From The Editor’s Desk: I have yet to meet the free money fairy

Published 2:33 am Thursday, April 25, 2024

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I have yet to meet the free money fairy. I’m told that much like Santa Claus, all it takes is belief and he’ll magically appear, immediately giving you all the cash your county or town requires. He’s apparently been known to spring from the ceiling, throwing bundles of cash at unsuspecting council members. Or when you take a break mid-meeting, some supervisors return to find checks worth millions in their seats. 

Sadly, I’m apparently too cynical to visit, although I’ve met many who believe in him. Now granted, they don’t actually label him as such. Instead, they just let everyone from lawmakers to news editors know he exists. Why else would people come to everything from school board meetings to county budget hearings with a wishlist of things they have to know there is no money for? I mean yes, we’re in the middle of budget season, which is sadly getting extended this year thanks to the fact the General Assembly can’t agree with itself or the governor. It’s going to be mid-May before the final state budget session is held. But regardless of the state government, we have to be realistic with what’s possible here. 

I’ve talked with several people before and after county and town meetings where they just say “find another way” or “just work harder, there are other options”. Having sat through years of budget work sessions, having seen what staff in each of these counties goes through just to be able to present you with the budgets you’re seeing right now, I’m here to say that’s not always the case. 

There’s not always extra money

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Let me be crystal clear. None of the towns or counties in this region are wealthy. Nobody is hiding cash, keeping it from being used for new programs. In fact, most councils and county boards are currently just trying to keep from having to make budget cuts in order to avoid raising taxes.

That’s why some officials in Farmville are pushing for the P.U.D. ordinance, looking for ways to draw in developers and recruit commercial development, which would in turn take some of the pressure off. It’s the reason Cumberland County has launched a task force, focused on recruiting retail businesses to the area. The more businesses, the more restaurants, the more shops that exist, the more tax revenue comes in and the easier it is to make some of these choices. But you can’t ignore development for years, with some residents actively demanding less of it, without an alternative. If you don’t have enough businesses to handle the tax load, the burden either falls on increased taxes or you cut everything else to the bone. 

And so, now here we are. The free money fairy gets asked to make an appearance in Buckingham, where county supervisors have not just fully funded schools this year, but also paid three requests during the school year, including a raise for teachers, a raise for bus drivers and funding the shortfall left due to state budget errors. Still, they get accused of being anti-teacher and anti-school for not also finding money for music programs and more than $500,000 in new needs the schools have asked for in next year’s budget. Buckingham hasn’t seen a boom in retail or construction in general. There’s not been a massive influx of people pouring into the county. So how is that supposed to work? Where is the money supposed to come from? And don’t just say “it’s their job to find it” or something similar. It’s also their job to be realistic and recognize that they can’t raise taxes enough to foot this bill and the others like it that have been presented. 

The free money fairy isn’t real

A need for money is the reason why Cumberland supervisors have approved and continue to look at solar projects. These are revenue streams, able to bring money in. And that’s something Cumberland badly needs right now. At present, supervisors are just trying to survive and make the smallest cuts possible, while looking to the time a solar project goes active. 

No, there isn’t more money “somewhere” they could get. No, they can’t cut without affecting services. I’m not saying all solar projects need to be approved. I still stand by the argument that neighborhoods especially are no place for the panels. But while you may not like to hear it, until more retail or business comes in, some are needed, because those funds may help keep the county afloat. I mean the only reason something like the Green Ridge landfill is being considered is due to the money it would inject into the community. 

And if someone has a better solution, please speak up. If you don’t like any of these things, what’s your method for bringing more money into the counties? Counties need money to operate. Those programs you want launched and projects you want built cost money. You have to convince restaurants and retail shops, along with other employers, that they want to operate in your community. And in many cases, we’re not there yet. 

Looking to the future

We’re in a transition phase, in many ways. We’re creating tools and building the concepts that will help us in the future. But the future’s not here yet. And so we need to temper expectations just a bit. You know, until the fairy puts that $10 million check in your seat.