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Hope Wyatt reaches for a ball at the net in the Class 1 state finals against Buffalo Gap.

HoustonFest back after two years
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HoustonFest returned to Felts Park in Galax after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, with loads of live music from young musicians and established bands alike, plus a silent auction, dancing, food and the traditional remembrance of Houston Caldwell, for whom the festival is named. Caldwell was a young firefighter and musician who encouraged other young people to take up instruments and keep traditional mountain music alive. This year’s festival was all smiles, strings and the pursuit of good music.

Galax proposes tax increase
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Galax City Council did not pass the fiscal year 2023 budget at its monthly meeting on June 13, but will have a special called meeting on June 27, where the budget in some form is expected to pass.

The budget must be adopted by June 30.

Also on June 27, council will hold a special public hearing for citizens to attend and make their feelings heard about a proposed 8¢ real estate tax rate increase. If adopted, it would raise the current rate from 92¢ per $100 of assessed real estate value to $1 per $100.

Council proposed the tax increase as a way to generate more revenue versus dipping into the city’s already-existing fund balance.

The advertised budget included a general fund of $24.9 million, a utility fund $4.5 million and a stormwater fund of $607,500. The budget revisions do not include changes to the utility or stormwater funds.

However, changes were proposed to the general fund budget. In expenditures, this would include the removal of the potential new animal control truck (the largest item, coming in at $35,000); plus other, smaller items totaling $76,195.

In revenue, the changes include the addition of $12,000 in Rex Theater rent, reducing Rex Theater revenue by $2,000 and reducing $121,195 to be used from the fund balance.

These changes to revenue and expenditures results in a revised final general fund budget of $24.8 million.

The tax increase was proposed by Council Member Mike Larrowe.

“The Budget and Finance Committee reviewed this at least three times,” he noted at the beginning of a discussion among council members that lasted about half an hour at the June 13 meeting.

Larrowe said that the budget, even with adjustments, left the city “with a spending deficit somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000… the budget as presented contemplates a $1.3 million transfer to the utility fund, which is fine. That reflects the fact that those rates have been a little too low over the years, but nonetheless we still need to do it,” to comply with debt coverage.

“Also, there’s $875,000 more or less that is not included on deficit spending that may be required in the radio interoperability program between Carroll Grayson and Galax, which are currently assumed to come from the ARPA funds, as you recall,” Larrowe said, referring to upgrades aimed at helping local first responders better communicate.

However, with infrastructure improvements that are needed at the water treatment plant — as opposed to the wastewater treatment plant, which already has received its needed upgrades — Larrowe said that even with grant money, the city’s financial responsibilities would lead to deficit spending.

He then proposed the real estate tax increase of 8¢.

Council Member Travis Haynes agreed. “I think we’re going to have to do this anyway.”

“I’m not in favor of deficit spending,” said Council Member Martin Warr. “We’ve been through this budget several times, and we’ve cut things, we’ve tried to be careful about increasing the revenue side, and being realistic about it… I just can’t support deficit spending.”

Mayor Willie Greene disagreed. “I’m not in favor of raising taxes,” he said. “We’ve used the general fund balance before. I think we need to go with this budget... I think people need time to look at that. [For] some people, it’s kinda tough. Some may not have a problem paying their taxes, but some people, they’re on a fixed income and their taxes are going to go up $200-$300.”

Greene said he is not against raising taxes, “because we’ve had to do it before, because I understand that’s how the city gets its revenue... but I think there’s a [better] way to do it. We’re in pretty good shape. We need to think about the citizens.”

Vice Mayor Beth White, who participated remotely by phone due to a scheduling conflict, said she was worried about the possible financial issues Larrowe had raised, and said she thought another public hearing — plus more time spent reviewing the budget — was called for.

Though a motion was made to pass the budget as it stood, only Greene and Council Member Evan Henck voted yes.

After some debate on dates, council chose to hold a public hearing on the proposed tax increase on June 27 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, noting that it also is likely the budget finalization date.

centerpiece featured
Peddy, Adams departing school board
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In an unforeseen decision, the Galax City Council denied Melissa Peddy’s bid to retain her position on Galax School Board, where she serves as chairwoman.

The change was announced at the June 13 council meeting.

Peddy was among five people vying for two seats on the board, whose three-year terms run out at the end of June. Traditionally, when a sitting school board member submits a letter of interest and undergoes an interview, council has voted to reappoint them, though this is not mandatory.

First-time candidates Edith Mar Castillo and the Rev. Dr. Kevin Rosenfeld were selected to serve on the school board, after receiving the most votes from city council members.{/span}

Council conducted interviews with school board candidates in May. At the June 13 meeting, Mayor Willie Greene read a list of candidates’ names and council members voted. Council Member Evan Henck recused himself from voting because his wife, Leah, is a school board member.

Castillo received five votes, from Greene and council members Travis Haynes, Mike Larrowe, Martin Warr and Beth White.

Rosenfeld received five votes, from council members Sharon Ritchie, Haynes, Larrowe, Warr and White.

Peddy received two votes, from Greene and Ritchie.

Also in the running for the school board seats were Jordan Anderson and Jealynn Coleman, neither of whom received any votes.

Though in good spirits at the meeting, later in the evening Peddy expressed surprise and disappointment on a social media post. She has served on the school board for four years.

It read, in part, “I want to share my gratitude for the past four years serving in my role as a board member for the school system… The teachers and staff who comprise Galax City Public Schools truly are amazing… My children will continue to attend Galax schools.”

She thanked Council Member Sharon Ritchie and Mayor Willie Greene “for seeing the value that I have brought to the school board in terms of my leadership, experience, knowledge and passion for education and mental health for all.”

Though she said she was disappointed to lose the seat after four years, Peddy added, “I have learned so many times that I cannot make others see my worth if they can’t see it for themselves. I have also learned that I am the type of person who always uses disappointment as a stepping stone to something better.”

However, Peddy also indicated she did not have any rancor towards the incoming school board members and later said, “I would be happy to assist the new board members in their transition into these roles to ensure the continued pursuit towards excellence for our students, teachers, and staff.”

Unlike Peddy, Dr. Jim Adams did not seek to be reinstated.

“I have been on the board for 19 years,” Adams said of his decision to step down. “I’ve really enjoyed it and learned a lot from everybody I worked with, but I felt like it was time to let someone else have a voice. I’ve enjoyed working with superintendents and administrators, and I’ve been interested in projects we’ve worked on, but in public education, people need a chance to speak. And the only way for me to do that was to move over and let someone have a turn.”

He added, “I would say that there’s no more important role for local government than to provide the highest quality education possible and that it’s been an enormous honor to serve with everyone.”

He also said he felt that letting go of Peddy was a “mistake that will result in some pretty significant disruption in the next two years. Melissa is extraordinarily well-qualified to be a school board member and chairperson, and I’m extremely disappointed for our city that she won’t be serving in that role.”

Of Castillo and Rosenfeld, Adams said, “I think they’ll be great members,” but noted that Peddy’s removal “says high-level performance and responsibility is not enough if you want to be reappointed to your boards.

Peddy and Adams received a brief send-off reception the next night at the regular Galax City School Board meeting, along with gifts from the school system and brief farewell speeches, including one from former School Board Chairman Ray Kohl.

He said that Adams was an analytical person “who would always remind us of what all of the options were” when decisions needed to be made. Kohl added, “We always made the best decisions because of his input.”

Of Peddy, he said, “She brought a whole new life” to the board, and reminisced about riding to conferences with her and the discussions they held along the way.

Finally, he said to both of them, “Everyone has their part on the board and they filled theirs admirably. It was my honor to serve with them.”

Though visibly emotional at the meeting, Superintendent Susan Tilley took a positive view of the changes.

During the meeting, she praised both of them for their service and dedication. Later, she said, “It has been a pleasure to work with Mrs. Peddy and Dr. Adams. They have both provided excellent leadership to our school division. I look forward to working with our two new appointees. I am confident they will also provide strong leadership to our division.”

There were a few teary eyes in the room, but both Adams and Peddy smiled and stood for photos, expressing gratitude for their time on the school board.

Peddy thanked everyone again; Adams said, “It’s been a great honor, and I’ll miss all of you.”

Galax cases involve fugitive, forgery
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The Galax Police Department recently arrested a fugitive on drug charges and handled a forgery case.

On June 9, a woman tried to cash a check at the drive-thru of a Skyline National Bank branch in Galax, according to a police report.

The teller suspected a forgery and the woman was asked to come inside. After not being able to sufficiently explain what institution issued the check and for what purpose, the woman left the bank.

The bank manager contacted the financial institution the woman named and discovered the check was fraudulent, the report said. Officer Jonathan Mullins investigated and issued warrants on the woman.

On June 11, Amber Daniels, 26, of Fries, was arrested by the Grayson County Sheriff’s Office on a felony charge of forging coin or bank notes in the amount of $3,990. She was issued a $2,000 secured bond and transported to New River Valley Regional Jail.

Fugitive Arrested

On June 12, Sgt. Jason Hawks was on patrol when he noticed a vehicle fail to make a stop at an East Galax intersection.

After Hawks pulled the car over, dispatch identified the driver as Shona Hawks, 46, of Galax, and also advised she was wanted on a capias warrant out of Carroll County.

Hawks placed her under arrest and she gave consent for her vehicle to be searched, the report said. During the search, a syringe filled with clear liquid was located. The officer identified the substance as methamphetamine.

She was then transported to the Galax Police Department. She was not given bond on the capias and was transferred to the regional jail.

Grayson broadband effort a model for larger project
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Appalachian Power’s partnership with Grayson County to install broadband is now being used as a model for other rural areas of Southwest Virginia.

APCo said a new proposal could make broadband access available to nearly 15,000 Southwest Virginia households and businesses that lack reliable high-speed internet.

“Our efforts to bring quality internet access to parts of Bland and Montgomery counties in many ways mirrors what we’ve accomplished in nearby Grayson County,” said Chris Beam, APCo president and chief operating officer. “Fiber-optic cable allows us to utilize new digital technology on the grid to improve electric service for customers, while also creating an opportunity to lease the excess fiber to an internet service provider for broadband.”

APCo — part of American Electric Power — filed its proposal last week with the Virginia State Corporation Commission. Pending approval, the company plans to begin construction in approximately six months.

Bland and Montgomery County officials have chosen internet service provider GigaBeam Networks to collaborate on the project.

GigaBeam is currently working with APCo, Meta (Facebook) and Grayson County to make broadband access available to roughly 6,000 customers.

In December 2021, Elk Creek Volunteer Fire Department became the first Grayson County customer to connect to high-speed internet.

State legislation allowing electric utilities to use their fiber optic infrastructure for broadband originally was passed in the Virginia General Assembly to make the Grayson project possible.

Now, that law is allowing other communities in Virginia to replicate this local project.

Proponents of the plan say high-speed internet benefits households by providing access to telemedicine and online education, and aids localities with business recruitment and retention.

“The lengthy and costly middle-mile infrastructure required to reach customers in mountainous terrain and sparse populations often hinders broadband expansion in rural communities,” APCo explained in its announcement last week.

Through the New River Valley Regional Commission, Bland and Montgomery counties received a $39 million Virginia Telecommunications Initiative grant last year from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to assist with financing the broadband project.

“We’re making a difference in the lives of families and communities,” said Michael Clemons, chief executive officer for GigaBeam Networks. “We look forward to working with Appalachian Power, Bland and Montgomery counties to make reliable, high-speed internet access a reality for thousands of families who for too long have gone without the ability to tap into the digital world.”