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Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.

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A Lesson In Needs-Based Budgeting

Did anyone else notice that during most of last night’s work session it looked like Supervisor Hap Connors was praying?

We’ll get to why he may have been praying later, but last night’s budget work session was a merry-go-round of comments and opinions. No official action was taken other than delaying the vote on the budget from April 8 to April 10 because Gary Skinner cannot make the April 8 meeting.

What was clear from last night is there is no real majority on this board when it comes to this budget.

Emmitt Marshall wants to give employees raises. Hap Connors wants to continue transportation projects without delays and not cut services to residents. Jerry Logan and Gary Jackson want staff to continue down the chopping block to get to a 56-cent tax rate. T.C. Waddy wants to help those on fixed incomes. Gary Skinner wants to ensure the school system gets all the money it requested.

How is that for a mixed-bag of budget possibilities? And all of this happened while about 50 firefighters and rescue men sat in the audience. Why were they there? I am sure they want raises and don’t want any new stations unstaffed or employees laid off.

County Administrator Randy Wheeler started off the somber meeting saying he is unsure how the additional $50 million in local funding cuts from the state will affect Spotsylvania. Then he talked about what I have blogged on the past two days: removing some projects from the CIP and delaying some bond referendum projects. His idea is to still fund the CIP at the proposed amount in the fiscal year 2009 budget, but not move ahead on some of the projects. That money could be a "reserve."

It is very possible the school system will request a bond referendum for November. The amount expected is about $47 million. If the school system is going to request a bond referendum, they have to do it by April or May to have it to the Circuit Court by June. County Attorney Jacob Stroman said the supervisors make the final decision on the bond amount. The School Board will pass a resolution in support of a bond amount, and Stroman said the supervisors have the final vote, and they can change the amount. This prompted Gary Skinner to warn supervisors that he doesn’t want another situation that happened in 2006, when Superintendent Jerry Hill was hauled into court.

School Board members have long argued that supervisors had no right changing the bond amount in their resolution for the 2005 bond referendum. They argued that supervisors should have sent the resolution back so the School Board could review and discuss it. Well, Stroman didn’t come out with a clear answer, but he basically said the supervisors can change the resolution amount if they want, but you would hope they’d contact School Board members and have a friendly discussion about the changes. That did not happen in 2005. But everyone seems to be playing nice now.

Then the work session got really interesting when Wheeler talked about the cuts needed to get to a 56-cent tax rate. Jerry Logan asked for the scenarios, and he has the support of Gary Jackson on this "exercise." With a 56-cent tax rate, the budget is 2 percent higher (it is about 4.7 percent now) than this current budget. The schools operating fund would be 2.8 percent higher. Another $3.5 million would be cut from the school funding with this proposal, increasing the "gap" to $11.1 million from what the schools want and what the supervisors may approve. To get down to a 56 rate scenario it took a cut of $11.7M (2.6%) from the .62 ($444.4M) advertised budget, according to Supervisor Jerry Logan (added 12:21 a.m. Thursday).

Those proposed cuts are not on the county Web site. It’s a long list of stuff, some of which I summarized in my last blog. Wheeler sent out a memo to all department heads and constitutional officers to cut their budgets by 10 percent. Wheeler and the budget staff took those cuts, read the impact statements each director wrote, and then decided what to chop based on that package of over 50 pages.

But before Wheeler even opened the discussion, Emmitt Marshall made a statement.

 

"I am not going to support laying off 18 county employees. I am going to support some kind of COLA increase for county employees. I see nothing in this proposal for that at all. Nothing."

Yes, to get to a 56-cent tax rate, 18 positions would be cut. But 11 of those are vacant. So, really, seven people would be laid off under this scenario.

Then, Emmitt Marshall attacked the County Attorney’s budget. County Attorney Jacob Stroman has five attorneys and three support staff. Stroman said his staff is comparable to other equal-sized localities, if not lower. It would be interesting to know what is driving Marshall to attack Stroman’s budget and staff of just eight people.

The 56-cent budget proposal has a $7,465 cut in outside counsel from the County Attorney’s budget. Marshall asked why Stroman’s office is safe from any staff cuts.

That led Stroman into a 10-minute explanation that I will summarize in a few sentences: Cutting a position from his office would slow down review of planning documents, and it would slow down responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, which he said have increased.

Marshall countered that growth has slowed in the county and there are less projects and less planning documents to review.

Supervisor Ben Pitts, who said he has made it clear he is not happy with how the county government handles FOIA requests, asked how much time is spent on the FOIA requests. Stroman said it can be 40 to 60 hours a week in a heavy month to a third of that in a light month. The dust settled. No one was injured.

After supervisors reviewed all the cuts that are required for a 56-cent rate, some complained about some of those cuts. T.C. Waddy complained about closing the convenience centers one day a week. Marshall did too, and said if the trash centers are closed, people will just dump the trash on private property. He knows, because it happens to him now, he said.

Hap Connors chimed in but he admitted his rhetoric was facetious. Connors said the state is required to fund constitutional offices–the sheriff, the commissioner of revenue, the courts, the treasurer, the commonwealth’s attorney–and the county has no legal requirement to fund them. He said he wanted a report from the sheriff and the fire and rescue chief to show where most of the calls for service are. Instead of spreading out the service, concentrate on the areas that have the most calls, he said. Keep in mind, Hap wasn’t really being serious.

 

"We could put out a 47-cent tax rate for the people of Spotsylvania County, and then I would like to see where the calls in public safety are going to," Connors said. "I am being a little bit facetious here. We can go back to where we were 25 years ago."

Connors said the point he was trying to make is this: if the goal is to get to the lowest tax rate possible, taxpayers need to fully understand the impacts. Less public safety service. Longer response times. Less county services for trash, less parks programs, less school programs, etc. The Belmont fire and rescue station doesn’t need staffing as much as the Four-Mile Fork area, for example, Connors said. That drew criticism from Waddy.

"If we want to race to the bottom of the tax rate, there are consequences," he said.

As supervisors complained about Connors’ requests and cuts, he would say: "Thank you for making my point."

Skinner then said the county is rich. Supervisors have to make the tough decisions.

Logan said he asked for these scenarios and what it shows is even with a 56-cent tax rate, the county budget still increases.

 

“Quite frankly, I am still in favor of going with a 56-cent tax rate this year.”

Logan then asked again for staff to show how much of the current tax rate is connected to the bond referenda voters passed. He said the public should know what the impact those bonds have had on the tax rate.

 

“If we are ever looking for a needs-based budget, this is the way to do it I think.” said Logan, using the term "needs-based" that the school system has used for its budget the past two years.

 

Since 2001, the county has been authorized to borrow $372,043,947. To date, $127,775,000 has been borrowed. He said it would require a 4.5-cent increase for 20 years to pay off the debt.

"We can’t continue to go down that road."

Gary Jackson said the county government needs to run within its fiscal means.

"It is not my goal that we craft a budget with the lowest possible tax rate and it is not my goal to go to level of services of 25 years ago," he said, in response to Connors’ remarks.

He said supervisors must fund essential government responsibilities: public safety, social services for children and education. Then, the government must balance the equities. Balance community needs against the ability to pay, he said. Maximize new revenues through fees for services, he said. Avoid increasing real property and other taxes, he said. The supervisors must demonstrate leadership and resolve, which starts with making severe budget cuts, he said. He ended his comments with optimism: "Keep in mind this too shall pass."

Surely, I missed some stuff here and there, but for the most part, that’s what happened last night in a two-hour period.

 

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/spotsygovt/2008/03/19/a-lesson-in-needsbased-budgeting/

  • gramps

    thanks Dan for a comprehensive overview of the work session. Your hard work are greatly appreciated. I think there are a couple of “givens” here. Skinner came to the BOS for one reason and one reason only…protect the school budget submittals. Connors wants all things and he wants them right now, ergo he sees no problems with tax increases (Sort of sounds like a future state pol in the making). Marshall and Waddy are very uncomfortable in these circumstances. I don’t think I have seen the county in more trouble than now.

  • hapconnors

    Gramps – I do not want “all things.” I made it very clear that my priorities match those of the people, who want us to fund education, public safety, and transportation solutions – and yes, I think we need to shore up social services. That is what the people have said year after year, and that is what I will fight for. This county has put off investments in roads and the courthouse area too long, and the costs have risen substantially. Putting them off longer only increases the costs, which will only take a bigger bite out of your wallet. So, investing in them now, I argue, is a forward looking vision that is also fiscally responsible. Yes, I do have more than a dollar store vision for this county – as do most of the new generation of people living here.

  • dantelvock

    Hap, welcome to my blog. Feel free to comment any time. You are the first supervisor to make a comment here, and it is great news for the residents of the county. Thank you.

    This easily could be an avenue for supervisors to communicate with residents who comment here. Gramps is regular here.

  • lgross

    What happened to Level of Service Standards and the concept of the Balanced Scorecard.

    If we used LOSS – then at budget time – citizens could be presented with a LOS equalization rate – which would mean the rate necessary to MAINTAIN the current LOS.

    What I object to – is a process where “fear” words are used rather than objective data.

    How much are citizens paying PER CAPITA for public safety, schools, libraries, etc in the new budget compared to the previous budget.
    Citizens – taxpayers ARE entitled to an honest account of a true base budget – where LOS is static and add-ons/new costs for additional services.

    Let’s DO have a budget process that is clear to citizens and let’s clearly distinguish between “fully funding” the desired LOS and a needs-based LOS budget.

  • hapconnors

    Larry – All that information is readily available. Again, we can make excuses NOT to act – and I’ve been on the Board in good times, and now, not so good times. And I’ve heard Board members say that we can’t invest in good times, as we have to keep taxes low; now, they say that we can’t invest in bad times. So, when is it time to invest? Do we have to wait until the Sheriff’s roof collapses (which is a real scenario), or our secondary roads become parking lots? In addition, the Board in 2005 put a referendum out to the people. They said yes to these investments, and I believe we have an obligation to invest in them, using the fiscally responsible guidelines we adopted and are using and that our bond rating agencies like.

  • lgross

    A triple AAA bond rating is a worthy goal …. a ball worth keeping the BOS eye on…

    I think the average citizen yearns to understand what they get from a tax increase.

    That’s the “hit” … often hurled… “our taxes keep going up for no good reason”.

    Wheelers budget documentation process is very clear – but it still is beyond many average citizens.

    There needs to be a cheat sheet (that probably would help the BOS also – truth be known). :-)

    Basically.. citizens know that inflation and increased growth can require more money but they also know that more people – pay more taxes also so what they want to know in simplied terms is:

    1. – what are we ADDing to that in terms of new programs and infrastrcture

    2. – The increase to their mortgage/taxes – which could be shown with a range of typical

  • lgross

    … man this is a restrictive commenting environment even with .. the increased in limit and I’ve wasted some of my precious allocation just complaining about it. :-)

    Anyhow.. so . .either the BOS .. defines and explains it’s budget so that the average citizen can understand it relative to his/her own situation.. or.. you become vulnerable to others mis-characterizing… Clarity is good.

    Someone said that it’s a vocal minority complaining.. probably true but what not have a clear and concise budget rather than using “needs based” which is a slippery word when used in some contexts?

    People do want to understand why an equalized rate IS HARMFUL… and they do want to do the benefits to them from a higher rate… on bulletized one pager like Dan here tries to summarize.. not without difficulty.

  • gramps

    I addfressed Mr. connors comments on the other blog but I will add one additional comment here. I NOTE with great interest Connors last sentence…is it only the NEW GENERATION that he cares about?

  • gramps

    the typos in the last post. I must be getting careless in my old age, probably due to being old generation.