Elected officials tap savings to close budget gap


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1-NN-Budget-gap-imagePASQUOTANK COUNTY — In the most recent budget meeting, our county commissioners concluded by asking Finance Director Sherry Small to close the deficit between revenue and expense in order to achieve a revenue neutral budget.

There was no discussion of a property tax increase at that time, although clearly, this was a concern they were trying to avoid.

At the next budget meeting, we will find out if the finance director was successful in her assignment. So what does this mean to the average taxpayer? And what does it mean to the various department heads that presented their budgets to the commissioners?

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The one thing that was completely missing from these discussions was cost reduction.

You may recall a recent article where we addressed the issue of the “wish list” of the various departments and the rising cost of employee salary and benefits. These two cost items alone were driving the entire process. Just how the commissioners were going to deal with this issue was an unknown at the time.

Now, we have been through the entire budget process, and many heretofore unanswered questions have been resolved. So how did the commissioners get to this point without a major tax increase?

To begin with, the commissioners dealt with a budget that projected revenues for the coming fiscal year of $41.26 million. Reports that a one cent property tax increase had been included, was the conclusion of the last budget meeting – a possible discrepancy which Small, the finance director, said she will try to work out.

In getting to this point, the School Board is being asked to operate on $1.7 million less than requested, with more than $6 million eliminated from various spending requests, including major capital items by the School Board and College of the Albemarle.

The only good news in this budget is that employees of the county — whose salaries have been frozen since 2007, except for a few notable variances — will finally get a substantial raise. In addition, the county will spend $654,000 from its fund balance (a type of savings account) to achieve the current budget level which is $1.44 million greater than last year’s $39.82 million.

Commissioners agreed to fund capital needs for the school district that totaled $797,000, which includes $536,000 for window replacement at the Sheep Harney elementary school as well as tuck pointing the brick around those windows. There was $160,000 included for a water chiller at Northeastern High School; $51,000 for design work for a roof replacement at J.C. Sawyer Elementary School; and $50,000 for the design of a humidity control system at River Road Middle School.

In the case of the local community college, there was a tentative agreement to fund $1.55 million of the $1.63 million request. The reduction eliminated the request for a new security position, but did not cut $400,000 in capital projects.

Finally, the budget does include $300,000 for a new fire truck for the Newland Volunteer Fire Department.

With these discussions, there were comments about what the county could afford and what it could not afford. But what it did not include is any mention of reducing costs. You may recall, in last week’s paper, we reported that Commissioner Meads suggested outsourcing the cleaning and janitorial services provided at the library. He had a quote that specified what services were to be provided and when, at what schedules, for both weekly and non-weekly services. This quote was flexible and could have been adjusted up or down as needed to meet whatever was required. This would save the County approximately $40,000 annually for salaries alone, not including benefits.

Rather than an objective consideration of the various facts, the commissioners dismissed these recommendations with very little discussion, suggesting that this should be taken to the Building and Grounds Committee, a likely burial ground for the proposal.

Are there other cost reductions that could be accomplished, making it possible for needed improvements, and capital expenditures, to be included in the budget process? Clearly, there are. If the commissioners were willing to look at performance and judge employees on that basis, substantial cost reductions could be achieved.

Last year, someone who is quite outspoken, told this reporter that the commissioners were caught in a quandary of what to do. The person described this situation as follows: The Commissioners don’t want to cut spending because it will make someone mad at them, but they also don’t want to raise taxes for the same reason.

Several months ago, as budget time was approaching, at least one observer suggested to Chairman Winslow, that there were enough former business executives in this area who, if asked, would likely donate their time and effort to look at the various departments for efficiencies of operation, and cost of operation, and make recommendations to the commissioners with clear eyes and without political baggage.

That suggestion fell on deaf ears. There are numerous functions of government that could be outsourced very cost-effectively or prudently eliminated. But obviously, there is little attention being paid to you, the taxpayer.

In addition to the library situation, other cost reduction suggestions have been made to the commissioners, which they have summarily ignored or dismissed. Other cost reductions that have not been suggested are known to people inside government as well as outside. But for political reasons, there is no will within the County Commissioners to tackle these issues.

Therefore, Commissioner Meads is the lone voice on the Board who is looking out for the interest of the taxpayers of this County.

You may recall comments that we have reported on in the past, suggesting that because the debt of the county had been paid down, and the commissioners were now in a position to borrow more money. Well, in this case, they are not borrowing more money but they are taking out a big chunk of the fund balance (also known as the Rainy Day Fund) to do so.

This reporter will detail these cost-saving issues in future articles, once our investigation into these matters is complete.