Spotsy Budget recap shows more long-term Focus Needed
It is important after the budget process to review what went well and what areas need improvement. This is not a comprehensive critique of budget expenditures, but an evaluation of the budget process and Supervisors role in it. There are five highlighted themes: Budget Process Actually Begins in October, Budget Schedule Needs to be Reassessed, Positive Developments, Focused on the Future, and the Free Rider Concept.
Budget Process Actually Begins in October…
The budget process starts in October with a pre-budget public hearing. In the fall, the supervisors are asked to submit their budget priorities to County staff. Based on information received from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, only four supervisors provided their priorities to County staff (Supervisors Benton, Ross, Trampe, Yakabouski (non-prioritized list). Supervisors McLaughlin, Skinner and then Supervisor Cebula provided no list, which raises concerns on how County priorities are determined; By the County Administrator? By County staff? I have provided the supervisors prioritized lists below (refresh page if they don't immediately populate) and won’t spend much time analyzing them. I will point out how some supervisors are not placing a high priority on maintaining county services at the same level year-to-year. This should be #1 on each supervisor's list. This revelation seems to provide an example that some supervisors are not thinking enough about the long-term health of the community both financially and in regard to the quality of services the county provides.
Budget Schedule Need to be Reassessed…
The County Administrator presented his recommended budget on February 13th. However, the Board did not engage in very meaningful budget discussions until April 10th, or two days before the budget was adopted. At the time of the March 29th budget hearing, the Board held 5 meetings over 43 days. It is reasonable to expect that more substantive budget discussions should have occurred during this time. Since they were not held, citizens were left mostly guessing at what items each supervisor really supported and could not accurately tailor their speeches to these items. In 2018, the process was often hijacked by discussion items that were more suitable in a less time constrained environment such as the Department of Social Services (DSS) building, and the future of the Marshall Center and Animal Shelter.
This is important because after the budget public hearing citizens can no longer make public comments. Understanding to a degree why this rule is in effect this dynamic could encourage supervisors to delay discussions to avoid being taken to task publicly by citizens on specific budget items. For example, it was not widely known that Supervisor Trampe presented to Board members a budget proposal early in the process until after the budget public hearing. Similarly, Supervisor Yakabouski’s proposal was presented publicly two days prior to the budget public hearing, which does not provide citizens an adequate amount of time to review and make comments on a proposal. The public had no opportunity to publicly comment on Supervisor Trampe’s proposal. I do not insinuate there is a mass conspiracy, but simply imply the Board is not placing enough thought into being transparent and providing information for citizens to evaluate their priorities and process. Finance Staff does a good job presenting the budget, but the public needs more information on the thoughts of the supervisors, and over the last few budget cycles we have not been receiving it.
Last year, the Board adopted the budget within the legal time frame, but before the public was given the opportunity to contact their representative to comment on new items that had not been previously discussed. Instead, the Board held a vote when time still existed to receive more citizen input. The Board majority had the votes to secure an equalized tax rate, and did not even bother to go through the motions to give the impression that they cared about the public's input. These courses of action are not illegal, but also are not in-line with transparent operations and raises questions on why this sort of development continues to occur in Spotsylvania.
There were some positive developments in the budget. The schools were close to fully funded which allows them to hire an additional 60 personnel to better meet current needs and bring School personnel closer to pre-2009 recession levels. Even if I was unsure of the need for the additional positions, supporters of a lower tax rate provided no substantive argument that they were unnecessary to meet current education benchmarks. There were strong calls to spread this hiring over 4 years rather than 3 years, but suspiciously supervisors avoided any discussion of whether the Schools were in immediate need of those 60 positions. The most persuasive argument was by Supervisor Yakabouski, who may have presented a better argument to fund the 60 positions than the Schools did.
Also, budget decisions were made that placed the County on a path to have Advanced Life Support (ALS) trained staffing at all the County Fire Stations and School Resource Officers (SRO) at all County Schools. Lastly, money was preserved in the Capital Improvements Fund that will allow the Board greater flexibility to find a long-term fix to the space needs of DSS, which if moved out of the Merchant Square Building, could help to alleviate crowded work conditions in other county departments.
Focused on the Future…
If one watched the budget process, one might have concluded based on the 4-3 vote in favor of the budget and .8330 real estate tax rate, that three supervisors were anti-tax and the others pro-tax. That could be argued on the surface, but would not represent a comprehensive look at the situation. The four supervisors that ultimately supported the tax increase gave indications of thinking more long-term and perhaps viewed incremental tax rate increases to support necessary county functions as more sustainable than not investing enough today and being forced later to support a larger tax increase. The three supervisors that voted against the budget, placed a large portion of their argument highlighting the short-term impacts, and perhaps do so, not with an eye to the future viability of the county, but to upcoming elections. The 4-3 vote breakdown on the budget and .8330 real estate tax rate is below:
- Chairman Benton – Yes
- Vice Chairman Trampe – No
- Supervisor Marshall – Yes
- Supervisor McLaughlin – No
- Supervisor Ross – No
- Supervisor Skinner – Yes
- Supervisor Yakabouski – Yes
The Free Rider Concept…
Supervisors McLaughlin, Ross, and Trampe have been steadfast advocates for maintaining the equalized tax rate or lowering it. There is nothing wrong with this view and it is a view most Spotsylvania residents would agree. In my travels, I have yet to come across a citizen that seeks out higher taxes in Spotsylvania. However, there is a fundamental difference between wanting low taxes and understanding that maintaining services cost money. Our officials would be well advised to begin to better understand this difference.
In two of the last three years, as Supervisor McLaughlin pointed out, the Board has raised the tax rate against strong objections from Supervisors McLaughlin, Ross, and Trampe. This begs the question: Can they legitimately claim credit for the items that the extra revenue paid for? The extra teacher positions that would have been scaled back if they got their way? The SROs? The 21 new fire fighters? The conflict here is they will take credit for all these things, while concurrently portraying themselves as a limited government, hold the line on taxes, conservatives.
This course of action seems to highlight a sort of Free Rider concept where a supervisor takes a position to avoid criticism for the higher tax rate, but still accepts the positives of increases in services that, if they had a majority, would simply not exist. To be fair, Supervisors McLaughlin, Ross, and Trampe in some cases slow the process and at times that delay may contribute to a more cost-effective solution for the county. The idea of a county supported baseball stadium immediately comes to mind. But on the other items their efforts come off as more ideological driven and this can only hurt Spotsylvania in the long run. Washington D.C can pass the buck to Richmond, Richmond to Spotsylvania. The Bucks Stops in Spotsylvania and we need leaders that understand this dynamic and not continue to force a governing philosophy on local government that is most responsible for our day-to-day lives.
Sometimes spending more today saves money in the long-term and we need to always be vigilant for when these opportunities present themselves. We must also be willing to have those detailed, honest debates if we are to know when opportunities are before us. There is a needed place for fiscal conservatism at all level of government, but there is even a greater need for leaders that know when to scale back and when to invest in the future.