By Connie Morrison
Voters and public safety communications were on the minds of Accomack supervisors Wednesday night as they considered two major initiatives.
The first was characterized by supervisors as an unfunded mandate from the state: renovating a building to house the county registrar to accommodate the anticipated increase in absentee voters after the Virginia General Assembly approved a “no excuse” absentee voting law this year that goes into effect for the 2020 general elections next.
“The building and associated equipment must be in place much earlier than that,” said County Administrator Mike Mason.
The traditional absentee ballot – with an excuse and beginning the 45th day before the election – will still exist. But there will also be an “no excuse” method closer to Election Day.
According to a summary of the law, any registered voter can vote “by absentee ballot in person beginning on the second Saturday immediately preceding any election in which he is qualified to vote without providing a reason or making prior application for an absentee ballot.”
Higher absentee voting is anticipated under the new system, and counties around the state are under the gun to find facilities that are adequate in space and accommodations for the mobility challenged.
“We’ve been talking about this for a number of months now,” said Mason. “The current registrar’s office is not equipped, nor is it large enough to handle the anticipated additional turnout that we’re going to get with no excuse voting.”
The registrar’s office, now in the circuit court building, will move to the former parks and recreation building at Saw Mill Park.
As far as paying for the project, there is good new and bad news. “This is an unbudgeted expense,” said Mason, but he was able to take some of the sting out of that news by informing supervisors that the county ended the 2019 fiscal year with a $3 million surplus.
Compared to prior years, “We’re in better shape, even with this issue in front of us to solve,” Mason said.
The $240,288 price tag for the new registrar’s office includes a 20% contingency for overruns.
Supervisor Harrison Phillips asked if the project would yield a permanent location for the registrar.
“We’re already starting to discuss what we’ll do with her space,” quipped Mason.
“Staff has looked at a number of places where we could go. This, by far, is the best place that we could find,” said Supervisor Reneta Major. “I don’t think it’s too far off the beaten path.”
The new location is about 1.1 miles, a 3-minute drive or a 22 minute walk, from the current location, according to Google maps.
The board voted unanimously to proceed with the project. Supervisor Ron Wolff was absent.
Public Safety Radio System
The Eastern Shore 9-1-1 Commission initiated a shorewide study of public safety radio communications in 2019. Eastern Shore 9-1-1 Communications Center Director Jeff Flournoy introduced CTA consultants Curtis Johnson and Rachel Soward who presented the study findings to supervisors.
One finding was that communications were not balanced: public safety workers in the field received messages much more regularly than they were able to send them, and the reliability of communications dropped rapidly as communicants moved away from U.S. Route 13.
“Mr. Chairman, this is near and dear to Mr. Tarr’s and my heart,” said Supervisor Robert Crockett, a former Accomack County sheriff. “There’s nothing any worse than a deputy or a firefighter in a situation where they have no radio contact.” Tarr is a retired police officer and a life member of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company.
The consultants also found most of the public safety radio communication equipment was at the end or beyond the end of its service life.
The consultants developed a slate of alternatives from “do nothing” to combining with the school system, joining the state’s STARS system, upgrading the existing system, or building a new system.
They recommended a new system that would cover 95% of both Northampton and Accomack counties, either as a stand-alone system or interconnected with a neighboring Maryland county. The estimated cost is $7.6 million for the interconnected system and $8.5 million for the stand-alone system, although there could savings depending on how the procurement process is undertaken.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Donald Hart asked Mason to draft a letter to Northampton County about the need to form a committee to examine the options.
Board members had previously expressed concerns about waste tires accumulating on properties and asked Mason to see what solutions there might be. Mason found there is an existing Virginia law that addresses the issue.
It is a misdemeanor to have 100 waste tires on public or private property without a permit; a felony to have 500 or more without a permit. “The permit is basically the same type as you would have for a sanitary landfill,” said Mason. Enforcement would be carried out by the sheriff’s office.
Mason was directed to speak with outgoing Sheriff Todd Godwin and incoming Sheriff Todd Wessells.
Mason notified the board that the Virginia Department of Transportation will replace Shields Bridge in March or April 2023. Work is expected to be completed by June 2024. A detour will be in place during construction. Shields Bridge was determined to be “structurally deficient.”
Household Hazardous Waste
Household hazardous waste, such as aerosols, acid cleaners, disinfectants, pesticides, insecticides, and pool chemicals are now accepted Wednesdays and Saturdays at the Painter Convenience Center from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. For a list of accepted items, go to: https://go.boarddocs.com/va/
Mary Nottingham Smith Cultural Enrichment Center Grant
The Department of Housing and Community Development has awarded a $10,000 grant to the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center to explore and identify community needs and potential uses for the center.