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Buckingham Budget Is Ready For Hearing

BUCKINGHAM – On Monday, April 11, citizens will have an opportunity to voice their opinions on the county's proposed operating budget for the coming fiscal year.

The hearing will be held in conjunction with the April 11 meeting of the board of supervisors. Although the meeting begins at 7 p.m., the hearing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., in the auditorium of the Agricultural Center located on Route 60 next to the county administration building.

During a work session held on March 16, the board of supervisors approved the proposed $41,756,761 budget for advertisement and public hearing.

As approved, the proposal can be funded without raising taxes or increasing fees.

Even though the work session did not include a public comment segment, supervisors faced an auditorium filled with teachers, administrators, support staff, and parents who were on hand to show their support of the school board's request for an additional $1.7 million in funding.

However, supervisors opted for a compromise by proposing an additional $800,000 in local funds for the school division.

Budget Overview

Before turning to Assistant County Administrator Karl Carter for an overview of the budget, Chairman Bill Talbert expressed his appreciation to the audience for attending.

“I am so glad to see all of you here,” shared Talbert. Noting there would be no public comment segment, he offered that the session would provide them an opportunity to see the board at work.

Karl Carter, who also serves as finance director, began by explaining the proposed budget did not include any salary increases or elimination of positions for county employees.

Noting a 4.2 percent increase in health insurance premiums, Carter stated, “So once again county employees will be taking home less pay.” He added, “Also the retirement cost will increase by approximately two percent.”

According to Carter, the $41,756,761 figure includes a beginning year balance of approximately $5.3 million. However, he pointed-out that the true beginning year balance would be $4,618,615 because $681,385 is reserved for economic development from property sales in the industrial park.

Explaining there has been talk in the community of a $7 million beginning year balance, Carter said that figure was the balance on June 30, 2010. However, he noted since that time a good portion of those additional funds, which included $1.7 million from a one-time increase in sales tax, have been expended on capital projects, with $700,000 to the school division; and, approximately $1 million for the county administration complex.

Carter advised that once again this year, as they have done the last three years due to state cuts in revenue, the budget reflects reductions in many departments to keep the total increase to a minimum.

“I ask that when you look at the budget you keep in mind that the reserve for contingency is not just for unexpected increases in expenses but declines in revenue,” stated Carter, reminding of the state cuts that have occurred over the last several years.

Additionally, Carter noted the rising cost of fuel could require supplementing budgets for some departments during the year.

Carter explained the budget included reserving $1.3 million in funds for the school renovation/expansion project on Route 20 for lower and upper elementary schools.

“This will be the biggest debt service project in the history of the county,” said Carter about the $25 million project.

Noting a total increase of $143,534 for governmental expenses-excluding social services, the school system, and the water and sewer departments-Carter said the figure includes $12,000 for increased costs associated with health insurance and $50,000 for retirement benefits. Additionally, the figure includes $25,000 for a new county vehicle; $10,000 for a tractor shed; and the remaining amount related to employee benefits due to the sheriff's department being fully staffed.

Carter said the total general fund revenue is expected to increase by $1.2 million, with the majority of that coming in the form of public service tax related to receiving a full year of assessed revenue from the new Bear Garden power plant and Colonial Pipeline.

School Budget

Beginning with debt service, K. Carter explained the current debt service for FY12 would include $946,130 for the middle school and $303,401 for the high school. He said adding the $1.3 million for the elementary renovation brings the school debt service to approximately $2.5 million.
<br />Explaining how he arrived at his proposal for school funding, Carter said he worked through the budget with the exception of school funding so he could ascertain how much money would be available to provide to the schools without exhausting the year-end balance.

“The number that we came up with is $690,053,” stated Carter, adding that those funds were put in the school budget as a one-time appropriation not as school operation funds.

He offered, “That would put the total for the county to the school system, not including the new debt service, about $6.9 million.” Carter added that with the additional $1.3 million in debt service, the figure rises to above $8 million.

Supervisor Joe Chambers interjected that the $690,053 was short of the school board's request.

Subsequently, Talbert suggested that in light of the controversy, they needed to settle the school funding issue. He suggested a compromise that would work for both sides.

“One thing we have to do, we've got to educate our children,” stated Talbert. Referencing the school employees in the audience, he added, “And the only way you can do that is with what you see sitting out here tonight.”

Talbert continued, “I hope we don't have to do anything to lose any of our teachers.”

K. Carter offered, “This will be about an 11 percent increase in what they get now.”

Questioning how the board would go about the budget process if the school system sent them a “total number that they can live with,” Supervisor John Kitchen asked if they could do that at the public hearing.

County Administrator Rebecca Carter offered, “When you adopt the budget for public hearing it needs to have in there what you expect to give the school system.”

Speaking to the audience, she explained that according to the projections, the difference in what the school division would be getting in state and federal funding is $525,209 less. “Plus we know that you need the VRS and we know that you need the health insurance,” added Ms. Carter.

However, she noted that the school system budgeted to pay 100 percent of the increase in the employees' health insurance. “Our employees have to pick up their difference every year so maybe we can look at possibly that,” stated Carter. “I'm sure we would all rather pick up a little of our health insurance than to see people lose their jobs.”

Continuing, the county administrator explained the school system in the present year used about $700,000 of previous year's money to pay recurring costs. Carter, noting another carryover of approximately $300,000, offered, “In defense of the school system, I think they used this money to prevent asking the county for more money for the past two years.”

She added, “So we go from having about a million dollar surplus to needing $1.7 million.”

Stressing the need to present supervisors with a balanced budget, Ms. Carter noted that the proposed budget, which includes the new debt service and almost $700,000 in additional funds for the school system, is balanced within the county's revenues. “That says a lot for Buckingham County,” stated Carter.

“To go any further, decisions will have to be made through either a tax increase or if you lower your balance,” she said.

Kitchen reiterated, “So what you are saying now then Becky is if we appropriate any more money for the schools-it's going to have to come from the ending year balance to balance the budget.”

Referencing recent news that the state's economic picture appears brighter with an increase in revenue, Kitchen stated, “That looks pretty good.”

Ms. Carter cautioned, “That's why by law we ask you to consider holding a public hearing and approve a budget based on, contingent upon, state, federal, and local revenues.” She added, “People may not pay their taxes. And, like this year, the state may pull out money in the middle of the year. We've seen that happen with our constitutional officers.”

Kitchen said that after going through the budget book, the only thing he saw that needed to be changed was the school budget. Although, he noted there was one exception, the $15,000 for the Commonwealth Regional Council.

Ms. Carter offered that aside from the school system, there was only the approximate $140,000 increase from all the other departments and agencies. “I think that is pretty good,” she said.

Offering that the school system is one of the county's biggest employers, Chairman Talbert talked about the impact on the county's economy if teaching positions were lost. His comments drew a loud applause from the audience.

He continued, “If this $690,000 is not going to be sufficient for them, I think it's the responsibility of this board to make it to where they can operate…If we can make it a little bit more acceptable to the school board; and, this board can help them along, I am willing to go with it.” Talbert added, “I'm not saying a $1.7 million.”

In turn, Kitchen suggested increasing the $690,000 in additional funding to $800,000.

When Bates asked if that would be taken from the ending year balance, Kitchen responded, “Yes.”

Bates offered, “I can live with that.”

Subsequently, Kitchen moved, with a second from Bates and Danny Allen, to increase the 690,000 to $800,000 in additional funding for the school system. The motion drew the board's support. (Supervisor Danny LeSueur was absent.)

Talbert told the audience, “That got you a little bit more.”

After the vote, Kitchen successfully moved that the board adopt the proposed budget as amended for public hearing and advertisement.

Bates followed with a motion to adopt tax rates as presented. Those rates, which are based on every $100 valuation, are the same as the current tax rates with real estate at $0.44; public service corporation $0.44; personal property $4.05; machinery/tools $2.90; merchants capital $1; and aircraft $0.55.

In Other Action

Supervisors, with a motion by Kitchen, accepted the low bid of $8,088 from BSN Sports for four sets of bleachers for the new ball field at Gene Dixon Memorial Park.

The board approved a request from the school board for revisions to the FY11 school budget. Those revisions included changes in the projected amounts from the federal and state governments; additional projected funds for FAPT aides; and the receipt of additional donations.

Additionally, the board approved a request from the school board to approve an appropriation for payment to the clerk of the works for the elementary renovation project.

Supervisors also approved payment of a school renovation invoice for $851,343.28 to Blair Construction.

Before recessing the meeting, Chairman Talbert, referencing the packed auditorium, told the audience, “I wish we would have this every meeting…This is your county.”

Blair Comments

After the meeting, Superintendent Gary Blair shared, “So now we will go back and survey our people and talk about choices.” He added, “I think the task will be difficult.”

Dr. Blair offered, “I've said all along that I want people to understand there are consequences to losing a significant amount of money.”

He added, “The reality is we are not alone in this-the whole state is having that problem.”

When asked about the subject of carryover amounts and using those funds for recurring costs, Blair explained that by being frugal and “chilling the budget,” there was money left over from one year to the next.

“I said publicly, if we can save the money will you let us keep it and pay bills next year,” he stated, adding that by being able to do so freed up money to keep positions. Blair shared that he thought it was difficult to define recurring and non-recurring costs for a school system.

He explained his initial goal in the budget process was to identify where the money goes so that people understand if they want to maintain all that, “then here's the price tag.”

The school superintendent assured, “We are not going to let the level of education slide for our children.”

Blair offered, “We do much more than teach books, we teach values.” He added, “We are building minds.”

He concluded, “I think this will force us to look at education in different ways and say we have to prioritize.”