Thoughts About the FY18 Budget Process Conclusion
Click here to read the Free Lance Star article about the final budget work session.
My thought on the April 4, 2017 Board of Supervisors budget adoption are below.
On April 4th, the Board of Supervisors voted 6-1 to adopt the FY18 budget. While voting on the budget was advertised for the April 11th work session, Virginia Code requires that there only be 7 days between the public budget hearing and the budget adoption (according to the County Attorney). From a legal standpoint, the Supervisors did nothing improper. Nonetheless, the mechanism used by the Board should draw some concern on transparency grounds. In previous posts, I indicated that citizens could voice their concerns at the April 4th and 6th meeting. This would have only been possible, however, if the Supervisors suspended their by-laws. The issue with the recent budget process is that the key initiatives, that were eventually adopted, were not discussed very openly in a public forum. While the different options were briefed by Mr. Trampe and Mr. Taylor, they were not widely debated by the Supervisors prior to being inserted in the final budget proposal. As a citizen that follows these meetings closely, there was little ability for citizens to comment on these proposals prior to their adoption.
Why is this a problem? It is a problem because a subtle precedent was created that could more easily allow the Board to procedurally delay presenting or discussing contentious budget issues until after the budget public hearing, which on procedural grounds would permit the budget adoption without the public providing additional input.
The difference between the FY17 and the FY18 budget cycle is that the Board had the ability during this cycle to delay a vote to allow additional time for the citizens to digest the new proposals, even if only until the April 6th work session.
Last year, the Board was required to adopt the budget on the same day that there was a motion to suspend the by-laws to allow citizens a final opportunity to speak. Additionally, the Supervisors had already discussed the proposals in previous work sessions, which would have allowed the public to contact their supervisor and voice their concerns. If time permits and the Board introduces a new package of proposals within the recommended budget framework for approval, it would be most appropriate to allow a grace period for the public to provide private comments.
In addition, the calendar advertisement for the budget adoption at the April 11th meeting might have given citizens the reasonable expectation that no vote would occur prior to that date. Even if most citizens were no longer engaged in the budget process following the public hearing, the Board should, as a general rule, extend the process to allow citizens at a minimum to contact their Supervisors privately to express their concerns. In the future the county administration might better serve Spotsylvania citizens by advertising the earliest possible date that the budget could be voted on and a final meeting date for increased clarity.
Due to the Board adopted proposals, further changes will be required to the County's fiscal policies. While the Finance Department did state they were not very concerned with these changes, this new policy change would represent the third fiscal policy change in roughly 12 months. If the current set of reserves are deemed to be inconsequential enough that they can be so casually altered, then it calls into question why they exist. In addition, if we have difficulty as a community adhering to fiscal policies when the economy is doing well, it would seem very unlikely they would be kept in any sort of economic downturn.
In closing, the Board did allocate additional money to the schools which helped to close their budget gap by about half, without using too many budget gimmicks. Nonetheless, I am a person that believes strongly in the governing process and transparency. While the Board was within their legal authority to hold the budget vote, the manner in which it was carried out could create the perception of impropriety and looks poorly on the Board. Any delay in the vote was probably not going to change the course of the budget decisions that were made, but the delay would have allowed citizens an opportunity to voice their concerns on the new package of proposals and we should strive for that type of engagement when there is still time in the budget process.