Ahead of the Jan. 11 start of the Virginia General Assembly’s 2017 legislative session, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has set its own plans and priorities as the county’s representatives head to Richmond.
The major initiative put forward by the Board is legislation regulating new companies in the shared or “gig” economy. Chief among those is Airbnb, the online-based service that allows users to rent out rooms or entire properties without going through regulations and tax burdens of traditional hotels. As part of its legislative program, the Board said it wanted the General Assembly to compel transparency on short term rental services like Airbnb, while also allowing governments to collect transient occupancy taxes on them.
“It’s really important to encourage that and not throw cold water on it, but at the same time make sure it’s a level playing field,” said Chair Phyllis Randal (D-At Large).
Randall said the Board is looking for lawmakers in Richmond to pass legislation that will help regulate large-scale users, called operators, that own and subsequently list properties solely to turn a profit by renting on Airbnb. The County isn’t seeking new regulations impacting small-scale owners who occasionally rent rooms for extra money.
“If grandma and grandpa want to rent a room in their house 10 nights a year so what. But these operators are becoming prevalent (in Loudoun).” said Board Vice Chair Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn).
The county is also worried about the lack of inspections for these properties. Airbnb doesn’t have to go under the same fire inspections as hotels. There are also no occupancy regulations, and Buona said there have been examples of a dozen or more people staying in a suburban residential home which in turn causes problems for the rest of the neighborhood.
Randall said the county is monitoring the new shared economy businesses, but these efforts in the upcoming legislative session are ostensibly to regulate Airbnb. She said there were no talks by the Board about regulating popular ride share services like Uber and Lyft.
Supervisors Still Monitoring Proffer Bill
The other major focus of Board requires no legislative action — at least not now.
The previous General Assembly passed proffer legislation in 2016, barring municipalities from taking proffer money from developers as part of their approval process. The act went into effect on July 1 of this year, and the County hasn’t received any proffer offers since. This means Loudoun hasn’t seen yet what happens to development proposals without the possibility of proffers. Officials now are taking a “wait and see” approach for the 2017 session to find out what the long-term impact will be before possibly re-evaluating adjustments to the bill in the 2018 session.
Elected officials from Loudoun advocated against the proposal last year but were unable to stop its passage. Proffers can present a “win-win-win” for growing Loudoun, Buona said. He cited the Brambleton Library, which was paid by a proffer. The County received a library, residents got access to the library without having to use tax payer money, and the developer came away with a centerpiece for its town square. Heavily developed municipalities like Arlington County, or those without much development to begin with, are far less reliant on proffers than Loudoun, one of the fastest growing counties in the nation.
Loudoun was benefited by an important caveat of the legislation. As part of the bill, legislators worked out a deal allowing proffers for areas near new Metro stations. Loudoun and Fairfax counties are the only two of Virginia’s county or county equivalents scheduled to have new Metro stations.
Go Virginia Funding, Internet Access
There are several other key developments the Board will monitor during the 45-day legislative session. The Board continues to support the Go Virginia initiative, a system that looks to further business development and job growth. The statewide funding is divided into eight regions, and the Northern Virginia region, which includes Loudoun, gets around 30 percent of the money because of its population. With the Assembly facing a $1.5 billion deficit, Supervisors are hoping the Go Virginia funding doesn’t hit the chopping block.
“When do you see a program where more money comes to Northern Virginia than goes away from Northern Virginia? In this one, that’s the case,” said Buona, who serves on the Go Virginia board.
“A lot of the rest of the state looks at Northern Virginia as a money sinkhole,” Buona said. “We’re the goose that lays the golden egg that funds the rest of the state.”
Broadband internet access and cellular coverage, particularly in the western part of Loudoun, is also on the Board’s agenda. Supervisors are looking to balance ways to provide internet access in a world increasingly dependent on it, while also maintaining the rural integrity of the West.
Buona said the logistics of the sparsely populated West made it financially disadvantageous for broadband providers to install infrastructure for the service. He said residents who live in rural areas have to be responsible for choosing to live somewhere without amenities common in more densely populated areas and that he was not personally willing to fund it broadband expansion with taxpayer money.
Randall said among the biggest issues with reliable internet inaccessibility was the disproportionately averse affect on school children.
“We cant both say we want to have our kids learn in a technological society and compete and then not give them the resources to do that,” Randall said. “It’s not as if the kids in Loudoun are competing against the kids in Winchester or Fairfax or even in Ohio or Connecticut. They’re competing against kids in China and India.”
Among the other biggest priorities in education is the continued increase accessibility to full-day kindergarten in Loudoun. About 50 percent of County kindergartners go full-day now and plans are to ramp up to 75 percent in the coming years. The final push is dependent on classroom space, and supervisors are looking for solutions to overcome the physical hurdles of universal full-day kindergarten.
Session Provides New Opportunities for Board
The 2017 legislative session gives the Board it’s first real chance to go forward with it’s own agenda and policies. The 2016 session started days after the current Board took office following the 2015 election. Five first-time Supervisors were sworn in following that election, including Randall.
This year gives Randall in particular a chance to leave her own mark, particularly on substance abuse and mental health issues. She worked for more than 15 years in mental health and substance abuse therapy, and she said she was emboldened by initiatives by the National Association of Counties that advocate combating those issues. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked for nearly $32 million to improve and standardize mental health treatment across the Commonwealth.
Randall said this legislative session will help lay the groundwork for future improvements in these areas for the county and and beyond.
“To not understand substance abuse means you spend more money and lose more lives, so I am very happy we’re finally talking about this on a national and state level,” Randall said. “I’m fairly concerned we haven’t talked about it enough in the past at the county level, but I think we’re going to turn that corner this year also.”
Buona, who is serving his second term on the Board, said he wants professional service procurement changed during the session. Buona said the current system for the government in soliciting services like engineering and architecture is flawed and not beneficial to the tax payer.
“It’s costing us a lot of money and a lot of time for getting contracts rewarded, especially for things like building roads,” Buona said.