Thursday, March 25, 2010

Online Petition

In case there are others who object to the VA Attorney General's filing a lawsuit to challenge the recently passed Healthcare Law, there is an online petition which you can sign to express your objection.

Click here to go to the petition.

I'm of the opinion that partisan reactions without public input are not proper and do not serve THE PEOPLE of the State of Virginia.  Do you recall a referendum on the subject?  I don't.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Appalachian Power's Rate Increase

The other day, I spoke with a Mr. Read, our rep with Appalachian Power about their 20% rate increase.  It tripled our barn account.  First, we spoke a little about why we weren't advised when we put our barns on a separate electric meter, that we'd be charged a "non-residential" rate.  The rate is higher than if we just tied in to one of the houses on the farm.  I swear that initially, we were charged the same rate as a "residence" meter.  Businesses are charged a "non-residential" rate and we hardly qualify as a business in the normal sense, since farms right now are not making much money. 

"Do you LIVE in the barn?"  he asked.

"Well, no," I replied.

Then your barns are "non-residential" and qualify for that rate.

"People don't live in their garages." I said.  "Because they do not have separate electric meters for garages, they are not charged a higher rate."

I just wish they'd informed us when we decided that we'd keep track of how much we are spending to have lights and power in the barns.

Now, let's talk about the across the board 20% rate increase for residential service:

Most people, in order to be environmentally responsible, have invested in low wattage new light bulbs and are taking steps to reduce their use of electricity -- turning out lights, lowering the thermostat in winter and raising it in summer, using alternative energy sources, etc.

Since we are using less electricity than formerly, Appalachian Power (American Electric Power) is making less revenue.

They then go to the Virginia Corporations Commission and ask for a rate increase.

Get the picture?  We are less comfortable than we were before, and we get to pay more than before the conservation measures!

Mr. Read told me the sad story about how Appalachian Power has never made a sufficient amount of money to justify their investments.  He said that they are now required to upgrade facilities and, oh, boo hoo, invest in alternative energy such as windmills.  Therefore, they must pass these costs on to consumers as well.

Although the rate increase hasn't passed and there will be hearings which allow consumer input, AEP has already started to charge customers in this month's bill.  Mr. Read said that should the rate increase be denied, we will all get refunds on paid bills.  You can make a comment at the Corporations Commission of Virginia website:  You only have March 3rd to do so.

The Roanoke Times covered a recent meeting re the rate increase attended by citizens from around the State.
I wonder (as you know, I wonder a lot) why anyone would want to own a power company when it supposedly can't make enough money to suit its owners and stockholders?!

Friday, January 15, 2010

A New Wrinkle

Here's a copy of an email I sent to the County Administrator today:

Today, I am sorting out ag records in preparation for doing taxes.

I found a map from the Botetourt County Farm Service Agency, which requires annual reports on crop/acreage, etc.

It is an aerial map in color with the incorrect boundary from the "tax map" on your G.I.S. site overlaid! I must now prepare the corrections for them and go to the expense in time and postage or gasoline to drive there to supply a copy of the survey. I'll have to contact Mountain Castles Soil and Water, too.

I'm wondering how many other agencies and perhaps our insurance company and who knows who else I'll have to check to make sure that there are no negative repercussions to us. The fact that the G.I.S. Mapping is a ten year old project makes it even more maddening!

No one expects that G.I.S. maps supplied by the County will be so seriously flawed, so usually no one is questioning them or even looking closely.

The G.I.S. Mapping Project for Botetourt County is a train wreck! The numbers of county residents affected similarly is likely to be very high. The sad thing is that they probably do not even suspect it.

Mr. ---'s email from yesterday telling me that it won't be before April until our map is corrected is simply not acceptable. If it were corrected in a timely manner, I could just contact the agencies and tell them to access the corrected map!

Accessing Reassessment Book

Today is a holiday.  Monday is also a holiday and the Courthouse and public libraries will be closed in Botetourt County.

If you want to access the Reassessment Binders to look up assessments, you'll have to go to the Buchanan or Eagle Rock library on Saturday.  Otherwise, you'll have to wait until Tuesday to go to the Courthouse, the library, or Wampler-Eanes' Daleville office to check the book.

"Hearings" begin on Monday, January 25, 2010 and go through Friday, January 29th.  You must make an appointment by calling 992-2273.  Your other options for appeal include writing a letter or fax.  Your reassessment notice gives details.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Today's Journey Toward Enlightenment

Well, right now I feel like I've been run over by a bus, and this blog editor doesn't have spell checking, so somebody better tell me if I start typing gibberish.

Last night, I went to the county website and to the G.I.S. Mapping area, where tax assessment information is available for all County properties.  I checked on the properties surrounding us so that I could figure out the price per acre of land value to compare.  Each property has a map, which is supposed to represent your tax plat.  I noticed that ours was incorrectly mapped and that affected the maps for several adjoining properties.  In fact, it was so incorrect that most of our barns and one of our ponds was on a neighbor's property map!

I got kind of worried about that.

The tax asssessments on the site were last year's.  Nevertheless, I went ahead and printed them out and realized that there was no choice but to make the time to go down to the Clerk's Office in the morning to make note of the reassessments.  That turned out to be a good thing, in an educational sense, because I could then note patterns which would help me try to make sense of how these assessments are done.

There was only one looseleaf binder with the asssessments listed alphabetically by land owner.

While I was there, three other people asked me if they could look up something in the book.  Since I had a bunch of listings to look up, I let them interrupt me.  Why, I wondered, wasn't there at least one more copy for people to use?  (I do a lot of wondering.)

I did some head scratching when I noticed that some land values did not change from last year to this year; some building values went up, despite the fact that there were no major improvements that I was aware of; most building values went down, as expected they should; some land values went WAY up, some only went up a little.  So far, I was seeing no clear pattern, except that the general trend was upward. 

According to a press release emailed to me by the County Administrator, "Rural land values rose the most of all property types since 2006, increasing 18%."

One of the men wanting to use the assessment book mentioned that his 100 acres went up to a value of $6,000.00 an acre!  He said the land was just mostly pasture land on which he raises cattle.

I'm thinking someone would really, really, like to buy his land for development. 

He seemed pretty saavy, however, and was preparing to appeal with plenty of information at hand.

So, I'll study all the assessments and reassessments when my head clears.

Back to the G.I.S. maps:  I went up to the County Administrator's Office (I'd warned him and the new Assistant County Administrator that I'd probably be looking them up to ask some questions.)  They were both IN A MEETING, but the secretary told me that she'd just talked to a secretary in the Office of the Commissioner of the Revenue and that my survey and the G.I.S. map MATCHED.

I said I'd go down to the basement and consult.  This particular secretary had been pretty prickly on the phone yesterday and she was the same in person, as I asked if it was all right to pull up a chair so that we could look at the documents together.  She made a bit of a fuss about her "personal space" so I tried to lighten the atmosphere by making a joke.  Big mistake.

Eyes bulging, she informed me that "they only pay me $18,000.00 a year and it isn't enough for me to take any (crap, I think she said) from anybody!" 

Okay.  I really wasn't trying to pick on her.  I was just asking questions about why the County had paid someone to create inaccurate maps to place on the County website.  So, we just went round and round with the Commissioner closely examining the survey and my color print outs of the G.I.S. map.  No one could deny that THEY DID NOT MATCH.

I went back up to the second floor and let the secretary know that.  I asked where the Assistant Administrator was and waited patiently while they tried to track him down.  Eventually he showed up and I asked three questions:  Who created the maps?  What did it cost?  What was the purpose of creating inaccurate maps and putting them on the County website?

I'll bet you can predict how many straight answers I got.

Anyway, I got two of the questions answered.  Here's the email I sent to the County Administrator when I got back home (with names redacted for privacy -- you in Botetourt can fill in the blanks:

Well, Mr. ---, the one question which did not get answered this morning, was "Why put inaccurate maps on the County website (with disclaimer or not)?"

I returned a phone call when I got home and shared a bit of my experience. The first thing she said was, "Why would you put inaccurate maps on the County website?"

So, I'm not getting an acceptable answer to that question. Mr. --- said that he "couldn't remember exactly what the project cost" but that it was probably around $300,000.00.

My other question is why did Mr. --- get a promotion to assistant County Administrator (with a pay raise?) on the basis of his expertise in G.I.S. mapping?

Instead of starting out with every current accurate survey filed in the Clerk's Office, he just used "some" of the surveys. (Ours is dated 1997, by the way.) Using the coordinates on the surveys and plugging them into the County grid, he should have then placed other parcel maps, which are actually placed on the surveys of adjoining land, and then finished the jigsaw puzzle by fitting in lands with old or non-existent surveys. That would have been the logical approach.

I do not believe his contention that it would have cost "millions of dollars" to have approached the project in that way. I have very low tolerance for B.S.

Did the County spend $300,000.00 for inaccurate maps for some practical purpose?

You did not address the problem of insufficient time for county residents who would like to gather information for making appeals of their reassessments. How about getting Wampler to extend the time for appeals and having them change the times so that working people will be encouraged to appeal? They are working as an independent contractor for the County. They should be at the convenience of the citizens, not at the convenience of the business.

Thanks for listening.

----- Original Message -----

From: ---

To: Red Hen

Cc: ---, ---, ---, ---

Sent: Thursday, January 14, 2010 8:27 AM

Subject: RE: G.I.S. Mapping

Ms. ---,

The GIS mapping was approved by the Board of Supervisors. It is common practice among localities as a way to provide information mapped in an efficient, convenient and cost effective manner. I will share your comments with those (copied) responsible for the mapping/data that you reference. I am also attaching a copy of a media release that explains the reassessment process and includes contacts for more information.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


It's that time again:  property values have been reassessed.  I've spent some time today asking questions of our county government and the private contractor hired to do the assessments and I'd like to share what I learned.

I'll list my questions and the various answers I received.  I haven't gotten a chance to double check on the accuracy of all the answers, so if anyone out there knows more, please feel free to leave a comment. 

Lord knows I'd never want to be antagonistic -- but we citizens need as much information as we can get about the processes by which our property is assessed and how that translates into higher (or lower?) property taxes.

Because the county website,, states that if you have questions about reassessments, you should contact the office of the Commissioner of the Revenue, I did.  The lady who answered the phone said that they know nothing about the process and that I should contact Wampler-Eanes Appraisal Group.

First, I asked why a private contractor does the assessments, rather than a county employee.

The answer I got from the County Administrator's Office is that the Board of Supervisors gave the County "permission" to hire an outside contractor.  They hired the lowest bidder:  Wampler-Eanes.  They also happened to be the ONLY bidder for the job.

I pointed out that Mr. Wampler's father owns Wampler Realty, which gives the appearance of a conflict of interest, even though the Assessment company is "not associated" with Wampler Realty.  Everyone I mentioned that to seemed totally shocked!

Hey, I'm not suggesting that the Assessors are doing anything wrong -- I'm just saying...

So, Mr. --- called me later in the day and answered some of my other questions.  He told me that he does the assessments for Botetourt County, although his company does the same job in other places, including the State of North Carolina.

I asked why, if, as we all know, the Real Estate Market has tanked, are the assessments in Botetourt County 8,9 %  higher than last year.  I specifically asked why land values have increased so dramatically. 

He said, basically, that there is a demand for nice pieces of land among potential buyers.  He said the land value is based on "comparable sales."  When I asked how many comparable sales there had been recently, he could not come up with a number.  He did mention that they had gone back through sales in 2009, 2008, and 2007 to find comparable sales.

Weren't the land prices, and real estate in general, doing much better in 2007 and 2008?  How could sales be "comparable?"  Well, maybe I'm wrong, I'm hardly an expert on real estate appraisal.

So, he also mentioned that good views and having land in a conservation easement adjoining your land could also add to its value.  That seemed rather subjective to me.  I asked if there is a mathematical formula applied to land value.  The answer was no.  He agreed that the process of valuing land is more of an art than a science.

When I asked why the adjoining property had been valued at $1200.00 an acre while ours was valued at $3600.00 an acre, I was told that it was because the other property contains over 600 acres, while ours is only 120 acres.  Both properties are in agricultural and forest use.

Hmm..., I thought.  I'll really have to mull this over.  Mr. --- explained that it's something like apples:  if you only buy one it costs more than if you buy a bag full.  Hmm...I thought, I'll really have to mull this over some more to see if I can grasp the concept.

So, the fewer acres you own, the more they are worth?  Am I getting this right?

Switching gears slightly, I asked why the hearing times set up for appeals are all during working hours for most people.  I was informed that Wampler-Eanes employees are also working people.


Since Wampler-Eanes is a contractor representing Botetourt County and doing a County function, shouldn't they be scheduling these "hearings" at times which are convenient for county residents?  Doesn't scheduling during working hours actually discourage citizens from asserting their right to appeal?

I never really got a good answer to that question, but I was informed that people can also send letters and faxes stating their case for appeal.  By the way, he mentioned that if you do show up to appeal you've got exactly 15 minutes to give your presentation -- so you better do your homework!