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Tensions run high with $5K donation to Virginia Coalition

After several months of wrangling over whether it is appropriate for the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority to contribute $5,000 to Virginia Coalition to continue its fight to keep the ban on uranium mining, authority board members voted 5 to 2 in favor of making the donation Friday morning.

During their monthly meeting at Riverstone, all board members agreed they were opposed to Virginia Uranium Inc.’s efforts to lobby the General Assembly again to lift the 1982 ban so it can mine a 119 million-pound deposit of radioactive ore near Chatham in Pittsylvania County.

A similar effort failed last session in the Virginia Senate, with uranium mining supporters failing to get legislation ending the moratorium out of committee.

However, Butch Blanks and Garland Ricketts expressed their disfavor to a motion to make a donation to Virginia Coalition without “an appropriate and formal policy in place.”

Authority Board Chairman John Cannon, who also chairs the Virginia Coalition, said Friday if uranium mining ever goes forward “it will literally kill all economic development efforts in Halifax County.

“We have a very strong board, but we do have a difference of opinion on this issue. But when the board of supervisors and town councils don’t have a problem with it, why should we?” he asked.

Halifax Regional Hospital CEO and authority member Chris Lumsden made the motion to donate $5,000 to Virginia Coalition, and Wanda Jeffress offered a second.

During discussion on the motion, Blanks said board members have a fiduciary responsibility to county citizens to handle public funds in a responsible manner.

“A policy in my view would do that,” Blanks added.

Last year, authority board members got into a similar discussion when voting to donate $5,000 to the Virginia Coalition.

“The handling of this issue last year should have been instructive for our board to put in place a formal process for handling such requests going forward, but we did not do that,” Blanks said.

He chastised fellow board members for not handling the matter that “would have avoided a repeat of last year,” he said, adding, “I hate the fact that this issue has split this board again this year.”

At a previous meeting, Blanks suggested a policy be implemented, and the board supported him.

However, he said Friday, “That did not work, and now we are back where we started.”

He pointed out the donation, when approved, would be “an off-budget expenditure of funds,” and Blanks questioned how the board would handle other requests from outside organizations seeking funds in the name of economic development “without creating a credibility problem.”

Blanks told fellow board members he did not appreciate being put in the position he found himself in.

He clarified he favors what the Virginia Coalition is doing and wants to support its efforts, but described the handling of the donation as “irresponsible.”

Ricketts echoed some of Blanks’ comments saying it is “improper” for this board to donate taxpayers’ money when its members are not directly accountable to taxpayers.

“I think this matter could have been addressed in a better way,” Ricketts said referring to a possible conflict of interest for the board as a whole.

Cannon said he had spoken with the authority’s attorney, Sam Darby, who assured him no conflict of interest exists that would prevent the authority from making a donation to Virginia Coalition.

Furthermore, should the authority not make a donation to Virginia Coalition to continue supporting its fight to keep the moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia, Cannon said it would “send a bad message to the board of supervisors” who recently voted to contribute $5,000 to the coalition.

Supporting Lumsden’s motion with a second, Jeffress said she believed the donation would be “in the best interest of the IDA and county.”

She pointed out the $5,000 being used was not necessarily coming from taxpayer money because the authority has funds other than those from the county.

“I don’t believe the $5,000 donation is going to harm the county or the IDA,” Jeffress said, urging the board to focus on their more important responsibilities.

Voting in favor of the motion were Cannon, Lumsden, Jeffress, Mattie Cowan and W. W. “Ted” Bennett.  

Opposing the motion were Blanks and Ricketts.