PE Talks Mandates, Funding

Published 4:06 pm Tuesday, September 27, 2011

PRINCE EDWARD-It was a captive and well-fed audience last Wednesday as County supervisors put on a legislative forum of sorts for those who represent or will represent Prince Edward in the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

On hand were Delegate Jim Edmunds, who now represents all of Prince Edward after redistricting, and the two candidates for a newly-created senatorial district that spans from Goochland to Lynchburg and incorporates Prince Edward: Democrat Bert Dodson, and Republican Tom Garrett.

It was quite a laundry list of needs and concerns from the County schools and board of supervisors-much of which involves, or potentially involves, state funding issues.

“One of the concerns, in a general sense, has to do with…what seems to be the increasing number of mandates that come from state, but also federal government mostly tied with increased accountability measures for which there is no funding,” detailed Division Superintendent Dr. David Smith. “And the funding that has to come from local sources…which, in turn…has to replace other items in school budgets, thus increasing the burden on existing programs to fund new mandates. So we would ask for your assistance in questioning the source of funding that's intended when there are additional mandates that are added to us.”

There were, of course, similar concerns that had a familiar ring: the state wants to issue mandates at the local level and requires it, but does not pony up the funds. Localities are limited in their revenue options.

While towns and cities have the authority to enact a food and beverage tax by merely holding a public hearing, counties are guided by a different set of rules. In order to enact what is often referred to as a meals tax, county voters must first approve a referendum.

Rarely do voters approve a referendum to increase a tax.

Prince Edward County Administrator Wade Bartlett cited that with the current restrictions, property taxes “are really the only avenue that local governments-local counties-have to generate revenues. Most of those revenues are used to fund schools and other unfunded federal and state mandates. What the board would like is that counties have…the taxing authority equivalent to cities and towns.”

Bartlett noted that, as the home of three state parks, one state forest, two state wildlife management areas, a state university, a private college and a destination shopping venue that “Prince Edward receives a throng of visitors year round. Well those visitors tax our ability of the local governments, to include the town, to provide utility services, garbage services, adequate road systems, police protection, and places burdens on our judicial and correctional facilities when these visitors don't exactly adhere to all of our state and local laws. The cost of those burdens are now being borne by the local taxes raised in the Town and the County. Well the county, mainly relying on real estate taxes, doesn't have a way to appropriately share those costs with our visitors. A food and beverage tax would be one such way to place some of those costs back onto the visitors who come to our locality demanding services.”

Towns and cities currently have the ability to enact a meals tax, Bartlett added, “And all the counties are asking is the same ability.”

Delegate Edmunds, a former member of the Halifax Board of Supervisors, said he certainly understands the restrictions the state government can place on the localities.

Del. Edmunds said he's drafted a bill to allow localities by a referendum to increase their sales tax to support K-12 education, though he offered that it probably won't get out of committee.

“But I still think that if the citizens want to improve their school system and the argument is made such that they think they should and they're willing to pay by another penny on their sales tax, then they should have that opportunity,” Edmunds said. “Who am I to tell any county in Virginia that they can't do any more for their schools than what they can do with their real estate/personal property tax rate? And I just don't think it's fair to keep on hitting the same folks when towns and cities…can do what they want to…It doesn't seem fair to me and that's something I'm gonna look at this session.”

Del. Edmunds also said that he absolutely agreed that the mandates “that we have put on school systems can be relaxed. Not all of them, but…many of them….”

More School Matters

“As the economy continues to shift and as federal spending is reduced, we know from prior experience that the larger more heavily populated areas will tend to want to shift the burden and shift the funding pressure around the state, thus increasing their funding,” Dr. Smith also highlighted. “And, so, we would ask you to please keep in mind the needs that we have in all of the areas of the state outside of the most heavily populated area so that we can provide for our citizens and we can provide for our students the services that are so desperately needed by all Virginians.”

There were other school issues, too: support for bond funding to allow localities to finance the renovation and major repair projects. While they aren't faced with new school buildings, Dr. Smith noted they have some large repair needs and specifically pointed to replacing the roof at the middle school (projected at $1 million).

In addition, school officials are looking to have the state address the statutory date of April 15 when teachers have to be notified on their employment status. SOL results aren't available until early June-or after the notification date. School officials also looked to add an additional year-extending from three to four-in awarding a continuing contract. It effectively would extend the probationary period for teachers from three to four years “to simply allow a little more time for a little more reasonable approach in evaluating and making a very serious decision about teachers careers and about their performance…” He added that it “so importantly affects the progress of our children.”

More County Matters

Bartlett, addressing other County issues, highlighted the need for judgeships for the Tenth Judicial Circuit. At full staffing, he cited, the average caseload per judge was 50 to 75 percent above the state average; with only two judges now, the caseload per judge is almost two and a half times the state average.

“With those fewer judges, you have fewer court dates, he said. “Because of the scarcity of court dates, Commonwealth attorneys in our district on our circuit are concerned they could be forced with having to dismiss valid criminal complaints due to a violation of the defendant's right to a speedy trial.”

On the issue of funding for law enforcement, Bartlett noted that last year there was an effort to reduce funding to local governments from one officer per 1,500 residents to one to 2,000. That, he cited, would require the county taxpayers to absorb about $150,000 to $200,000.

County officials also are looking to the General Assembly to provide the same insurance exemptions for the hauling agricultural products allowed for forestry products.

Del. Edmunds

Del. Edmunds said he had no problem with increasing the probation period from three to four years for teachers and would be glad to work on that.

Change could also be in the offing for the state's composite index-a complicated formula that aims to factor a locality's ability to pay in determining the percentage it receives for a portion of school funding.

Del. Edmunds noted that if northern Virginia and Virginia Beach were to vote straight together on every issue, they can out-vote everybody else.

“And I think they have been waiting for this day,” Del. Edmunds said. “They resent rural Virginia and the composite index and they are going to do all they can to change that formula. And I can assure you it is not gonna benefit us.”

Knowing that's coming, he added, and probably will pass, Del. Edmunds expressed hope that his bill that would allow localities to chart their own destinies with a little bit of help with the sales tax may offset that.

Del. Edmunds-on the meals tax-assessed that if a town and a city can do it, then a county should be able to do it as well.

He cited an example of a Town that has 30 people “and they have more opportunity to do what they want to with their taxing system than the county. I just don't think that's right,” Edmunds said.

Another County concern was expressed on possible devolution, or returning road responsibilities to localities.

“Again, you know, there's no way in the world any of my counties could afford to run their own road system,” Edmunds said.

He went on to detail that pretty much all issues are geographic in nature and noted that he is “at odds more with Northern Virginia than I ever have been with Democrats.”

As far as the judicial appointment, Edmunds said he was hopeful they would have at least have one judge back in place. He noted it's basically in the governor's lap. The governor could make the appointment, Del. Edmunds said, except for the fact that the General Assembly hasn't adjourned. He explained that they're waiting for the conference committee to decide what the congressional districts are going to look like.

“They haven't figured it out, 'til they do, we can't adjourn. Until we adjourn, the governor can't make the appointment,” Edmunds said.

Last year, in the General Assembly's original budget, there was a huge cut for law enforcement, the delegate cited. They were able to restore some of that, but he noted that in rural counties they have a lot of land to cover and they just don't have the options to do what more urban areas can do. He said he will continue to support full funding for sheriffs departments.

Del. Edmunds added that he would be glad to put a bill in to try to address the insurance exemptions.

The Candidates

The legislative session also afforded an opportunity for the candidates for the 22nd Senatorial District to address issues and concerns. And, while they didn't go line by line, the two did comment on several.

Garrett, a Commonwealth's Attorney in Louisa County, offered to “look at every piece of legislation that comes along and say is there gonna be a burden, an unanticipated burden that's placed upon the counties and cities and towns-there's only one city in the 22nd district, that's Lynchburg, mostly counties and towns-that we haven't anticipated and, if there is, we either need to find the funding stream or else vote no.”

On the composite index, Garrett offered that “it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that it costs more to educate a child in a rural locality than it does in an urban one anyway because of the transportation costs that you face and a spread-out rural locality with the one central high school and one central middle school are far greater than in a locality where the population density means that the kids can all…sort of go within three or four miles.”

He noted that “if the people in northern Virginia and Tidewater and to some extent the Richmond metro have their way, it's gonna be places like our homes that suffer. And, so, I'll be right aside Delegate Edmunds fighting a revision that would hurt our ability to fund our schools.”

Garrett offered that there are three core essential functions of state government: public safety, public education and public transportation infrastructure.

“And when times are tight and you gotta belt tighten, the last places you ought to be belt tightening are our schools, our roads and…our public safety,” Garrett said.

On the insurance exemptions, Garrett offered that it “makes all the sense in the world.”

Dodson, businessman and a former Lynchburg City Council member and vice-mayor, assessed that unfunded mandates “is a real crippling effect on our localities. It affects obviously public safety, public education, public utilities that we have in relation to the cities and somebody's got to go up to the General Assembly under Democratic and Republic administrations and say enough his enough.

Dodson offered that Republicans and Democrats need to do a better job with unfunded mandates.

“The state has changed a great deal. One third of the population's in Northern Virginia,” Dodson said, adding that seventy percent is in northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads.

Dodson conceded that the composite index is going to “be a big issue.”

On education issues, Dodson offered that they have to “keep reinvesting into our education.”

Dodson noted that the meals tax is a very big generator of revenue. In Lynchburg, he noted, they have major colleges and universities and a lot of travel.

“I believe that the localities should make their own decisions. Sometimes the government in Richmond acts like big brothers. If a referendum passed and the citizens decide to increase their local taxes-whether it be cigarette tax or meals tax, or whatever then that's up to their option,” he said.

Dodson said there are people in the political arena who want to do away with VDOT and put it back in counties, towns and cities like it was in the 1930s.

“I'm against that,” he said.

Dodson also offered that they've got to fund law enforcement.