By Elaine Anne Watt
There are three registered candidates for Mayor of Middleburg for the coming election on May 1: Vincent Bataoel, chairman of the town’s Economic Development Advisory Committee since 2014, Mark Snyder, a Town Council member since 1998, and Bridge Littleton, a Town Council member since 2016. Beginning with Bridge Littleton in February, Vincent Bataoel in March, and now Mark Snyder for our April edition, we’ve been privileged to have an opportunity to discuss each of the candidates’ visions for our town.
Mark Snyder and I had never met prior to sitting down together to discuss his thoughts on the upcoming election and hopes for the Town of Middleburg. Having read some of his columns in the Middleburg Eccentric, I was aware of his active engagement in the affairs of the town, but there was much to learn about Mark both personally and professionally.
Mark unabashedly spoke of his love for the town where “he landed in his late 20s after his marriage ended.” He remains very close to his one daughter, who lives not too far away, north of Richmond near Tappahannock, but when he first arrived in town he was eager to put down roots. His professional career matured here over the course of the past 35 years with a company originally called Advanced Technology, which then changed to the Planning Research Corporation and eventually became Northrop Grumman, a very important company in the defense and government contract world.
He started getting involved in the governance of Middleburg in the mid-90s when there was the threat of a bypass being built around town. Mark had seen what had happened to Leesburg when their bypass was built, “sucking the life out of businesses in town and changing the character and environment of the town.” He was determined that Middleburg should not suffer the same fate.
Mark notes that Middleburg may be unique in Loudoun County in that it has never suffered the effect of an urban growth area.
“If you overlook the importance of open space, you lose this town,” said Mark. And, at the same time, “it’s not realistic to expect a lot of businesses that cater to local people to choose to come here.”
“The Town Council has been proactive in promoting tourism and anticipating the needs of businesses, but they need to do more to acknowledge and accommodate the needs of residents as well,” he said. Mark wants the town to have the benefit of his experience in working through challenging times, when the town was not enjoying excess revenues.
“Betsy [Davis] and I came on the council at the same time, in 1998, and we’ve worked well together,” he said. “I want to provide continuity for this town while making choices on the allocation of resources and where they are needed most.”
He’s also not in a hurry to spend money that doesn’t need to be spent. “I’m a little bit concerned that we are paying consultants for things that we used to do ourselves, adding projects or potentially properties or a little too eager to talk about replacing offices or adding technologies that we don’t really need,” he said.
One of the accomplishments of which Mark is most proud was his role in addressing what was an urgent wastewater treatment problem when negotiations with Salamander Resort were underway.
“We already knew that we needed to upgrade or replace the water treatment facilities,” he said. “We once had many people bring us jars of discolored water and complain about low water pressure. The whole town had to be shut down when a pipe burst because we had no shut-off valves.” Mark had stepped up and made utilities his issue when he first came on the council.
“So, why not ask Salamander Resort, whom we were already working on a Memorandum of Understanding with, to not just contribute, but pay for the whole thing?” he said. “They not only agreed to build the current wastewater treatment plant, they’ve built a second water treatment plant as well.”
Mark also spearheaded the importance of the Town and Salamander co-holding an easement with an open space land conservancy, which was done. Responsible development and protecting the land and character of the town always have been of paramount importance to him.
“The role of Mayor is a leadership one. The Mayor is there to help shape what happens to the town, to invite people in and to talk to other governmental bodies to effect what is in the best interest of our community. We’ve been very fortunate that the Town Council has been very cohesive for close to 20 years. We argue, gain consensus, and then most votes are unanimous,” said Mark.
He is concerned that a true understanding of the financial picture has not been made clearer. Saying that we have three to four million in the General Fund in “real reserves” is “overstating, as it includes grant monies and money we’ve borrowed but not yet spent on projects that have already been committed to,” he said.
Mark would like to see a General Fund reserve that is at least 50 percent of the annual budget. “We might be there or getting close, but we certainly aren’t above that figure,” he said. “We have a lot of work remaining to be done, including replacing the substandard water lines in Ridgeview and the West End Pump Station this year. Some of the General Fund will need to be loaned to the town Utility Fund to accomplish these much needed improvements.”
As part of his position as council representative on utility issues, Mark has looked very closely at water rates in Middleburg compared to other towns. “They are higher, on average about 1 ½ times other districts. Instead of building a wastewater treatment plant with a capacity of 175,000 gallons, two times the normal flow needed for the town, a 250,000-gallon capacity facility was built,” he said. “Bigger is not always better, because it costs more to run and maintain. A town of only 700 residents can’t spread out those costs.
“I spent a lot of time assessing current utility budgets, looking at end of life for major assets, and refining models to show the impact on stabilizing water rates and avoiding major fluctuations,” he added. “I walked the current council through it, and they understand it now and that we can hopefully maintain and improve our systems without the need to borrow more money.”
Furthermore, Mark said, “It is not typically the role of the Town to subsidize the utilities to reduce rates to consumers; in fact, it is usually utilities that contribute to towns.”
All in all, these types of issues, being able to make necessary improvements in good times and saving for a rainy day for the tough times, is part of good governance. “There are people who are expecting us to do more things than are realistic. Council doesn’t remember the tough times,” said Mark.
Understandably, he’s proud of the two actions recently shepherded through Richmond by Council members. The first allows Middleburg and Loudoun County to send a joint real estate bill, providing fiscal savings to both, and the second allows Middleburg to waive personal property taxes for town residents while still being able to assess businesses.
Mark also has been instrumental in his role as the council representative on the Wellhead Protection Committee, which is tasked to protect source water and threats to the watershed.
“We take wellhead protection more seriously than any other municipality, I believe,” said Mark. As a result, the Virginia Department of Health wants to set up Middleburg as a model for source water protection.
“You have to serve to keep things going and get things done,” he said. “It’s not just what’s important to you, but it’s what’s important to the town. You have to ask, what are we not doing that we should be doing?
“I don’t want just trust,” said Mark. “I want people to ask questions and to be a part of the process. Governance has to be transparent, and people have to take the responsibility to look at what’s happening. I won’t promise anything in this election that I won’t answer to later.” ML