A lot of good things are happening and are coming to Pittsylvania County and the broader region and the area is starting to get the attention of people all over the country, because of it. At the end of January I saw someone jump into a local Facebook group and ask, “Hi there, I am a current oregonian looking to retire hopefully near Danville… Just reaching out to make new associations so when I visit on my recon missions I maybe know someone!!! Thanks in advance.”
They got 81 comments from all sorts of friendly people.
New and large businesses are opening in the area. If you go to Lynn Street in Danville you’ll find the Funky’s Arcade that just opened last December and a new tanning salon getting ready to open. If you drive an hour to the Greensboro Airport you’ll find a spot where a giant airplane factory is in the works nearby it that will employee well over 1,750 people. Not far is a coming Toyota battery plant to employ a similar amount of people at a Greensboro-Randolph megasite.
In Pittsylvania County, the Berry Hill megasite is slated to get $24 million in investment to upgrade it and make it ready for an operation of similar size. Danville City Councilman Lee Vogler just went up to Richmond last week to try to help promote it, while the county’s industrial development team has been working tirelessly to attract more large employers to the area, and State Senator Danny Marshal of course is in Richmond all the time doing it. He’s got a bill moving in the General Assembly to authorize “a locality that administers a Virginia Stormwater Management Program or a Virginia Erosion and Stormwater Management Program to review, approve, and administer the permits of a regional industrial facility authority of which it is a member.” You can see the investments being made on page 29 of the December Board of Supervisors meeting packet if you are curious.
What is more, at last week’s Danville City Council meeting a group of people from Greensboro came and talked about investing in a housing development, people from Habitat for Humanity revealed that they are planning their own, and one individual talked about how his community tennis program is growing. The new Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors is off and running with the appointment last week of Clarence Monday as interim county administrator. He did an interview with Caleb Ayers this week you can listen to here.
Despite all of the positive things happening, you would think things are very strange and crazy here if you have been watching some of recent videos of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors meetings in the past few months. At the last one in January two board members made remarks against the volunteer fire and rescue community and then sought to make them a hot topic in comments to the newspapers and on social media posts.
Pittyslvania County has “21 volunteer fire departments and 12 volunteer EMS stations spread throughout the county.” About 1,000 volunteers serve these stations full time and part time without pay 24 hours a day every day of the year. Last year 337 volunteers ran over 50 calls or did 10% of their agency call volume and did so knowing that they faced the additional hazard of covid. It’s pretty bizarre for volunteer fire and rescue agencies to become a big political topic anywhere. In fact, I can’t think of this happening anywhere else in the country.
In order to understand what is going on you need to know what led up to this last meeting. What you are seeing is the Bob Warren political machine descending into bizarre spectacle as a tactic to try to remain relevant. The Board of Supervisors in Pittsylvania County has seven members and for the past few years Bob Warren has served as its Chairman along with Vice-Chairman Ronald Scearce of the Westover District. The two had ruled the county with a 5-2 majority on the board and tolerated very little dissent.
Last year, Warren launched an attack against the locally owned Chatham-Star-Tribune when they didn’t give him the 100% positive news coverage he wanted and then his majority on the board censored one of the supervisors that didn’t go along in lock step with everything they did. It was like they became power mad and the bullying tactics became too much for people and their “team” (that’s what they called themselves in the last board meeting of 2021) lost every seat they had up for election by landslides, with each of their three candidates getting less than 42% of the votes in their district each last year. One of their incumbents only got 32.84% of the vote.
One reason for their landslide losses is that the former county administrator, who had worked under their direction, had also became a subject of contention. While he was there a controversy erupted over the social services department, that divided people and damaged it, the Danville Humane Society became subject to an unjustified smear campaign that appeared to be an aborted campaign by his office to try to take it over, and he also made suggestions that he sought to replace most of the funding to the volunteer fire departments from a donor system to one in which it would be heavily funded by county taxes.
After the election, they lost their majority and now have only three of their members on the board. The new board was voted in by the voters as basically a reform board and at their reorganization meeting in January it fired the county administrator.
You would think that the remaining members of the Warren political machine would simply pause a bit and regroup in order to get re-elected in 2024. It seems to me that in local elections usually the incumbents win, they got the name recognition and all they gotta to do is just be willing to communicate with their constituents and help them when they can. In the city of Danville, the incumbents win almost every single time by doing just that.
Maybe I’m dumb to think it’s that easy, but the county Warren “team” has so far taken a different route after losing their board majority. They have instead gone out and made wild and dire statements and claims, engaged in verbal attacks against other board members, and in recent weeks have gone out to even call regular citizens names. Westover Supervisor, Ronald Scearce for instance, at the January reorganization board meeting predicted that the county was in danger of going bankrupt without the former administrator and then claimed he was contacting the FBI to investigate the new Chairman – the county is not going bankrupt and there is no investigation, it’s nonsense. Then he started to use his Facebook page to launch personal attacks against people.
Mr. Scearce called the new Vice-Chairman of the Board “evil” in a post, has called people who did not vote for his former team members as “minions,” called people who reply to his posts with critical questions as “stupid,” and put up a post mocking a citizen as a hypocrite for posting pictures of their vacation trip on Facebook and claiming that she attacked his family. When someone asked where it is she made these attacks he did not reply, because he probably made it up. She had called him out for “writing ugly things and callings others by names” in a newspaper column.
One could wonder if this was a move by Scearce to try to intimidate anyone else from objecting to his posts or just his emotions getting out of control, which is probably more likely. Last year a Federal grand jury did find him guilty of violating the first amendment rights of a county employee that he helped to get fired after a three day trial in a civil suit against him. Then again, when he attacks someone he only makes them more popular, so it’s hardly intimidating.
Supervisor Scearce at the January board meeting, used his board member reports time to give a message of his “anger” over decisions being made and doom and gloom for the county. He also launched a tirade against the fire and rescue agencies, saying that they “deserve a little bit more looking into their books than they are getting at this time” and labeling them as a “special interest group.”
What seems to have motivated him to attack the fire and rescue agencies like this is anger over the election results and a desire by the Warren team to try to find some issue, even if they have to make one up, to argue against in order to be relevant no matter what.
As far as the election results, at the last Fire Commission meeting before the election, Scearce told the other members of the commission, which he was serving on, that they needed to vote for his team members. When one member of the commission objected that he didn’t think it was appropriate to use the commission for electioneering, much less to be ordered who to vote for, Scearce got angry at him and this commission member was removed by Supervisor Warren at his last meeting as Chairman in December in what appeared to be an act of retaliation.
At the January board of supervisors meeting, Scearce and Warren voted against a resolution, which passed, they were the only ones to vote against it, to drop annual audits for two randomly chosen Volunteer Fire and Rescue Agencies paid for at county expense. These audits were approved in 2020 and only two agencies did them last year and it turned into a huge hassle, representing an extra five to six thousand dollars in expenses each. One problem is that they were required to turn over all of the names of their donors and amounts that they donated, something that really isn’t the county government’s business to know. People who donate do not want others to know how much they donate. The fact is that the agencies already file a 990 tax form with the IRS every year in order to maintain their nonprofit 501c3 status. These comprehensive forms are publicly accessible by anyone in several databases on the internet. The forms contain expenses, revenue, and leadership information and the IRS randomly audits them every year, just like they do every single taxpayer. So a county taxpayer paid audit is in one sense a redundant waste of money.
I talked with some of the fire and rescue chiefs and they told me that anyone is welcome to call any of the agencies if they want to see this information for themselves and can’t find it on the internet. You can talk to them.
It should also be noted that when any of the fire agencies gets money from the county government they have to provide them with an accounting of how it is spent, with a full record of it, including invoices. So, all of the county tax payer money is in fact fully accounted for despite the insinuations both Scearce and Warren made at the last supervisors meeting. They get grants from local foundations that also look at their books as that is a standard operating procedure for how they function.
After the meeting, on January 21, Scearce claimed in a Facebook post that the volunteer fire and rescue community has a “lack of integrity” and that they are “starting to give me some misgivings on what is actually going on.” In a comment in this post he also implied that they were “trying to hide something.”
He provide zero rationale for these accusations.
On January 14, in an angry remark he made in the comment section of one of his posts he suggested that the tax-exempt status of the fire and rescue agencies was “in jeopardy.”
He gave no rational reason for why anyone should believe that is the case.
The thing is all of the agencies are autonomous from each other, with each being overseen by their own board of directors, made up of leaders in the community, providing both oversight and assistance to them. Many of the treasurers of these boards are among the most well known accountants in Danville and there are even past and current elected officials serving on them too, one of whom has won every single race he has won in the county by a landslide. Many of the area’s best known business people also are on them. These people are county household names and everyone who lives here knows at least some of them. So, when Scearce makes these sort of remarks it all seems like madness.
The fact of the matter is that no money has been donated by a fire and rescue agency to a political candidate and one fire chief remarked that they invited all candidates to come and speak at his fire station after one of them asked to come. No agency or fire chief endorsed a candidate in the last election and such a thing has never happened before. A volunteer of the Ringgold Volunteer Fire Department won a supervisors seat in the last election against a Warren team member and that seems to have driven Supervisor Scearce up the wall. One wonders if a pastor of a church had won this seat if he would be going after the churches instead.
Mr. Scearce’s comments appear to be a fear campaign that is fizzling out.
I believe it is inappropriate for elected representatives to launch unwarranted attacks like this against civic institutions, such as the fire and rescue non-profit agencies, that serve the community. You would think he would be looking for ways to help the people in his district instead of playing witch hunt games like this. All that seems to matter at the moment for the Warren team is getting attention anyway they can to be relevant, and team member Scearce has been willing to descend to bizarre spectacle for his team to do so.
Scearce and Warren at the last meeting also objected to proposed changes that the new board voted on in how the Fire and Rescue Commission is composed. According to a county government press release, “Instead of the current structure, which is four citizens and four fire and rescue representatives appointed by the Board as a whole, this setup would allow each Supervisor to appoint a fire and rescue representative from their district. Then agencies would appoint one community leader for each quadrant of the county.”
I don’t really see why they objected to this, because the way it was before the Chairman of the Supervisors chose the commission members. With this change they now actually have a say that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. What is clear to me, though, is that some change was necessary. In reality the board was only a few years old and wasn’t functioning perfectly.
You can see what I mean from a commission meeting from back in May of last year. Check it out at the 1:40 mark and you’ll see confusion for a few minutes as a result of Supervisor Scearce and the former county administrator trying to stop them from voting on something they were not supposed to vote on and fix the situation. I wouldn’t fault them for this as any new organization can run into snags in how it is setup that require changes to be made for better functioning.
If you watch this up the 1:49 mark you’ll also see the former administrator speak of a four year “goal” to increase the county funding of the volunteer fire departments “tremendously, multifold” as a plan he expected to “be developing over the next nine months” ahead of the 2022 spring finance budget. It would have taken a new huge tax to accomplish that, because the volunteer fire departments have a budget of around $20 million with hundreds of volunteers, so it would take a lot of county money to fund the operations – and once large new taxes were levied businesses would be unlikely to donate as they do now. I would think that individuals and companies would rather donate to a nonprofit with gratitude and get their income level lowered on their tax forms than be milked at no choice by what would have been a new Smitherman/Warren tax on them. That’s all moot now with the Warren machine election loss.
People just want their elected officials to work together. They certainly don’t want them to be attacking them nor community leaders, much less trying to blame others for why they lost an election. One reason the Warren machine lost last year’s election, was because of its negative attacks on people, which looked like bullying. People are tired of the negativity and most of the current members of the Board of Supervisors have already turned the page on last year and are moving the county ahead.
Unfortunately, past history shows that Ronald Scearce will say anything. For instance, in the 2020 election cycle the big local issue was whether Danville voters would vote Yes or No for a Caesar’s casino. Scearce told WSET that at the time that the casino “scares me” and according to the reporting, questioned “whether Caesars will be able to hold up their end of the bargain when promising the creation of hundreds of new jobs.” I saw a few people at the time then believe rumors on Facebook that even if voters said yes to the casino that the company would back out or it wouldn’t happen. In the end, the fear campaign against the casino, that Scearce played a part in, fizzled out and failed.
The number of jobs the casino will bring is closer to 1,300, not just a few hundred.
The area is growing. New businesses are opening and more people are interested in moving to the area. Drive into Danville and go by the Schoolfield site and you’ll see the construction start for the coming casino that Scearce said might not happen. Scearce couldn’t scare the voters in Danville into voting no on the casino and he can’t stop people in Pittsylvania County from volunteering with the fire rescue departments either. So, if you are new to the area and are seeing Scearce’s show, you should know that most people who live here don’t pay attention to him that much anymore. He seems to like to try to provoke people into anger, but I kinda think of him as a crazy uncle, who sometimes is entertaining, sometimes annoying, but unique in his own way. The Warren machine is just desperately struggling to find a way to be relevant and hopefully they’ll eventually figure out a more positive way to do it than what they have been so far since their election loss.
And if you are new to the area spend a day and drive around the county. You’ll go by dozens of volunteer fire stations and you might even see an emergency vehicle on the road. The reality is, the volunteer fire and rescue volunteers are in integral part of the community and they are working harder than ever. The past few months have seen records calls for 911 EMS transport service, and they recently were on track to run 200 calls a week, way above their average of 140-170 a week, due to the covid surge. It has been tough, because area hospitals have been flooded, and short staffed, to the point where diversions to over 90 minutes away is often required. Each time that happens it can tie an emergency vehicle and its crew up for hours. Volunteers are working overtime and stretched, and despite all of that are still answering over 90% of the calls. Critical patients are still getting in quickly, but things like common colds and broken ankles take up a lot of time. This has been happening all over the country.
There are a lot of benefits to volunteering. It is rewarding to be a part of something beneficial to others, fun to learn new skills, and is a good way to stay active and fit no matter what one’s age. I think of the person who volunteers with a fire and rescue agency or serves on one of their boards or someone who simply donates to them, and think of what they are all doing for everyone and see in those actions some of the best of the area to be thankful for.