By. Neil Williamson, President
In last night’s (5/2) hastily arranged budget work session, the Greene County Board of Supervisors tentatively agreed to increase funding for the schools by $1.1 million dollars in Fiscal Year 2013. This was approximately 1 million dollars less than was requested by the School Board.
The increased local funding request was based on an increase in Virginia Retirement Services costs (passed on by the state) of $1.2 million dollars, a 10% increase in health insurance costs, increased fuel costs and a reduction in state funding due to a recalculation of Greene County’s Local Composite Index [ability to pay].
The size of the Greene County’s reserve fund (Currently about $16 million) was an item of contention among several supervisors. The failure of the board to define a reserve fund policy (see our September 2011 post) created friction among Board members and
Greene County had worked through a series of budget workshops with the School Board (and the other county departments) and had even advertised their budget with school funding at the $2.123 Million dollar level.
If this budget cycle seems to be condensed, it is. The delay in the enactment of a State budget, as well as its content, has had ripple effects in all of the localities the Free Enterprise Forum operates.
Earlier today, a letter was circulated from School Board Chair Troy Harlow and Superintendent of Schools Dr. David Jeck. The letter stated in part:
Greene County currently has a reserve fund containing ~$16 million. This amount represents a 30% reserve which is twice the reserve amount recommended by the county auditor. Over $1.4 million of that amount was directly contributed by the school system through disciplined money management and strategic financial decisions. These strategies allowed the school system to contribute those funds while still cutting spending by an additional $1M. These cuts were realized primarily through the elimination of 38 positions, and a 20% decrease in material and supplies funding. At the same time, GCPS added approximately 200 new students. [emphasis in original-nw]
BOS Chairman Buggs Peyton (Stanardsville) indicated his reluctance to to use funds that are in the reserves:
It[the reserve fund] is the only safety net to avoid future tax increases. If we deplete the reserves inevitably it will result in a tax increase. Shortfalls should not be saddled with the taxpayers of Greene County. The VRS funds were robbed out of the fund and I think this county has reached the limit on taxing its citizens.”
Supervisor Jim Frydl (Swift Run) took issue with Peyton’s comments and expressed concern that the proposal included an increase in local government pay and personnel while cutting the schools.
“I would assume the Board would agree that with an increase of student population we should have an increase in responsibility. We can’t maintain the same local funding and serve more students.
“I think it is hypocritical, at least, in increasing local government spending while the schools have absorbed cuts. To say we are spending wisely and at the same time increase the size of government is hypocritical. Gaining wait is not losing weight
You are advocating spending increases in raises and new positions on general government and not providing equal increases [to the schools]. We are advance collecting taxpayer money to put in reserves.
The balance of the supervisors, all of whom were elected in November each weighed in regarding their concerns about increasing spending. As this was a work session and not a formal meeting, Finance Director Tracy Morris was looking for direction (but not a vote) from the Board regarding what numbers to provide for the public hearing scheduled for Next Tuesday (5/8).
At Large Supervisor Eddie Dean (photo left) indicated he had an issue back filling a federal program that was no longer funded and also did not thing the “carry forward” money should carry forward. If it is not used during the budget year he believed it should revert to the general fund. Currently, the schools retain those funds which can be seen as an incentive to cut costs. Based on those two reductions, he proposed $1.1 Million in new schools revenue.
Frydl proposed spending $2 Million and took exception to the timing of this work session, six days prior to the public hearing:
People are going to assume this is going forward on how they wanted. We will vote on a budget that is a million and a half less than we advertised. This is the first conversation we had about it. Due to timing the public won’t know. No one is at fault – we can point to Richmond. I think we are making a conscious decision to grow the reserves further rather than fund the school’s request. In this year, we could spend a million to a million and a half and not impact the reserves significantly.
Supervisor Davis Lamb (Ruckersville) asked about county schools debt and indicated you can’t spend borrowed money to get out of debt. He felt comfortable at $1.1 Million in new funding for the schools.
After some thought, Supervisor David Cox (Monroe) agreed with Dean and Lamb at $1.1 Million increase for the schools.
In their letter, Harlow and Jeck advocated for the public to speak at the public hearing and provided a preview of the impacts of this new proposed budget:
We [Greene County Schools] have reduced our staff by 38 positions over the past three years; however, if the budget passes as consented to at the May 2 workshop, the Greene County School Board may not be able to rule out the elimination of positions. Other options to consider include:
· Drastic increase in benefits costs for employees
· The elimination of essential programs such as the career and technical education center, the preschool program, school bus transportation, and/or athletics
· Furlough days for all employees
· Salary reductions
None of these options are pleasant or easy. They will be painful for all and will mean a significant “step backwards” for our nearly 500 school employees and nearly 3000 students, but this is the reality of cutting $1 million dollars out of an already lean budget.
The supervisors will hold a public hearing on Tuesday May 10th. After the public hearing, the board will vote to approve a budget. While previous indications seemed to be pointing to a quieter budget hearing, one can anticipate significant public turnout on both side of the spending debate.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org
Photo/Graphics Credit: Free Enterprise Forum, Greene County