Finding a safe path through the budget minefield
On February 23, the Goochland supervisors got their first official look at the county administrator’s recommended budget for fiscal year 2010-11, which begins on July 1.
County administrator Rebecca T. Dickson, who has been on the job a tad over six months, gets high marks for the detailed budget documents presented to the board and made easily accessible to the public. This is a welcome change from past practices, which made a condensed version of the proposed budget available to interested parties for $10.
The proposed budget is available in hard copy at the Goochland Branch Library and at the county website www.co.goochland.va.us. It contains a wealth of useful information about county operations. Sunshine is a vital element in public policy.
Following excruciating public hearings, deliberations and hopefully, deep thought, the supervisors will set tax rates for 2010 on April 6.
The budget process, contentious even in bountiful years, could get ugly before it is over.
No one in local government, not even District 1 Supervisor Andrew Pryor, who has been in office for more than three decades, has ever dealt with revenue shortfalls of this magnitude.
It’s easy to suggest either more budget cuts, or tax rate increases and ignore protests of dissenters. The wisest path though the fiscal minefield is perhaps a combination of the two extremes.
The trick is to set priorities and stick to them. However, as Dickson pointed out in her remarks to the board, all functions are interrelated and cuts in one function will affect others.
At the end of the day the county must be in a position to function well and provide core service to its citizens. The budget crisis offers the opportunity to prune deadwood and plan for the future.
The choices are painful. Some county employees will lose their jobs and functions will be eliminated or combined.
Services will be curtailed. Library will be drastically reduced. In FY 2009, 84,548 visitors were logged. That does not count those who did not use a computer or check out materials. This will have a significant impact on the 18,000 or so residents— the 2,000 inmates at local prisons, who are counted in the population, don’t have library cards— who depend on the library.
Public comment at the workshop meeting was thoughtful and compelling.
A member of GEPA presented his work on the school system maintenance and transportation system, which is available at goochlandparents.blogspot.com.
Other speakers urged the supervisors to increase the tax rate to prevent further cuts.
Karen Myrick of Maidens presented a nickel to the board following a passionate plea to increase the tax rate by that much. She urged them to be careful, compassionate and collaborative in their budget deliberations.
Robin Lind of Manakin gave a thumbnail history of the county for the three decades he’s lived here.
“When we moved to Goochland 30 years ago, the population was 12,000 and the starting salary for teachers was $12,000,” he said.
Lind cited the improvement in local schools, professional, competent service provided by the Goochland Sheriff’s Department and Fire-Rescue Volunteers, which need adequate funding to function well. He too left a nickel for the supervisors.
Jane Christie, a GEPA parent, entreated the board to require greater detail in the school budget. She contended that the proposed budget presented by school board and Dr. Underwood, which lists about 60 percent of the requested funds in one line item, hides unnecessary administrative positions created in the past three years.
Dickson said that the budget is a work in progress and warned that FY 12, in which further declines in real estate values are expected, will be more difficult.
The recommended budget represents a 10.59 percent decrease for general government.
Recommendations include razing the Fairgrounds Building; eliminating curbside recycling for the eastern end; curtailing hours of operation at the western convenience center, which includes one job loss; reducing the size of the planning commission from 10 to five members and furlough days for county employees.
Dickson’s thorough look at county operations also resulted in a recommendation that the changes in contract hauling and procedures and processes, again a new and welcome concept for Goochland government.
Based on the recent reassessment, Dickson valued a penny of real estate tax at $380,000.
Dickson said that, based on revenues generated by the 53 cent tax rate, the county must identify an additional $421,00 in cuts. This would mean more job eliminations and could result in other actions including some sort of charge for EMS calls. A tipping fee at the convenience center could also be levied.
The schools still need to identify $1,032,000 while refusing to acknowledge the GEPA suggestions. This amount could increase, depending on final numbers from the state.
With no tax increase, the county will need to reduce spending by up to an additional $2.5 million in FY 12.
As to the tax rate, a four cent increase to 57 cents per $100 of valuation would mean no further cuts. Because tax rates apply to calendar rather than fiscal years, this would also help with the shortfall being realized in the current fiscal year.
Although the 53 cent rate has been in force for the past few years, it is by no means sacred.
As property values skyrocketed in mid decade, the tax rate was reduced. In 2007, the same people who contended that the Tuckahoe Creek Service District was fiscally sound, presented a tax rate scheme based on a six percent annual increase in property values that would go on forever.
As values increased, the supervisors could take credit for keeping the tax rate low even though tax bills — everyone had more of the hundred dollars’ of valuation— would rise.
While there may have been some expectation that the rate of increase would slow, no one expected values to fall off a cliff.
Some people believe that Goochland’s tax rates should be higher because ours are so much lower than surrounding counties. We get fewer services. If you are healthy, law abiding and have no children in school, your county services amount to use of the library and the convenience center.
While property values generally decreased, some went up. Landowners in the TCSD are faced with increases in the ad valorem tax and utility rates. Many residents live below the poverty line and struggle to survive.
Unlike other taxes, local taxes stay close to home.
Finding the balance between fiscal responsibility and irreparable harm to county functions will be hard. At the end of the day, no one will be happy.