By Stefanie Jackson – The Eastville Town Council voted unanimously Monday night to purchase the local fire company’s bingo hall on Courthouse Road for $100,000 in a decision one council member called a “win-win” for the town and the Eastville Volunteer Fire Co., which is struggling financially.
Councilman Glenn Purvis explained that if the town purchases the property containing the bingo hall and related structures, the fire company will have only one monthly loan payment instead of two – the other is for a firetruck.
Adding to the Eastville fire company’s financial woes is the May 2019 loss of its status as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which was automatically revoked after a fire company member failed to file an IRS Form 990 for three consecutive years. The last such document received by the IRS from the Eastville fire company was filed by Teddy Ross, fire company president, for tax year 2015.
The Town of Eastville will benefit from the sale of the bingo hall once the building is converted to a community center and office space. An accessory building on the property can serve as storage for the town’s Bobcat and other vehicles and equipment.
The town will relieve the fire company from a $120,000 loan and attain ownership of property appraised for $160,000. Eastville also will be able to get a loan with better terms than the fire department had. The Eastville Volunteer Fire Co. was paying 5% interest, but the town could get a loan with 2.5% interest, Purvis said.
Treasurer Allen Caison reported that the town recently saved $50,000 in a bank account designated for water infrastructure expenses, and Eastville soon may be able to put away $75,000 more.
He cautioned the Town Council that one major repair could easily wipe out those savings.
The town also needs money to pay for a water system engineering study that will cost about $56,000, Councilman Purvis later added.
Eastville’s water system must be self-sustaining – that is, the revenue the town receives from customers paying their water bills must be enough to cover the cost of operating the system – but it isn’t, he said.
The police fine revenue received by Eastville enables the town to keep the water running and stash away more savings for a rainy day, and without it, Eastville’s finances would be in “dire straits,” Caison said.
Major Rob Stubbs reported that the police department issued 1,017 summonses last month, which was less than July even though August is the most heavily traveled month of the year, he said.
The police are unable to make frequent traffic stops when traffic is so heavy that road conditions are too dangerous to pursue and pull over many vehicles, he said.
When a council member asked for data on calls for service to which Eastville police responded, Stubbs said a computer software error prevented him from obtaining the information.
Concerned citizen Stuart Oliver spoke during the public comment period and criticized the Eastville Police Department for not responding to the majority of calls for service.
According to Oliver’s research, during the period of January 2018 to August 2021, the Northampton County Sheriff’s Office responded to 88% of Eastville’s calls for service that were received between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. – “the dangerous times when drunk drivers, domestic disputes, and break-ins are likely to occur,” he said.
Oliver recounted several occasions on which police were needed after 10 p.m. but no Eastville officers were immediately available: a suicide that occurred near Yuk Yuk & Joe’s restaurant in February 2019, an attempted break-in of a private residence adjacent to the restaurant in 2020, and a motorcycle gang-related shooting that occurred during a vehicle chase that started at the restaurant earlier this year.
Oliver later clarified there was “no significant delay” in locating Eastville police following the February 2019 incident.
“The Town of Eastville annexed Yuk’s to profit on food and beverage tax yet provides almost nothing in police service,” he asserted.
Oliver stated that the shooting occurred approximately 125 yards from the Eastville police station. He added that in January 2019, his car in his front yard was totaled in a felony hit-and-run accident about 250 yards from the police station.
“If I were to commit a serious crime I would do it on the steps of the Eastville police department at midnight … I would never be caught,” Oliver said.
Furthermore, town records show a correlation between rising police officer salaries and increasing fine revenue.
Oliver referenced Virginia Code 46.2-102, which states that police officers must be paid a fixed salary and “shall have no interest in nor be permitted by law to accept the benefit of any fine or fee.”
“If you have not crossed the line you are walking it,” he remarked.
Stubbs responded to Oliver’s comment in a Sept. 15 email to the Eastern Shore Post: “Our Officers or anyone that works for the Town of Eastville do not get paid by number of tickets or amounts of fines. … raises are given on a basis of the individual’s work.”
“The Town of Eastville pays a competitive wage that is just above some of the other local departments so that we can be competitive and hire and retain the best individuals for the job to serve our citizens,” he wrote.
Oliver also was critical of Eastville’s refusal to provide an inventory of the police department’s weapons in response to one of his FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests.
He requested and received weapon inventories from the county sheriff’s office and the Exmore and Cape Charles police departments.
However, Eastville claimed an exemption from providing the requested information and cited Virginia Code 2.2-3705.2, which states that information may be withheld if it “would jeopardize the safety or security of any person, governmental facility, building, or structure or persons using such facility, building, or structure; or public or private commercial office, multifamily residential, or retail building or its occupants.”
Alan Gernhardt, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, wrote to Oliver in a Sept. 7 email that “generally an inventory of equipment (including police equipment and weapons) would be an open record other than equipment specifically used for undercover operations and protective details.”
He indicated that some items may be withheld from the weapon inventory based on the public safety exemption. “Unfortunately, since the Town appears to have withheld the records entirely there is no way to offer any definite opinion on whether the withholding was proper or not,” Gernhardt wrote.
He recommended that if Oliver believes his FOIA rights were violated, he should file a petition in Northampton County’s general district or circuit court.
Oliver claimed that Eastville is withholding information on “SWAT team quality” weapons, and “in the event of a school shooting Eastville will only play a supporting role” and “the high dollar rifles will be used instead as protection from the speeding, sunburned soccer moms heading home from the Outer Banks.”
Stubbs later called Oliver’s assertion about the weapons “untrue.”