Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.
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.