Thursday, March 31, 2011

In the ghetto

Painful budget hearing

The chickens spawned by decades of malevolent dysfunctional management of Goochland County government have come home to roost and they are defecating all over the Board of Supervisors.
At the March 29 annual public hearing on the proposed county budget for fiscal 2011-12, citizens castigated the board for fiscal woes on several different fronts. The hearing was held in the high school auditorium and the supervisors brought their own sound system. Unlike school board meetings held in the same space, the proceedings were easy to hear from the back of the room.
The final vote on the county budget for fiscal year 2011-12 will be held at the 7 p.m. session of the April 5 supervisors’ meeting in the board room of the county administration building at 1800 Sandy Hook road in Courthouse Village.
From newcomers in the east end protesting steep increases in both water and sewer rates and the ad valorem tax levied on property in the Tuckahoe Creek Service District (TCSD) to parents from all over the county begging the supervisors to fund a flat school budget, people are mad and frustrated .
This does not bode well for incumbent supervisors seeking reelection and makes you wonder why anyone would want the job with its exorbitant $1,000 monthly stipend.
After at least two years of drastic declines in property values that generated fewer taxes, patience with the remedies for the shortfalls seems to be running out in some quarters.
County utility rates will increase again this year. Ad valorem taxes for property owners in the TCSD and James River Estates are also expected to rise. Due to an error in the advertisement of those rates, another public hearing will be held on April 5.
County administrator Rebecca Dickson explained that the increases are needed to work toward making county utilities self- supporting, a change from the creative accounting methods used previously for county utilities. Currently, those operating costs are supplemented by the county’s general fund. There has never been any money set aside for maintenance and upkeep either. She said that rates are expected to be increased for the next five years. This is yet more evidence of the incompetent management practiced by the previous regime. The rates in the TCSD also take the $21.1 million obligation to the City of Richmond into account, which were intended to be increased incrementally from the outset.
Dickson said that the rate structure will be evaluated each year. As new users are added to the system, the largest on the horizon being the West Creek Medical Center, the numbers could change.
Residents of Kinloch and the Parke at Centerville, both located in and served by the TCSD, protested the utility rate and ad valorem tax increase. One speaker complained that she was unaware of the ad valorem tax until she closed on her home. She said that the tax added $100 per month to her house payment. It is not the county’s fault that this person did not know about the ad valorem tax. Information about county tax rates has been on the county website,, for years.
A Kinloch resident declared that the TCSD is a water ghetto. He maintained that the extra tax, which makes his total property tax bill relatively comparable Henrico with none of the benefits, has devalued his property for every purpose except computing the extra tax and made it impossible to sell.
Several of these speakers seemed to believe that the TCSD debt, which is well over $100 million and whose interest is back loaded, will be paid by the 1,100 users of the system. Following a break in the session County Administrator Rebecca Dickson explained that in a numerological quirk, there are 1,100 Goochland utility customers, both on the TCSD and county systems, and 1,100 parcels of land in the TCSD. Dickson said that the ad valorem tax is levied on and paid by all land owners in the TCSD whether or not they are connected to the system. That land, she said, is valued around $700 million. Other users of TCSD services include: CarMax headquarters in West Creek; the 623 Landfill; industrial users along Ashland Road; Brookview Shopping Center and businesses in Centerville.
One Kinloch resident castigated the board for its lack of action on the economic development front, while it instead frittered away county resources on the persecution of a local business owner. He expressed the frustration of many TCSD landowners with the supervisors whose efforts to get information about the issues are responded to with “CONDESCENDING LECTURES, FINGER POINTING, AND OBFUSCATION.” He also raised the hope that the board would have different faces after November’s election.
Several TCSD speakers demanded that the entire county be required to pay off the TCSD debt because the “those who benefit from the TCSD will pay for it” puts an unfair burden on some landowners for the benefit of the whole county.
A resident of the upper end contended that she has no opportunity to connect to public utilities, no access to high speed internet and must drive long distances for daily needs and should not pay for the TCSD.
The bonds may be structured in such a way that prohibits spreading debt service to the entire county.
The lack of any coherent economic development plan or strategy was decried by many speakers. Indeed, the whole budget process has clearly illustrated that expectations of delivery of services by the county, including school funding, have risen far faster than the county’s ability to fund them. Even before the downturn it was clearly evident that the TCSD was dead in the water.
Although the initial strategy of “if you build it they will come” soon proved false, the majority of supervisors have shown little interest in marketing the TCSD, which is often referred to as the county’s economic engine, but in reality is the little engine that couldn’t.
Dickson explained that the county is on the verge of hiring a consultant to craft an economic development strategy. Michael McDermott of Maidens observed creation of that plan will take more time than Eisenhower needed to plan the D-Day invasion. An economic development plan and strategy should have been in place ten years ago while the TCSD was still in the talking stage and adjusted as conditions changed.
Many parents and a few students made heartfelt pleas for the supervisors to fund a budget flat with the current fiscal year. At hearing time, the school board’s proposed budget was still about $1.2 million more than money generated by all real estate taxes collected by Goochland County.
It’s too late to raise the real estate tax rate, but the supervisors could take more money from fund balance, essentially the county’s piggy bank, to make up the difference. Since the school board has repeatedly ignored requests from the supervisors for detailed budget information, it is somewhat doubtful that will happen. The board and taxpayers need lots of assurance that any extra appropriations will be used for teachers and programs not to fund more arrogant administrators.
It was good to see so many people take time to attend the hearing and comment on the budget. Unfortunately, many of those comments also displayed a great deal of ignorance. People are busy and a lot of these matters are “inside baseball” but still, there was an overall theme of “I want my thing and everyone else should pay for it.”
This budget mess must change. Regardless of who comprises the Board of Supervisors and School Board in 2012, realistic and detailed information about the school budget must be available for citizens to see. Both boards must come together for the good of all. Many speakers at the hearing mentioned the impact of good schools on property values. Taxpayers are willing to support good schools but need to feel confident that public funds are being used for teachers and students.
We need a coherent and aggressive economic development plant because even the most frugal budget based on mostly residential real estate taxes will not be adequate to pay for the services the citizens expect.
Hopefully, this unrest will translate into meaningful change after this November’s election.

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