PE Supervisors Talk Budget, Few Comment At Hearing

Published 4:18 pm Thursday, April 25, 2013

PRINCE EDWARD – County supervisors danced around possible further budget cuts in a work session prior to the public hearing Monday, but collectively appeared resigned to sit out some tough decisions.

At least for this year.

“I hate to see us dipping into our fund balance as healthy as we are with this thing but I think we need to feel our way through this upcoming year, see what some of these unknowns turn out to be and next year-maybe we're putting off…maybe we shouldn't be doing (it)-but anyhow we'll put it off to next year to see if we have to really make some major adjustments,” offered Lockett District Supervisor Robert “Bobby” Jones as the session drew close to an end.

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The unknowns include whether the County will have to build a new landfill cell and the continued costs for participating in the Piedmont Regional Jail. If costs for the jail range on the lower end of the spectrum and the landfill cell can wait until the next budget year it would mean more in the fund balance.


Such, however, remain unknowns for budget preparation.

The work session, an hour-plus rehash of previous discussions, netted no new tonic. Overall, without adding anything else to the expenditure side of the fiscal ledger, the County is looking to dip into the fund balance by nearly $1 million for the coming year, while keeping the tax rates the same.

Fore's Outline

Board Chairman William “Buckie” Fore presented a list of budget highlights prior to Monday's hearing on the County's budget, tax rates and the school budget. Among the highlights he cited in an introduction: no tax increase has been proposed; the County anticipates an increase in local tax revenues of about $200,000; it contains a two percent salary increase for County workers; factors level or decreased funding in operational budgets of most County departments, constitutional offices, and county emergency services; includes $8,106,652 in local funds for the public schools (though it was noted there is strong support among the board to provide an additional $240,148 which will allow the schools to provide a two percent pay increase to all their employees); includes $700,000 for housing prisoners in Piedmont Regional Jail (representing the first time the County has had to budget such costs), and $1,150,500 for opening a new cell and closing another at the County's landfill.

The matter of the jail and its impact, however, throws a wrench into budget plans. Funding was added in the current budget year to house prisoners and the upcoming budget is the first time in memory that the County has had to budget ahead for such costs as the jail-which accepts prisoners from outside of the regional participants-has not had to charge participating localities to house prisoners.

And that has changed.

“There has been much discussion in the community concerning the new expense that's connected to the jail,” Fore said in prepared remarks. “Many of our citizens think that the loss of the immigrant detainees and the resulting loss of revenues for housing these detainees is the cause of the problem. This is not true. To absorb the loss of revenue the jail reduced expenditures by reducing its work force and mothballing facilities that were no longer needed due to the decrease in prisoner population. In addition the jail developed new contracts bringing in new sources of revenues.”

Fore offered that the “true culprit” in the increase for the jail is the loss of revenues from the state and inmates from Dinwiddie and Mecklenburg Counties when they opened their own regional jail. Over the past four years, he detailed, the state has reduced the amount it provides the jail for each prisoner day for out of compliance prisoners from $28 to $12 and the amount provided for local prisoners from $8 to $4 per day. The reduction equates in a loss of state funding of more than $1 million annually. When Dinwiddie and Mecklenburg owned their own regional jail, it was a loss of over $900,000.

“Together that has caused a loss in revenue of approximately $2 million. No agency can absorb that kind of funding reduction; therefore, Prince Edward County is projecting a brand new expenditure this coming year of $700,000 for this new fiscal year,” Fore said.

Out In Force

While there were few speakers for the public hearing, the fire departments were well represented-with supporters filling about half of the board of supervisors' meeting room.

Assistant Chief for Farmville's Fire Department Andrew Goss, representing the Prince Edward Firefighter's Association, asked that the board fund a “ten percent increase on top of the $68,000 we've mostly been allotted for the past several years.”

He noted, “We're asking this due to the fact that as time goes on, things become more expensive.”

Goss highlighted diesel fuel has skyrocketed since their last increase, the price of steel used in fire trucks has gone up considerably, diesel engines with new EPA standards have gone up.

“We're not up here asking for a raise,” Goss told the board. “We're all volunteers. We are simply asking for our funding to do our job and to do (it) efficiently for the people of Prince Edward County.”

New challenges, he detailed, face the department every day. Where it took 99 hours of training to achieve Firefighter I, it is now 156 hours. If the County were to staff one paid engine for 24 hours a day, he offered, it would cost $1 million on average for a firefighter's salary.

“Hampden-Sydney Fire Department, for example, has many members in the audience today. Only three of those members have gear that's NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) compliant. That means that gear is more than ten years old,” Goss said.

While Goss offered that they appreciate what they are getting, he also added, “It's getting too steep now through the regulations and the price of fuel, price of equipment. It's unbearable. We spend a lot of our time fundraising. A lot of it. We spend, I'd say at most departments, if you look through their budgets, most of us are around $20,000 in fundraising each year just to support ourselves and keep the doors open and the lights on.”

Copies of individual fire department budgets were presented to board members.

Dallas Tinsley, of the Firefighter's Association, thanked the board for past funding and noted that they would like to have the $68,000 for the departments as well fire programs money given to the fire departments in a separate check-as it was about six to seven years ago.

The fire programs funds are incorporated into the individual fire department budgets, according to the County Administrator.

Other Speakers

Director of the Central Virginia Regional Library Peggy Epperson expressed appreciation for the board's support and cited the use of the facility. County supervisors have penciled in $204,000 in funding for the coming year, or essentially what was requested.

A Cumberland resident offered that he is “really grateful” for the library. He noted that they can't afford Internet, noting that both of his sons use the internet for doing school work.

Division Superintendent Dr. David Smith thanked the board for the support they have shown the schools.

The superintendent shared some “good news,” citing that they hosted a review team from AdvancED national level accrediting agency (formerly the Regional Southern Association of College and Schools).

“We're one of the first divisions in the state of Virginia to start with a new process for evaluation and…we were very pleased that when a review team of five educational professionals from across the country spent time here looking at every part of our process, looking at classrooms, observing students and teachers, conducting extensive interviews with community members and with school staff. At the end of that their recommendation was that Prince Edward County Public Schools be accredited. And that goes to the national level for board approval. We anticipate by June that final word will be confirmed.”

It is significant, he offered, because they have not had division-level accreditation in the past. Their individual schools have each been accredited with SACS for as long as 41 years, he highlighted.

There are commendations and recommendations and required actions for improvement, Dr. Smith noted, adding that they are beginning work on those now.

Budget Matters

The hearing, a short one and perhaps remarkable in that no speaker addressed school funding other than the superintendent, is the last major hurdle in the budget process. Supervisors are scheduled to meet in a work session Tuesday afternoon where they are expected to approve a budget plan.

What is included in a final draft is still open for debate. (The County cannot approve a budget that includes a tax increase since one has not been advertised and a public hearing held.) In a work session budget presentation, County Administrator Wade Bartlett outlined before supervisors an estimated fund balance at the end of the 2014 fiscal year is $9,280,439.

“In order not to borrow funds during a fiscal year due to cash flow fluctuations and to allow for unexpected expenses Prince Edward County needs a minimum fund balance of $6 million. With an operational deficit of almost $1 million dollars in only three years, Prince Edward's fund balance would fall to such a point as to require short-term borrowing to pay expenses.”

He also told the board, “It's not to say that would happen, but if we kept doing what…it appears like we may do, that could cause us problems in the near future.”

Supervisors wrestled through funding issues and possible cuts, even revising a discussion on the County's health insurance plan (keeping it as is rather than increasing the deductible from $250-$500 and other changes) which adds $133,200 in the current fiscal year. And, though it failed to gain traction, Farmville District (701) Supervisor Jim Wilck asked if they were at a point where they could eliminate the economic development department and look to other entities.

Bartlett highlighted that there are only four counties with a lower real estate tax rate than Prince Edward.

“In good conscience, I can't see us doing this budget we've come up with and shoving it down the…taxpayer's throats,” offered Leigh District Supervisor Don Gantt in the discussions.

Hampden District Supervisor Charles McKay would also comment, “It looks like to me we're gonna have to suck it up this year and do whatever we can next year.”

He would also note, “It's not like we're gonna go bankrupt if we do this budget, right?”

“That's correct,” responded Bartlett. “Even with adding those, it's still almost $9.3 million of a fund balance, so you still have time.”

Gantt would offer that they could still work in the budget and “get it closer” if fellow board members were willing to do it. He suggested funding for Chamber of Commerce and Longwood Small Business could come of out of economic development's budget. Restoring Burkeville Volunteer Fire Department money and funds for the Farmville Volunteer Fire Department could come out of Pamplin's (fire department's) budget.

Gantt also challenged several constitutional officers present that they needed to spend the $133,000 increase in the health insurance cost, which they responded that it was. (Among those attending were the treasurer, commissioner of revenue and clerk of the circuit court. Gantt also noted that he had talked with the sheriff, who also had said that he needs to spend it.)

Gantt cited that it's $133,000 this year, $60,000 last year and $40,000 the year before that.

“And I'll be honest with you, I took this thing up Main Street today and I had not one person-not one-tell me it's a good idea. When I talk to the people in my district, not one has told me it's a good idea,” Gantt said. “Not one.”

Vice-Chairman Howard Simpson, who has supported keeping the existing coverage, responded that it “depends on who's talking to these people” and how it was explained.

“The way it was put…this is the plan they have, this is the plan that was in the budget, this plan costs another $160,000. That was it. That's all I said,” Gantt said.

On the matter of the economic development department, Bartlett cautioned against putting a governmental function (in the case of Longwood Small Business Development) under someone they do not control. He also noted the current employee handles the grant for the enterprise zone, which takes some time, that they get a lot of contacts that take time working with and the other entities cited would not do that.

“…The problem with elimination of any department or position is they're doing something out there in the work and who's gonna pick that up?” Bartlett cited. “And it's a time issue…”

He noted they are “very small now” and there could be an issue that pops up that takes hours.

Chairman Fore would also cite the need for quick responses. The person with the experience and know-how needs to be on hand, he said, “without relying on staff or somebody just to pull somebody in to respond.”

The county administrator also noted plans to fill the community development position. He said he planned to have a discussion with the board on the direction they would like to see on the position after they got through the budget.

Down the economic road, the County could also get a bump when the new Luck Stone quarry opens (west of Farmville) and Bartlett also feels there would be some spin-offs as well. He also speculated that they would see more development in the County's industrial park area, which would increase the revenue base, which will increase the employment base and that there would be a multiplier effect (increasing the sales tax and consumer utility tax).

Such, however, are not factored in the budget.