An Interview with Purcellville Mayor Kwasi Fraser
Mayor Kwasi Fraser has one of the most thoughtful demeanors of any politician you’ve ever met; perhaps because he’s not a politician at all. Fraser’s Linkedin profile describes him as a “Business Development Professional and Change Leader” yet, watching his actions during a Town Council meeting or his simply shaking hands on the street, we see an everyday man who believes he has something very special to offer his town.
In 2014, Fraser, garnering over 60 percent of the vote, was elected mayor and, in 2016, was reelected by over 70 percent.
His platform is very straightforward. Before the 2014 election, Purcellville had accumulated over $60 million in debt and was pursuing a policy of aggressive growth. Since then, Fraser, along with the new majority, has steered the Town toward the path of debt reduction, fiscal accountability, and increased transparency. Liberating Purcellville from the decades-old status quo policy of growing its way out of debt, Fraser has placed its citizens back in control. For instance, the Town is now in the process of reestablishing historic standards. In addition, key Town assets such as Fireman’s Field will now be protected and managed in ways that ensure sustainable futures.
Says Fraser, “I ran on a simple message of putting citizens first which harkens back to the formation of our republic; of government for the people by the people.
Purcellville’s citizens deserve a Town government that places their interests above all else, and we are committed to getting there.”
Blue Ridge Leader: You pledged to make Town government more transparent. Have you achieved that?
Mayor Kwasi Fraser: Transparency began with liberating the Town’s financial documents from difficult to navigate PDFs. We installed OpenGov software that has increased availability and accessibility to how the Town spends our tax dollars. A simple to use online application, this software provides a clear and interactive breakdown of the Town’s finances and our monthly check registry. In addition, meeting minutes are all searchable via our website. Citizens now have access to each Town Council member and myself via a single email letter link. Having launched a more user-friendly website, we have added an official Facebook page for social media engagement and a citizen polling application to obtain continuous feedback.
BRL: You’ve said that Purcellville can’t grow its way out of debt. What actions have you taken to better manage the Town’s finances?
KF: When I first became Mayor, Purcellville was in debt over $60 million, with the majority owing to an upgrade to our wastewater treatment plant, which was more than 45 percent underutilized. Prior to that time, the approach to reducing debt had been heavily dependent on growth and increases in water and sewer fees. Once elected, my approach was one of finding ways to better monetize the $125 million in Town owned assets, to find cost savings, and to increase operational efficiencies. Recently, we cut $325,000 in annual expenses from the Utility Enterprise Fund and raised over $300,000 from the sale of an underperforming asset.
During my term as Mayor, our debt has decreased each year – without the massive growth that would have changed the character of our Town and forced double digit percent increases in water and sewer rates. Our citizens will not receive any increase in water and sewer rates this Fiscal Year, and our financial consultants confirm that this will have no negative impact on our fiscal outlook. Pending a successful restructuring, our debt is projected to be below $55.7 million by October 1, 2017. This includes taking action to insulate our citizens from the balloon payments due starting in 2021. This debt restructure will not only free up cash and lessen the debt burden but also will eliminate the revenue generating restrictions on our existing tax-free bonds. With these restrictions eliminated, we will be in a better position to realize optimum non-tax revenue from the majority of our underperforming assets. Many will argue that costs will continue to rise, and that may be true. However, those increases do not necessarily have to be paid by our taxpayers if we are able to get additional non-tax revenues from water tower leasing, better management of Town assets, water reclamation and bulk water sales, and selective timber cutting, among other initiatives.
BRL: What steps have you taken to ensure that planning and zoning reflects the desire of the citizens?
KF: We are moving forward with a Comprehensive Plan revision which upon completion will better reflect our citizens’ views regarding growth. For example, our Planning Commission is working to lower height limits in the historic C-4 District and to increase setbacks that conform with Purcellville’s character. Our citizens, also county residents, have the power to hold our Supervisors accountable to ensure they adhere to the zoning in Western Loudoun. Developers should engage all impacted citizens to arrive at a place that does not compromise the character of Western Loudoun.
BRL: What is new and significant in the budget the Town released in June 2017?
KF: As first proposed, this budget would have pressured the Town to grow significantly to avoid double digit increases in water and sewer rates. That was unsustainable. So, the Town Council adopted a budget which reduced utility fund expenses by $325,000 – or about 3 pennies on the tax dollar which is not a onetime reduction; it is annual.
In addition, regarding the General Fund, there will be no increase in tax rates, significant cost cutting without compromising services, and operational enhancements. We have instituted a 3 percent pay raise to staff, maintained a projected surplus with no negative impact on financial health, and maintained a strong bond/credit rating.
With respect to the Utility Enterprise Fund, we have guaranteed no increase in water and sewer rates, reduced chargebacks by $325,000, and also realized cost savings without compromising services.
BRL: What are the most common complaints you receive from the citizens?
KF: By far, excessive growth rates and high water and sewer bills are the most common citizens’ complaints. Priority wise, we will ensure citizens are heard on all proposed development projects.
Also, we will continue to encourage developers to seek advance feedback from our citizens. This will ensure that our residents maintain control over whatever development product is being proposed. In addition, the Comprehensive Plan is and will remain our guide in responding to development requests.
Water and sewer bills are too high – absolutely. But, I take a big picture approach to this and other financial issues, and building on our momentum is key. We’re attacking water and sewer rates, and we will continue to do so. Town assets are in a better state – and we will continue down that road. Town reserves are something we haven’t addressed specifically here, but we have boosted those while reducing our debt by making sure our cash is realizing the highest interest rates available.
Interestingly, the two things citizens care about the most – managing growth and Town finances – are linked. And, we will continue to make sure citizens know we have heard them and are acting on what they say and what they want.
BRL: Tell us about the business climate in Purcellville.
KF: Because Purcellville remains the economic hub of Western Loudoun, businesses want to move here. Over the past year, we welcomed forty-one new businesses and twenty-seven new home occupations totaling sixty-eight new enterprises. In addition, Southern States, supporting Loudoun County’s $208 million equestrian industry, invested in a significant expansion and renovation. Likewise, McDonald’s also invested in a new expanded restaurant. During the past two months, we have had two ground breaking ceremonies. We are the headquarters to Lowers Risk Group, a risk management company with international presence boosting a 3-year sales growth of 339 percent, Dragon Yong-In, one of the country’s largest Tae Kwon Do schools, and Catoctin Creek Distillery, which produces Virginia’s most-awarded whisky and serves a global market. Many more great businesses call Purcellville their home, and this council will continue to encourage and to support businesses that will complement Purcellville’s character as well as provide excellent service to our community.
BRL: What does the Town offer that is fun and entertaining?
KF: With signature events like Loudoun Grown Expo, the Halloween Block Party, and Christmas in Purcellville, the Town continues to work with businesses and volunteer groups that offer entertainment and recreational activities for families. We also have the 4th of July and Christmas parades. Upcoming in October is the Purcellville Tag Sale, an event that offers residents and buyers chances to earn and to save cash. The newest event in the planning stages is the Purcellville Grub Crawl. This is an opportunity for restaurants to showcase their menus and attract repeat customers.