Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting.

Monday, county officials confirmed the Dinwiddie Board of Supervisors would still meet the following day in their boardroom but, the agenda would be parsed down to only include action items, with departmental and outside agency reports being scraped from Tuesday’s order of business, along with the evening-side public hearing meeting.

The audience for the board’s afternoon session on Tuesday, while traditionally low when compared to their evening meetings that tackle public hearings and broader discussion items, was sparse with only a few department leaders on-hand to deliver key presentations to the board of supervisors.

The call for social distancing, the practice of adding space between people to reduce the spread of COVID-19, made its way to the bench of the board of supervisors as only three members – Chairman Daniel Lee and supervisors Dr. Mark Moore and Harrison Moody – were physically present inside the boardroom, while Vice-Chair Brenda Ebron-Bonner and Supervisor William Chavis each teleconferenced into the meeting, as permitted by state law.

During their meeting Tuesday, supervisors adopted a resolution on electronic participation in meetings, which aligns with state law that allows supervisors to hold two kinds of meetings remotely.

Detailed by Tyler Southall, Dinwiddie County Attorney, through state law and the now-adopted local policy, supervisors can hold a “regular remote meeting,” which would see either one or two supervisors partake in the meeting over the phone while the three remaining members are physically present at the county’s government center or other location, or an “emergency meeting,” which can allow all five members to do county business over the phone but, that business is limited to “addressing an emergency.”

According to Southall, a legal opinion is being sought from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring regarding “how broad [the] clause related to emergencies is and what other laws may come into play to allow for remote meetings should it not be medically advisable to have individuals together,” but no guidance has been shared on the matter as of Tuesday.

That question, along with Tuesday’s board of supervisors, stood on the backdrop of Governor Ralph Northam’s directive effectively barring non-essential gatherings of ten or more people as the state grapples with a continued influx of cases of COVID-19, with exemptions for “normal operations at essential services such as manufacturers, distribution centers, airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, grocery stores, or pharmacies.”

In addition, Northam directed, “Those with chronic health conditions or aged 65 or older” to self-quarantine,” while mandating, “All restaurants, fitness centers, and theaters … significantly reduce their capacity to 10 patrons, or close,” with restaurants being asked to continue carry-out and delivery options for customers.

As all three supervisors and County Administrator Kevin Massengill placed significant space between one another as they sat on the bench inside the boardroom, down two members as they phoned in to the meeting, Supervisor Moody said he hasn’t seen anything of this scale in his decades as an elected official.

“I have been on the board for 34 years and this is the first time this has ever happened. I have never been in a board meeting where we had somebody in on conference call,” he remarked. “This is a first so, this is telling us that this is a serious time and we have to be thinking about this.”

Outside of the direct impacts of COVID-19, which have included changes to business operations, the cancelation of all Dinwiddie Parks and Recreation programs, and adjustments to how the county engages with the public, the restriction on gatherings has raised questions about how residents can provide comment during upcoming public hearings on the FY2021 budget.

By state law, localities must have a balanced budget adopted and in place by July 1. Most communities began holding work sessions and presentations on their budget in February, with plans for establishing tax rates and a formal public hearing on the budget in the spring.

During their meeting Tuesday, supervisors gave Administrator Massengill the go-ahead to advertise the proposed tax levies for the upcoming year as remaining unchanged from their current levels, meaning the county’s real estate and mobile home tax rate would stay at 79 cents per $100 of assessed value, the personal property tax rate would remain at $4.75 per $100 of assessed value, and machinery and tools taxes would stay at $3.30 per $100 of assessed value.

Once advertised, the county’s tax rates cannot be increased beyond what had been shared with the public, only lowered. That public hearing would be scheduled for March 31, still within the period when 10-plus-person gatherings were prohibited.

“We are not balanced where we are but we don’t see that an increase in taxes would need to take place at this time,” Massengill said of the FY2021 budget, which remains in development. “With that being said, that means some additional cuts need to take place to get this budget back in line.”

He continued, speaking to the challenge of the March 31 date for the public hearing, “[County Attorney Tyler] Southall and I have been discussing how we can solicit public comment at the time in which we have been asked to limit the number of people who come together so, we will be working hard to figure that out but, until we hear more, we will advertise this tax rate and we will move forward.”

Even after the public hearing on the tax rate, the county would also have to hold a public hearing on the completed budget, which likely would take place anywhere from late April to May but, supervisors are required to wait at least seven days before adopting that budget following the hearing.

During last year’s budget public hearing, no residents spoke when the floor opened for community comment.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Virginia Department of Health reported 77 cases of COVID-19, with nearly 1,278 people tested. Of those cases, there have been two deaths.

Roughly a dozen cases each have been confirmed in Arlington, Fairfax, and James City County. Closer to Southside Virginia, positive cases were reported in Hanover, Henrico, and Chesterfield County. New cases have also been reported in the City of Richmond.

The number of positive cases would nearly triple by Sunday with over 200 confirmed and three deaths out of over 3,300 tests administered.

As of press time, cases of COVID-19 have not been reported in the Crater Health District, which includes the Tri-Cities, Dinwiddie, Prince George, Sussex, Surry, Greensville, and Emporia.