Monday, March 29, 2010

Crunch time

Budget hearing on Tuesday, March 30

The annual Goochland County budget process is almost over. A public hearing on the budget for fiscal year 2010-11, which beings on July 1,will be held in the high school auditorium at 7 p.m. March 30.

At this time, the supervisors will listen to citizen comment on the subject. The final vote to set rates for real estate and ad valorem tax and utilities will be taken a the April 6 Board of Supervisors’ meeting, which starts at 3 p.m.

Please try to attend both meetings. The supervisors need to know that large numbers of citizens, who pay taxes and vote, are paying close attention to their actions. If you can’t attend, please visit the county website and take a look at the proposed budget.

The document is well organized and includes a lot of good information about the county, a nice change from past practices. Notice the organization chart that places Goochland citizens at the top. Phone or email your supervisor with comments.

Based on comments made by County Administrator Rebecca T. Dickson at a March 23 workshop, the board seems to be considering either a two or four cent increase in the real estate tax rate and hefty hikes in utility rates, to begin to address shortfalls there.

Bear in mind that, thanks to drastically lower property assessments, an increase in the real estate tax rate will not necessarily mean a larger tax bill.

Most property owners in the county saw their land values fall after the latest reassessments. Other property owners, like those in upscale enclave of Kinloch, actually had increased valuations. In addition to higher real estate tax bills, should the supervisors decided to increase the real estate tax rate, the folks in Kinloch will probably also be hit with higher ad valorem tax and utility rates.

A four cent increase in the tax rate, again this would not necessarily translate into higher tax bills for everyone, would keep county spending pretty much in line with the current fiscal year. Because tax rates run for calendar, rather than fiscal years, this would also put a little extra in the pot to help make up shortfalls for the current fiscal year.

Dickson said that the four-cent option would restore some anticipated reductions in the budget for the Sheriff’s Department and Fire-rescue. There would be no furloughs for anyone involved in public safety.

The four cent option also includes retention of a ten-member planning commission.

While the cost for this is about $6,000, a mere drop in the bucket, there has been no public discussion about the matter, which places it squarely under the cloud of suspicion that obscured county operations for so many years. It is also a small, but perhaps quite telling, indication that the supervisors are sliding back to their old ways of the monkey business approach to conducting the people’s business. What other matters lurk in the shadows?

While most travel for county employees has been eliminated, a $6,000 plus item for travel remains under the supervisors’ budget.

This does show some restraint. They’ll only take their annual junket to the Homestead for the Virginia Association of Counties conference. Any county official who attends this event should make a public report on the meeting sessions attended. If they’re just going to schmooze, it should not be on the taxpayer’s dime. Remember the trip to Hawaii a few years back when we paid for all supervisors, the county administrator and county attorney to attend the National Association of Counties annual conference?

It was disappointing to see Dickson trot out the “if you don’t raise the tax rate, we’ll have to curtail public safety” gambit. If construction is way down, why do we need so many building inspectors, for instance?

Deputies, fire-rescue personnel and teachers, the front line providers for the health, safety and welfare of the citizens, should be at the very bottom of any reduction list.

Then there is the bottomless pit of the school budget. Members of the Goochland Education Parents Association have made several interesting suggestions about school transportation and maintenance (see for details) that the school board has ignored.

Perhaps school bus maintenance should be outsourced to a private company. This would create business opportunities n the county and remove health care costs and pension liabilities from the tax rate equation. Yes, a private contractor would factor those items into its costs, but it would not become an endless albatross around the county’s budget neck. As the school system expands and contracts— yes it happens — there would be no residual benefit liabilities and fewer overall county employees. It could also provide for competition, which could actually lower costs!

Credible arguments can be made for all tax rate options. The supervisors cannot raise the rate more than the four cents advertised.

Some parents advocate even higher rate increases to protect their children’s education. Some taxpayers believe that the 53 cent rate is too high and no further upward adjustments are warranted. Others feel that boosting the rates to generate the same revenues as last year is just about right.

Come listen to the discussion, add your two cents, or just make it clear that you are interested in your local government.

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