( 4 Votes )

A passionate discussion about how a certain chunk of money was spent dominated part of the Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors meeting Wednesday afternoon (Feb. 1).

Comments made by Supervisor Trish Eager in a recent Fluvanna Review story dismayed Supervisors Mozell Booker and Tony O’Brien to the point that they decided to address them publicly.

In the Jan. 19 issue, the Fluvanna Review asked the five supervisors to outline their top two priorities for the county in 2017.

Eager said in part: “In fiscal year 2016 (FY16) there was a budget surplus of $1.679 million. The money could have been used to pay down debt or lower taxes, but half a million of it was requested and approved for different things, such as contract and professional services and capital purchases. Don Weaver and I voted against this request. We’re going to need to be borrowing money to pay for our public safety radio system and probably for the water project from the prison, and that’s why it’s my hope that the county will be more careful managing your money.”

At the meeting Booker voiced her concerns about Eager’s comments. “My constituents think that we just tossed [the leftover money] at projects,” Booker said. “I want to refresh how we used the $1.6 million.”

The county ended FY16 with $1.669 million in unspent money remaining, County Administrator Steve Nichols said, but part of that included state matching funds that never materialized since the county didn’t spend the full expected amount. The actual amount of leftover money was $1.376 million.

The fact that there would be money left over was mostly unforeseeable, Nichols said. Personnel vacancies made up $410,000 of the savings, most notably in social services, which accounted for $267,000 of that total.

Purchase of services for CSA, which serves at-risk youth and is notoriously difficult to predict financially, came in $310,000 under final budget.

Timing issues caused a $230,000 county contribution to the James River Water Authority to be made the following fiscal year rather than the year in which it was budgeted.

County utility prices went down to the tune of $120,000. About $95,000 less than expected was spent on correction and detention.

Those numbers total $1.165 million. The $211,000 difference came from miscellaneous savings, Nichols said.

Nichols then reminded supervisors what they had done with the $1.376 million.

In some cases, supervisors chose not to tell various county departments that because their projects remained unfinished at the end of FY16, they were out of luck. Rather, they voted at their Oct. 19, 2016 meeting to allow certain departments to carry over $174,000 into the next year to be spent on already approved projects, such as security upgrades.

Supervisors also chose to spend $303,000 of the surplus on certain capital improvements plan (CIP) projects. That number included $125,000 for modules and training for the county’s financial management software, $98,000 to pave the portion of the Pleasant Grove road that runs to the ballfields, $50,000 for the purchase of a mini-excavator, and $30,000 for facility security upgrades.

The Board then voted to return the remainder, or $900,000, of the surplus to the county’s fund balance.

“I think it needs to be real clear to the public that we did not just scrounge $1.6 million to throw it at frivolous things,” Booker said at the meeting.

“I was particularly disturbed by that,” O’Brien said. “The implication was that the Board was not being very diligent and vigilant of the taxpayers’ dollars… It implied that county staff was not doing a good job as well. I was really disappointed to see that statement made.”

O’Brien went on to say, “Returning $900,000 out of [FY16’s budget of] $80 million is a 1 percent differential on the budget, and I think if the county is able to budget within 1 percent, they’re doing an outstanding job.”

Nichols referred to the portion of Eager’s comments that said the surplus could have been used to lower taxes. “There’s not a chance in even a parallel universe that you could have cut the tax rate by $1.6 million last year, because you can’t foresee some of these types of things. It’s just the wrong argument,” he said. “When you look at these categories…were we supposed to budget $410,000 less for personnel? We budget based on the valid positions [at the time].”

When an expense doesn’t occur as planned, “We still have to account for that item,” said Nichols. “If you didn’t account for that money and then the cost came up, then everybody in the county would be looking at the county administrator, saying ‘Why didn’t you know about that cost?’”

The term “one-time dollars” refers to money that materializes in a way that cannot reasonably be expected to happen again. For example, just because the county had several personnel vacancies and saved $410,000, it can’t plan on not needing that $410,000 for next year. For that reason, supervisors still need to charge enough in taxes to cover that cost. If they deflated the tax rate for one year due to the windfall, they would need to re-inflate it the following year.

“I don’t ever advocate for balancing your budget on one-time dollars,” Nichols said. “One-time dollars are way dangerous.” 

Eager did not speak during the discussion.

“I wish that it had been put back into the general fund, but that’s not what the other Board members wanted to do,” Eager said after the meeting.

When asked if she stood by her portrayal of the issue in her earlier comments to the Fluvanna Review or if the discussion had framed the issue in a different light, Eager said, “Oh yeah, I feel the same. I wish that we had put it back and given all of the CIP the opportunity, or other needs in the county, instead of just handing it out.”