Sunday, March 27, 2011

March madness

Of basketball and budgets

It’s that time of year again. We’re getting close to the final showdown. No, not to determine who will win the national basketball crown — go Rams, bring it home and kudos to the Spiders — but how the county budget battle will end.
The Goochland Board of Supervisors will vote on the tax rates for 2011 at its April 5 meeting. Next Tuesday, March 29, evening there will be a public hearing at 7 p.m. to listen to citizen comment on the proposed budget.
As usual the School Board and Supervisors are battling the amount of money that will be devoted to education. Last fall, the school system was notified of the approximate amount it could expect from the county. (The county school budget is typically a little more than the amount of revenue generated by the real estate tax.)
Instead of preparing a budget with that amount, the schools are requesting about $1.4 million than expected revenues. This year’s struggle, which is filled with inflammatory allegations, is more bizarre than ever. If you need a visit to the Twilight Zone, attend a school board meeting.
The fiscal 2011-12 proposed budget (see the county website for details) indicates that real estate taxes are expected to generate approximately $21.1 million, about 54 percent of the budget. Money to fund every other local government function comes from other sources, which have also declined.
While the school system threw its annual funding tantrum, other county departments sharpened their pencils and looked for ways to do their jobs with fewer resources.
On March 14 and 21 the supervisors had workshops to hear from county departments and the challenges they face in the coming fiscal year, which begins on July 1. This is the third consecutive year of fiscal austerity.
Following are comments about some of the presentations.
Several department heads reported that they are managing to do their jobs with reduced resources but cautioned that in the not too distant future they will be unable to continue to operate effectively without an increase in funding.
Sheriff James Agnew began his presentation by telling the supervisors about attending the funerals of two Buchannan County deputies who were recently killed in the line of duty. Agnew said that he was deeply moved by the profound respect the citizens had for their law enforcement officers and said that he believes the citizens of Goochland hold his officers in equally high regard.
Deputies and dispatchers are different from other government employees.
“We work 24/7 365 days a year,” said Agnew. “There are no holidays or snow days. We often miss family occasions and the danger we face is very real.”
He explained that law enforcement has critical needs that mean the difference between safe and unsafe for law enforcement officers and the public.
Goochland deputies normally patrol solo. Sometimes, the nearest officer on duty is at the other end of the country. Stretching the manpower too far could have dire consequences. Bullets travel faster than backup.
Agnew thanked the board for its support and said that he is mindful of the economic challenges faced by the county.
“Equipment, patrol cars and uniforms do not define the Sheriff’s Office,” said Agnew. “Integrity, hard work, dedication and service to the community do define who we are”
Agnew gestured to the uniformed deputies and dispatchers who filled the back of the board room and said that they personify those values. “These are the resources that matter to me and are absolutely necessary for the safety of our county.”
Training is vital to prepare for the wide range of situations that are part of law enforcement. Agnew explained that his department takes advantage of training offered by state and national agencies at little or no cost. In the past year, these training opportunities included a course sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Agency at Quantico to learn about dealing with meth labs. They also took training to help deal with citizens with Alzheimer’s disease.
Agnew shared the most memorable calls as described by deputies.
One deputy bought gas for people on their way to Charlottesville with money out of his own pocket.
Another ran into a field full of livestock at dusk to rescue a little boy who wandered away from home. Another recalled seeing a boy walking with an older person in a manner that raised concerns. After inquiring, the deputy learned that the boy had run away from home and helped return him to his family.
A call from a person who was concerned that a friend had taken an overdose and could not be located resulted in an effective collaboration between a deputy and dispatcher. They worked together to use a cell phone signal to find the person and probably save a life. In that case, the deputy was alone, late at night and anxious to positively resolve the situation.
Agnew said that his greatest concern about the budget is the failure to fund five additional deputy positions. He contended that the West Creek Medical Center, which is expected to open next year, will bring an influx of people in stressful situations. Incidents there will mean fewer deputies available to patrol the rest of the county.
Events surrounding the resignation of the treasurer in February threw a major monkey wrench in the county finances as employees from several departments, including the Sheriff’s, pulled together to serve citizens keep things running in the midst of a criminal investigation.
Bill Cleveland, the county Director of Information Technology, reported that his department is in good shape right now, but that many computers are nearing the end of their useful life and will need to be replaced at some time in the future.
He also explained that the county website is not as flashy those of other jurisdictions because many county residents have only dial-up connectivity to the internet. Cleveland also said that the information available on the county website, which gets approximately 2,000 hits per month, is constantly growing. Citizens are able to download applications and obtain information without a trip to the administration building.
In 2010, Goochland County’s website content was ranked fourth in the state. Cleveland said that the county check register, which was added to the website a few years ago, gets between 80 and 100 hits per month and generates about entries. According to Cleveland, the county received 800,000 emails last year, about 30 percent of which were spam and there were 480,000 inbound phone calls.
The Department of Community Development is expected to add an economic development director in fiscal 2012. The Department of Finance hopes to add a part-time CPA. The Clerk of the Court asked that a position lost last year be reinstated because the workload in the department, much of which is mandated by the state, has not been reduced.
As proposed, the budget contains funding for five rather than the current ten members on the planning commission. The board discussed this change a little. The cost savings are about $9,600, and will vote on that matter at its April meeting.
Restoring a full schedule at the convenience centers will cost about $76,000. Trash volume increased about 17 percent in the past year. The supervisors seemed more concerned about this than restoration of a 60 hour weekly library schedule, which would cost only $35,684. Could that be because the only five people in the county who do not use the library are the supervisors?
The board seemed impressed with the parks and rec presentation but bored with numbers from the library. Are we moving toward a midnight basketball mentality that perpetuates an ignorant underclass of people who are thwarted in attempts to enhance their God given intelligence and guided toward government sponsored playtime instead?
Affluent library patrons will find their books and information elsewhere. Economically challenged citizens who use the library for intellectual enrichment are most harmed by shortened library hours. Many people use the computers at the library to search for jobs.
District 1 supervisor Andrew Pryor seemed quite agitated about the school budget at the close of the March 21 session. Could election year pressures be starting to build at the upper end of the county? No matter how much money the schools get, they will always want more.
Budget decisions are hard in very lean years and tricky in election years like 2011. The supervisors have the duty to spend public money wisely and the opportunity to redefine how our government operates so it will be better prepared to function well in the future.

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