Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hard Choices

Painful county budget process continues

At a budget workshop, attended by so few citizens that it could have been a closed meeting, Goochland supervisors listened to entreaties from county departments for funding.

There are no easy choices this year, but the drastic revenue shortfall provides an opportunity for the supervisors to take a fresh look at each government function and prioritize them for the benefit of citizens.

Given the past history of this bunch and the blatant power plays that are a feature of every board meeting, it is doubtful that enough supervisors have the will or intelligence to make changes.

Unlike other departments, County Sheriff James L. Agnew declined to bludgeon the board into a number-induced stupor with charts and graphs.

Off duty deputies and dispatchers attended Agnew’s presentation in uniform. They filled the back rows of the boardroom, mute testimony to the dedication to excellence in public service that they display when they pin a target over their hearts in the form of a badge before going on duty. Much of the work of local law enforcement officers and dispatchers is done out of sight, so it’s easy to overlook or forget the vital role they all play, every day, in keeping everyone in the county safe and secure.

Instead, Agnew reminded the supervisors of the wide array of functions performed by the sheriff’s department, including county dispatch which fields after hour calls for all county departments because it is the only Goochland governmental agency where a person answers the phone 24/7.

Agnew declared that public safety—law enforcement and fire-rescue—the folks who save lives and protect property for every citizen in the entire county all day every day, is the most important function of local government.

Because Goochland dispatch already has a lean staffing policy in place, further cuts, or furloughs will have a negative impact on public safety.

During a major event like bad weather or a large wreck on the interstate, our dispatchers answer 911 calls while simultaneously dispatching responders and documenting all activity. They do it all from a tiny room deep beneath the courthouse complex.

Our deputies do far more than issue traffic tickets, said Agnew. The workload of law enforcement, including apprehension of DUI offenders has risen dramatically in past years. While Goochland is a pretty safe place, gang activity, drugs and the poor economy have increased the law enforcement workload, which, contended Agnew, is a manpower intensive function of government.

He shared anecdotes of recent incidents including a hostage situation that was resolved peacefully and safely because there were enough law enforcement officers on duty nearby. During nighttime shifts, deputies patrol alone, often many miles and too many minutes from back-up.

Bank robbers and other criminals that plague our county have been arrested thanks to the skilled work of our deputies and investigators.

Because all deputy cruisers are equipped with automatic electronic defibrillations, deputies have saved lives by reaching stricken people even before rescue squads could arrive.

Agnew spoke of the recent medical emergency experienced by a deputy. His life was saved, said Anew, because both career and volunteer EMS providers were in the county at work (the volunteers are employed by the county in other capacities). Had they been off on a furlough day, the outcome would have been different, not just for the deputy, but for anyone who needed the assistance. Agnew implored the supervisors not to furlough any EMS providers. To do so will imperil the lives of everyone in the county.

Part of the presentation made by D. E. “Eddie” Ferguson, Jr. Deputy chief-EMS for Goochland fire-rescue addressed the concept of cost recovery, charging for EMS calls, as a way to recoup some of the ever-growing expense of rescue squads.

Ferguson estimated that fire-rescue volunteers currently save the county at least $1,506,546 annually. This number was computed by multiplying the number of on duty rescue hours (81,060)reported and fire call hours (2,637) by an hourly rate of $18. This statistic is extremely conservative.

Ferguson cautioned that, while a cost recovery program, which bills health insurance for EMS calls, could bring in an estimated $400,000 to $650,000 annually, it must be carefully explained, understood and supported by the volunteers and citizens. Ferguson contended that any revenues generated by a cost recovery program be dedicated to volunteer incentives and offsetting some cost of career providers.

Implementation of this process, said Ferguson, will require a coordinated public information campaign to be successful A third party would handle the billing.

Neither Agnew nor Ferguson addressed the economic development aspects of public safety. As Goochland tries to attract businesses large and small to the county, we must be mindful that companies will look elsewhere if they do not believe their customers and employees are adequately served by law enforcement and fire-rescue.

Several other departments discussed their achievements and cost cutting strategies, which included ways to generate revenue, which will probably translate into fees of some sort.

The final presentation was made my school superintended Dr. Linda Underwood. After coming under heavy fire by a large group of uppity parents that dared to question the school budget, Underwood finally offered some justification for the classification of some employees as instructional instead of administrative.

Earlier in the year she stated that, because she has a PhD she is best qualified to decide how school employees should be classified.

Underwood contended that information obtained through a FOIA request and published on a local newspaper website had been changed since publication. She presented, with an attitude as smug as a cat that has swallowed a passel of canaries, the taxonomy of school division accounting codes as required by state law.

These are, in descending order, fund, category, function, object codes, cost centers and program codes.
Part of the confusion was caused, said Underwood, because an account to track grant funded positions had not been created when the FOIA request was made and some grant funded positions were temporarily “parked” into the instruction category.

If this explanation was so simple, why was it not offered in January when the questions about the budget were first raised? Underwood is no fool, so why did it take so long for this set of explanations to surface?

It would be interesting to know just how much all of this state mandated reporting costs school systems. This is more money that spawns bureaucrats instead of educating children.

She did not explain that the school system expends more that $50,000 annually for a person whose main function is to ensure that the schools get only positive mention in the press and only Underwood is quoted. That could be why there has been little mention of drug and gang activity concerns.

Following Underwood’s remarks, school board chairman Raymond Miller, District 2, delivered prepared remarks contending that the school board’s primary task is to hire a superintendent and make sure that student achievement goes up while per pupil cost decreases. He only needed prompting from Underwood once as he declared her competent in both areas.

When Miller and board of supervisors’ chairman William Quarles, Jr. also District 2 smiled at each other in way that indicated they had both consumed large amounts of mouse manure, it became abundantly clear that the rest of the budget show is a sham. The tax rate will increase by four cents, the reign of terror in the schools will continue and Goochland has returned to the good old boy days.

The tax rate increase will benefit only the schools, which normally gobble up more than the county collects in real estate taxes. The rest of the departments, which provide services for all county citizens, not just the 2,100 or so school children, will do the best they can with decreased revenues generated by other sources.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As an employee of GCPS, I can only shake my head at the poor leadership displayed by the superintendent and the school board. The entire budget process has been a joke. During tough times, it would be beneficial to all of Goochland to have leaders with spines. Sadly, I guess were stuck with these jellyfish for the time being.