Thursday, February 3, 2011

Money troubles

Painful rite of spring

The February 1 meeting of the Goochland Board of Supervisors was overshadowed by the pall of the further decline in real estate tax revenues.
Board chair William Quarles, Jr. District 2 explained that written replies to questions raised during the citizen comment period at the beginning of each board session are now posted on the county website on the right side supervisors’ page. This is a very positive step on the part of the board. All too often in the past questions raised during board meetings were either forgotten, or answered privately. This new step is a simple way to provide information for anyone who is interested.
The Comprehensive Annual financial Report (CAFR) for fiscal year 2010, which ended on June 30, 2010, is also on the county website under the Department of Finance. Pay special attention to all of the notes to the CAFR especially page 65, which was only alluded to during the presentation of the results of the 2010 CAFR. Also please read the last three pages of that report very carefully. During that presentation at the January meeting, Quarles did not permit the other supervisors to ask questions about the CAFR. This once again underscores how the board chair controls meetings.
During the afternoon session Goochland Fire-Rescue Chief Bill MacKay explained the reasoning behind a move to formally establish the county fire-rescue department and enumerate the duties of the chief.
In 2002, the county hired its first paid chief of fire-rescue and in 2009 hired paid providers to augment the volunteers who have provided EMS and fire protective services in Goochland for decades. Seems like this is yet another one of those pesky housekeeping details overlooked during the previous regime One of the justifications for the actions is to establish the authority to grant EMS franchises to ensure that all EMS calls originating in the county observe the high standards currently in place. It is believed that this action was precipitated, at least in part, by the advent of the West Creek Medical Center.
MacKay said that this also lays the groundwork in case the county decides to pursue a cost recovery program for EMS services so that users of EMS pay for it. No such decision has been made, nor does cost recovery seem to be on the supervisors’ current agenda. Details may be viewed in the board packet for the meeting on the county website on the Board of Supervisors’ page.
The supervisors will hold a public hearing on this matter on the evening of March 1, 2011.
During the evening session, the school board presented its budget for fiscal 2012, which begins on July 1, 2011.
The presentation itself was longwinded and disjointed. Presented in a tag team format with each school board member explaining a portion, the message that came across loud and clear was “it’s complicated.” Some of the board members seemed to have trouble remembering their lines and were prompted by Dr. Linda Underwood Superintendent of Schools. Parents made passionate pleas for more money in the school budget and urged the supervisors to raise the tax rate. This was quite a change from last year when many of those same parents refused to support the budget presented by the school board.
Underwood seems to have refined her battle strategy and realized that she needed those parents on her side. It would be interesting to know the tactics used to create the change in attitude. Were the parents persuaded, threatened or a little of both. Regardless, it’s hard to fault the deep concern of parents about their children’s education. They contend that the school budget was cut to the bone last year and further reductions would cause grave harm to the quality of education in Goochland.
Some of those parents also expressed annoyance that those pesky rich people(PRP)on the gold coast were not paying more taxes. One gentleman suggested that the taxes be indexed somehow so that the economically challenged citizens would not be burdened by higher taxes and the PRP could just pay higher taxes to make up the difference.
After the school board bombarded the supervisors with en extended volley of numbers, County Administrator Rebecca T. Dickson said that the difference between the amount the county expects to have available for school funding and the amount in the budget presented is just under $1 million, not the $287,399 or so the parents claim. This difference Dickson explained was that the schools assumed flat revenues for fiscal 2012, not a further decrease. For the second year in a row, the school system ignored the supervisors’’ request to prepare a budget based on the expected available revenues, not the amount of money it wanted.
The increase in school budget was justified by school board members with the need to restore two of the four furlough days for teachers; hire some additional teachers including a math specialist who would train all county teachers and deal with increasing cost of necessary items like fuel.
To further complicate the equation, the schools requested that the money be allocated in a lump sum, rather than be category to provide greater flexibility.
At first blush, that seems like a good idea. If one projected cost, say the electric bill turns out to be less than expected and another higher the fuel bill, the money can be easily shifted around without asking the supervisors for permission. However, the lump sum idea also removes any pretense of fiscal transparency. Citizens must know how their tax dollars are spent.
At one point exchanges between school board chair Ivan Mattox, Sr., District 3 and District 5 supervisor James Eads became quite heated. This confrontation has occurred before and will again.
Sadly, Goochland is not the only jurisdiction where school boards and elected officials who provide education funds engage in annual battles about money.
Part of the problem is that, although elected, school boards do not have the power to raise their own revenues. They cannot levy taxes to fund school budgets. In some states school boards do have that power. Under that approach, when a projected budget increases more than a certain percent over the previous year, a referendum is needed to approve the increase. That means the school board has to convince a majority of voters who turn out for the referendum to permit the tax increase. In Goochland, the school board only has to convince five people, the supervisors, to give them the money — thus the importance of motivated parents.
There seem to be two kinds of people when it comes to school tax, those with kids in the system who never believe that the schools get enough money and those who are believe that the schools get far too much already. Finding the common ground in the no man’s land between the two extremes to craft a workable and affordable budget is a daunting task. Most citizens support the concept of public education to ensure that all children are equipped with the intellectual tools to succeed in life. The devil is in the details, however, and the battle over how much is enough to fund education is perennial.
This whole quandary illustrates the burden of unfunded mandates and regulations. Underwood explained that the Goochland school division is required by state and federal regulations to complete an exhausting array of reports on a bewildering array of items.
In addition she contended that our great teachers are working harder for less pay. They haven’t had a raise in years and, with the furlough days, are making less money than they did last year.
Unfortunately, many of the citizens whose taxes the school board is so eager to increase have not gotten raises either. Some have lost their jobs and watched the value of their homes, often their largest asset, and decrease.
One of the most significant challenges faced by Goochland County government is the wide disparity in circumstance from one end of the county to the other. We have a few very affluent households, quite a few very economically challenged households and the rest are somewhere in between. The PRP households seem to either send their children to private school or are empty nesters. The people at the other end of the spectrum are resigned to accepting whatever the schools are offering in a particular year. Those in the middle, until recently a small and silent portion of the population, have become very vocal. Many have moved to Goochland from places where the hefty price of a home includes excellent public schools. This is a new phenomenon for the county and some supervisors just don’t know what to make of it.
The budget clock is ticking. Tax rates will be set on April 5. The discourse in the interim will be interesting to say the least.

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