Budget discussion raises supervisor hackles

The Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors embarked on a line-by-line analysis of the proposed fiscal year 2018 budget at a work session Wednesday night (March 8).

But after an hour had passed and only two subsets of the budget had been argued over, Chairman Mike Sheridan put a stop to the approach.

“About three years ago when we were in hard times we went through these budgets and tried to make them as ‘to the bone’ as we could,” he told Supervisor Trish Eager, who was driving the line-by-line analysis. “The dollars that we’re going to find will be very small.”

Eager tackled the supervisors’ and county administrator’s budget subsets, asking systematic questions about expenses.

She called into question whether supervisors should continue to give signed birthday cards to county employees. Eliminating the expense would shave $100 off supervisors’ yearly budget.

She also suggested cutting how frequently some supervisors attend the annual Virginia Association of Counties conference. Going every two or even every four years would save money, she said.

Supervisors and staff spent about an hour debating the merits of the line items Eager highlighted. Supervisor Mozell Booker periodically objected to the approach but the discussion continued.

Then Sheridan spoke up. “We can do this but it’s very time consuming and you’re not going to get much,” he said to Eager.

“You wouldn’t find a penny,” said County Administrator Steve Nichols, referring to the $293,000 generated by the uptick of one penny on the real property tax rate.

Eager could ask the various department heads and constitutional officers in the audience to defend the line items in their budgets, Nichols said, but he predicted she would find their reasoning convincing.

“They’ll all have compelling and good arguments because they know their budgets inside out,” he said.

Rather, he suggested, supervisors should direct staff to find a certain percentage of the budget to cut, if they so desired, and let staff figure out the details.

“Eighty percent of budget is salaries anyway, and it’s very difficult to cut out of 20 percent,” said Supervisor Don Weaver, a champion of lower taxes.

There are 2,000 to 3,000 individual lines in the budget, Nichols estimated after the meeting.

Immediately after the meeting, Booker spoke against the line-by-line approach. “I am irritated that we’re sitting here just chopping at stuff,” she said. “We’re not going to sit here and look at page by page and line by line… It’s not professional.”

Reflecting on her line-by-line approach two days after the meeting, Eager said, “As the Board of Supervisors, I don’t think that we know what the needs of each department are, so I think that’s why we ask Mr. Nichols to go back and see what cuts they could make and bring that to us. The process is really being careful with the taxpayer’s money and also providing the services that the county needs, and our staff. So it’s a balancing act.”

The work session’s budget discussion began on Eager’s premise of cutting Nichols’ proposed tax rate from 91.5 cents per $100 valuation to 89.9 cents. The current equalized tax rate is 88.2 cents.

Supervisors and staff debated passionately over various cuts to reach that goal, until Booker challenged the underlying assumption 75 minutes into the conversation. “How many of us actually want to keep it at 89.9?” she asked.

Booker’s question was prompted in part by the stated desire of Eager and Sheridan to eliminate this year’s contribution of $200,000 to the capital reserve maintenance (CRM) fund, which sets aside money for unexpected repairs and has been likened to the county’s savings account.

Weaver disagreed, saying the fund helps to “smooth out” the tax rate by allowing it to increase gradually rather than keeping it low, then hitting taxpayers with a spike when something major breaks down. Money to deal with such issues will need to be spent regardless, he said.

“You’re sort of fooling yourself, aren’t you?” Weaver said of defunding the CRM.

“Exactly. You’re cutting off your nose to spite your face,” said Nichols.

Booker defended the CRM, likening it to her personal savings account from which she had to pull money to buy a new heat pump.

Sheridan disagreed. “I still say that is what fund balance is for,” he said.

Supervisor Tony O’Brien, an advocate of the CRM, was absent. Though Weaver and Booker wanted to retain the fund, its possible elimination was nevertheless typed into a budget worksheet.

Booker became visibly upset.

“I just wanted to walk out, to tell you the truth,” she said after the meeting. “Sometimes people just don’t listen to you. They’re asking, ‘What do you think, Ms. So-and-So,’ and ‘What about you, Mr. So-and-So,’ as if they’re the only people on the Board. That’s not a good playing field.”

Supervisors ended the work session by directing staff to find cuts in the proposed budget to allow for a tax rate of 90.7 cents.

Health insurance

Supervisors spent over an hour discussing health insurance options for county employees. By next week they must choose between two providers and decide how much of the premium increase to cover for employees.

Sheridan and Booker advocated for making health insurance costs as “revenue neutral” as possible for employees.

“What about the taxpayer? Did they get a decrease or increase last year?” asked Weaver. “No one speaks to the taxpayer.”

“These are the people doing the work,” Booker said of county employees.

“And the taxpayers are the people paying the bill,” Weaver said.

One plan could raise employee costs by $107,484 or, if supervisors absorb the increase, could cost the county an additional $112,524.

The second plan smooths out the increase, potentially costing employees $31,141 or the county $48,384.

Staff will solicit employee feedback and present the findings to supervisors at their March 15 meeting.