Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pennies from heaven

Goochland’s supervisors realize that no pennies will be forthcoming from heaven to help balance the county FY 2014 based on a 53 cent per $100 of valuation real estate tax rate.

Ensuring continued delivery of governmental services without raising taxes in lean times is a delicate task. To that end, the board is meeting with local governmental agencies who receive all or part of their funding from the county to prioritize spending.

Information in the board packet for work sessions on February 5 and 11, located on the supervisors’ page of the county website provides a wealth of information on how the county spends tax dollars.

Uncertainty about state allocations to localities; the specter of a federal sequester; and the impact of the Affordable Care Act further complicate the process.

The school board presented its proposed budget to the supervisors in person on the 11th. The documents are available for all to peruse on the school website School board members and Superintendent Dr. James Lane declared that they are ready, willing, and eager to answer any and all questions about this document.

This unprecedented cooperation and collaboration between the county and schools bodes well for students, teachers, and taxpayers. Indeed, County Administrator Rebecca Dickson thanked Lane for sharing revenue and spending projections for the current fiscal year with the county. “This is absolutely a miracle, just wonderful,” she said of the information.

In past years, joint budget sessions between these two boards were contentions and downright snarky. This year, it was a love fest.

Each supervisor received a thick loose leaf binder containing the school budget. Lane volunteered to “drill down” further into the numbers to answer any question whatsoever. This is such a nice change from past years when the schools essentially told the supervisors that school budget details were none of their business.

Aside from the positive value of openness and transparency, the time and energy wasted in the past on turf wars will be better used addressing fiscal challenges.

The supervisors are looking for measures other than tax hikes to pay the bills. For instance, the EMS cost recovery program, which went into effect on January 1, is expected to generate about a half million dollars annually.

Needs of most agencies fall into two categories-- people and equipment. In the past few years, replacement of police cars, school buses, and items like computers was postponed, but it cannot be put off much longer.  As Sheriff James L. Agnew pointed out, even well maintained vehicles wear out. Lane contended that if the county does not start some school bus replacement it will never catch up.

Agnew also explained his need to add more deputies. Turnover is a significant expense, not only in terms of dollars spent, but losing experienced deputies is a serious cost. Agnew contended that additional deputies are needed to expand coverage throughout the county on all shifts. (See February 5 package for  details.)

No matter how carefully a budget, which is a planning tool, is crafted, there are unexpected cost increases. Agnew brought along a handful of ammunition for the various firearms used by deputies. The price of bullets is sky rocketing, he reported asking the board to increase his budget so deputies can go to the practice range more than once per year.

Qiana Foote, Director of Information Technology said that the county’s computers are beyond their useful life and some software is no longer supported.

The Monacan Soil and Water Conservation District is just about running on budgetary fumes and barely able to function.

The board listens intently to every presentation, often asking probing questions to make sense of the landslide of numbers.

For instance, Susan Lascollete District 1 asked if the fourth quarter decline in new cases for the county’s Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) program indicated reduced need. CASA executive director Ann Casey explained that, alas, the smaller number simply reflects fewer court dates in the last quarter of the year due to the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holidays.

Agencies that help those in need, especially Social services and the Free Clinic and Family Services report drastic increases in the need for assistance.

County Treasurer Pamela Johnson echoed the sentiment of department heads as she pointed out that long time employees represent an asset and investment of the county, not an expense.

Johnson, Agnew, Director of Social Services Kimberly Jefferson and Lane echoed these sentiments. Goochland’s starting salaries compare well to neighboring jurisdictions, but fall off as employees gain seniority and valuable experience. We’ve become something of a training ground as people begin their careers here, get some experience and go elsewhere for more money and opportunity.

Jefferson said succession is of particular concern in her agency as senior staff, who are conversant with the maze of policies and  programs used to serve clients, are nearing retirement and cannot be replaced with entry level employees.

Agnew said that salary compression, resulting from increasing starting pay, but not ratcheting it through the ranks, can lead to experienced deputies moving to other agencies for better pay and more advancement opportunities.

To further complicate the salary picture, the addition of high dollar positions to county staff in recent years while the remainder of county employees got no raises, rankles. The supervisors seem inclined to address this matter also.

In addition to juggling the aforementioned issues, the supervisors must address the utilities situation. A budget workshop on utilities, which will explore water and sewer rates and ad valorem taxes for the Tuckahoe Creek Service District on Monday, February 25 at 7 p.m.

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