The questions began last winter. By late spring they had generated investigations by the FBI, the Virginia State Police and the U.S. Office of Revenue Sharing. This week, as summer perspired to an end, there were enough scandals sprouting in this newly suburbanized county to make any chamber of commerce weep.
The problem we have here is mismanagement of funds," says Frank Hagy, the president of Stafford's energetic taxpayers' association, who has accused some of the county's highest officials of "going out and having a ball on county money."
The fracas in this county of commuters, which straddles i-95 between Washington and Fredericksburg, has let in the last two weeks to the demotion of Stafford's county administrator and the resignation of the board of supervisors' chairman.
It also has prompted a number of old-fashioned shouting matches between citizenry and elected officials over the future of Stafford. In the last decade, the county has welcomed the development that has radically changed the shape and lifestyle of the land corridor between Washington and Richmond.
I'm not denying that there might have been some hanky panky in high places," says John A. Torrice Jr., chairman of the board of the Peoples' Bank of Stafford. "But the fundamental problem is we grew to fast. Now we're suffering the growing pains."
Only two counties in Virginia, Spotsylvania and Prince William, are growing faster than Stafford. Since 1970 the population of this once agrarian county has almost doubled, from 24,000 to 42,000.
Stafford's suburbanization has been accompanied by a demand for expensive services such as water and sewage hookups, increased police and fire protection and new schools. In its attempt to provide those services, the county has been forced to take out large loans and adroitly juggle its cash accounts.
Life in this county has resembled a frontier town in the last few years," says one citizen activist who moved to Stafford from Fairfax County in 1973. s"The wheeling and dealing has been happening so fast, nobody seems to know exactly where we're heading."
The decision to compete for housing developments and new industry was a conscious one, according to Stafford officials. For that purpose, the county eight years ago hired N. C. Sharp as its administrator.
Sharp, who had held the equivalent position in Prince William County for 16 years before he was fired in a political shakeup, is called "feisty" and "abrasive" by his critics, while his supporters characterize him as "energetic" and "persuasive."
Both friend and foe admit that the recently deposed administrator was extraordinarily successful in attracting industry and federal grant money to Stafford.
"He has really been good at selling the county," says one Stafford planning administrator of the 56-year-old Sharp, who displays newspaper clippings like hunting trophies that tell of industries moving their headquarters from surrounding counties to Stafford.
While Sharp's critics do not oppose new industry, many have charged that his courting methods have cost too much money. The Potomac News, a Dale City newspaper, reported last month that Sharp had spend more than $50,000 in expenses during the past five years. The same paper accused Sharp in an editorial of "going first class at the expense of the county taxpayers."
Sharp refused to be interviewed. Supporters argue that much of that money was spent by various members of the board of supervisors and that Sparp simply picked up the tab.
"A lot of people just don't understand what it takes to get industry in this county," says 72-year-old W. Hanford Abel, who has been on the board of supervisors for 29 years, and was voted the new chairman after Alvin Bandy resigned from the office last week. "You've got to go out and spend money."
A more serious allegation that involved both Sharp and the board of supervisors, concerns possible bid-rigging for construction contracts over the past four years.
The Alexandria office of the FBI is investigating allegations that cost increases in contracts were approved without getting necessary change in orders, that the cost of projects multiplied sharply after contracts were awarded and that rules governing competitive bidding might not have been followed.
In 1977, for example, Cook Brothers, Inc, a Stafford firm, was awarded a contract for a courthouse sewer pumping station. The contract originally was signed for $75,000. After the contract was signed, Stafford added another $325,000 in work without seeking new bids.
The federal Office of Revenue Sharing is investigating charges that public funds were spent on water and sewage projects that are supposed to be privately funded.
"The water and sewer problems are at the root of our evil over here, " admits Torrice, who explains that since continued growth depends on adequate water and sewage systems, the county administration has been "robbing Peter to pay Paul" to complete them.
While the state and federal investigations continue, Sharp has been given a job as the county's industrial development director. Bandy, while no longer chairman, remains one of six supervisors.
In the wake of the end-of-summer shootout, there are those in Stafford who voice doubts about the wisdom of an annual four percent growth rate.
"Too rapid growth puts you in a bad situation," says George Gordon, the elected commissioner of revenue. "The boys with the sharp pencils figure it takes about 15 years for a residential development to start paying for its services in taxes. Until then we have a real cash flow problem."
Other county officials worry about the impact of recent negative publicity on Stafford's credit rating and its ability to attract more industry. Gordon, however, looks beyond those concerns to a worrisome horizon.
"We're traveling the same road Prince William and Fairfax counties traveled," says the white haired commissioner unhappily."I presume we'll end up the same they did."