Saturday, January 24, 2015

Following the money

Crafting a detailed budget can be mind-numbingly boring but extremely educational. When they first took office in 2012, Goochland’s supervisors sharpened their pencils and started looking long and hard at the county’s finances. They made some hard choices along the way to keep the real estate tax rate unchanged at a time of almost unprecedented decline in assessed valuations. The supervisors also gained detailed insight about the workings of each department.

On January 21, the supervisors continued their tradition of budget workshops that consist of meeting with department heads who listed accomplishments for the year past, challenges for the year to come, and present budget requests for fiscal year 2016, which begins on July 1.
This daylong session included presentations from several county departments. The entire packet is available on the supervisors’ tab of the county website

These workshops are for informational exchange only. The tax rates for calendar year 2015 will be set in April. As the assessor reported modest gains in property valuations, keeping the tax rate steady at 53 cents per $100 of valuation should bring in more revenue than last year.

Some workshop highlights:

County Treasurer Pamela Johnson reported that she will expand her efforts to ensure that all taxes are collected. She has worked with property owners squeezed by the fragile economy to set up payment plans for their taxes. Those who did not keep their end by keeping current with modest installments should be ready to pay up or face the consequences, Johnson told the supervisors.

In addition to working through the legal steps needed to seize property of delinquent taxpayers, Johnson continues to search for owners of land whose taxes have gone unpaid for years. In some cases, land was sold at auction to get it back on the tax rolls.

Johnson employs other “incentives” to encourage citizens to pay their taxes. These include DMV stops, which prevent delinquent taxpayers from registering vehicles, and a set off program with the state that diverts income tax refunds to the county to cover unpaid taxes. Johnson will use all methods at her disposal to see that those who owe county taxes pay their bills.

The Treasurer’s Office continues to receive clean audits from every entity that reviews its procedures, including the Auditor of Public Accounts, who said that Goochland has the best internal controls it has ever seen.

Increasing citizen engagement in local government is high on the list of the supervisors’ strategic goals. As land use issues grab the most attention, the Department of Community Development plans to improve its notification policies for these matters.

These will include deploying a larger number of more distinctive signs on subject properties earlier in the rezoning process. Disseminating information about community meetings, which are typically held well before a proposal gets to the planning commission stage, to a wider audience was also discussed.

Board chair Susan Lascollete, District 1, asked that, wherever possible, policies be streamlined to prevent creating more layers of government.
Ensuring excellent customer service, a prime strategic goal, requires appropriate staffing levels. According to Debbie Byrd, Civil and Environmental Engineer, a number of projects, including more than 300 homes in residential subdivisions, are on hold waiting for a stronger economy. Should things “pop,” a backlog could develop.

Pending storm water regulations will also add to the county’s workload. This will encompass everything from the amount of fertilizer spread on playing fields to fencing cattle out of streams. A new engineer to deal with this has been hired.

A bill to require that application of biosolids be recorded on deeds has been introduced in the Virginia General Assembly. Manuel Alvarez, Jr., District 2, was concerned that such a recordation could have a negative impact on adjacent land exacerbating an already difficult situation. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) does have a complete list of biosolids applications locations.

Many of the budget requests for the next two years—the county now uses a “look ahead” approach to the budget process to avoid surprises—are nearly flat or reflect modest increases over the current year.

Information Technology, which touches all other departments, will need more funds to support a broader use of “devices” from security cameras at the convenience centers to the new public safety communications coming online. A wide array of software and equipment can ensure that employees do their jobs in a more effective and efficient manner. For instance, providing inspectors with devices that allows them to enter data one time in the field will save time and reduce mistakes. Coordinating all the pieces to make this happen, including necessary training, falls under the IT umbrella and has a cost.

The most important feature of the budget workshops is the relaxed and open dialog between the supervisors and presenters. The supervisors want to understand what each agency needs to operate. It is clear that departments put a great deal of thought and effort into their presentations to explain—and justify— requested expenditures.

Before their February 3 meeting, the supervisors will hear another set of budget presentations, working their way to a vote on a final budget in April. Following the money paints a clear picture of how the tax dollars are used to serve citizens. Pay attention, this is your money!

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