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Department Heads, Outside Agencies Ask Supes To Hold Line On Budget Cuts

Nine representatives from outside agencies and departments receiving county funds explained to the board of supervisors Monday night what proposed cuts in local funding would mean to their individual departments and agencies.

Board members held the work session to discuss the proposed $89.97 million county budget and to hear from outside agencies and county department heads concerning their specific budget requests.

Supervisors have asked county department heads to absorb all state cuts that result as state legislators make reductions to close the $2 billion gap in the state budget.

In addition, outside agencies receiving county funding have been asked to reduce their budgets 5 percent below the current local funding level, and the county school system is slated to receive level funding of $13 million in the upcoming budget, the same as the county funded this past year which represents 139 percent above what is required by the department of education, according to Finance Chairman Doug Bowman.

Speaking before the board Monday night were Library Director Rhonda Griffin, Library Board Chairman Lisa Crews, Central Virginia Health Planning Agency Executive Director and CEO Karen Cameron, Southern Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC) Chief Financial and Operations Officer Patty Nelson, Roanoke River Basin Association President Harold Carawan, Virginia Cooperative Extension Unit Coordinator Dana Ward and Carlyle Wimbish and Dave Roberts of Old Dominion Resource Conservation and Development.

“I do not envy you,” Griffin told supervisors, adding, “I know you have some tough decisions to make.”

She reminded board members that 5 percent in state aid was cut to libraries last year and another 5 to 10 percent is slated to be cut this year, with state aid being based on what localities provide to the library.

In other words, a cut in local funding will be compounded by an additional proportionate cut in state funding, she explained.

She relayed a request from library employees who have not received pay raises for the past two years asking that supervisors not require any additional money come from “employees’ pockets” when considering insurance premiums.

“Thank you for your support in the past and just try not to make the cuts too deep,” Griffin concluded.

Library Board Chairman Lisa Crews applauded the new library director telling board members Griffin “has taken what we’ve had and really stretched it, and stretched it and stretched it, and we will continue to do that because we know times are tight.”

She pointed out many of the library services are state mandated.

For example, “the hours we stay open are mandated by the state, so we don’t have a choice if we don’t have the money to maybe close early or cut our Saturday hours. We can’t do that.”

Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Kim S. White was the only constitutional officer addressing the board Monday night. She outlined the makeup of her staff which includes Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Freshour, four assistant commonwealth’s attorneys and five legal assistants.

“For the most part these people have been with the office for a very long time,” she said.

With the exception of two attorneys, one who lives in Mecklenburg County and the other who rents in Halifax County, all are homeowners and taxpayers in the county.

“Many of them were not born or raised here, but they have chosen to make Halifax County their home,” she added.

White’s total budget which includes the drug prosecutor’s office totals $765,159, majority being in salary and other benefits that are paid by the state to the county budget.

Other expenses in her office total $52,143 and cover the cost of pens, paper, telephone, copier, staples and travel required to keep Continuing Legal Education hours necessary to practice law, she explained.

The county has asked the commonwealth’s attorney to make a $57,742 budget cut to offset state reductions which is in excess of the “other expenses,” she pointed out, offering a counter proposal to cut $21,000 from her budget.

“In other words, if I were to make that cut, I couldn’t pay the phone, buy a piece of paper or pen, and then I’d still have to cut another $4,500 or so out of salaries,” she explained.

White told supervisors she has looked at expenses and has come up with $21,000 that she proposed to cut from her budget.

According to White, the Code of Virginia only requires her office to prosecute felony cases, issue conflict of interest opinions and compose initial appellate briefs, “and that’s all the compensation board pays the commonwealth’s attorney’s office to do.”

However, additional roles assumed include prosecuting misdemeanors, training law enforcement, offering advice to law enforcement and responding to magistrates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, conducting community seminars, teaching gang prevention in school and offering courtroom support.

“We’ve returned or either not used lots and lots of money that has been budgeted to us since 2004,” she told supervisors describing her office’s approach to the budget process as “being realistic.”

White’s proposed cut of $21,000 is going to affect the way we do business, “but if we can do this to show that we recognize the hard fiscal times, and if the board would be ok with that, I’m fine with that. We will do what we can with that cut of $21,000.”

However, White said if her office is forced to cut nearly $60,000 that they’re being asked to do, “We’re going to have to cut positions or hours and only prosecute selected misdemeanors which will probably be domestic violence cases and DUIs.

“If there are fewer of us, there is less accessibility to us. That’s just common sense there,” she added.

She pointed out the recently announced upgrades in security are slated to be paid for by court costs allocated back to the county.

“If you don’t have prosecutors in there on some of these misdemeanors …  the chances of your convictions are going to be a lot less,” she continued. “We do a lot more than is required of us, and I think our citizens appreciate that, and I hope the board can see fit to assist us with the funds so that the cuts are not quite as deep as we have been asked to make,” White concluded.

Following her presentation, Supervisor Chairman William Fitzgerald asked White to explain the advantages or disadvantages to pleading out a case in a plea bargain.

“Some of the advantages are that you know what the judge is going to do anyway, and your victim is ok, and you as a prosecutor are ok with it, then you can get it done quickly. That’s a time saver. The other savings is if you get a plea of guilty, you stop the case finally and completely, and there are no appeals after that which is a cost saver and a time saver, particularly if you’ve got court-appointed counsel who get more to take cases on appeal,” she said concluding it can be a savings.

However, there are some cases she said she is not willing to plead and take before a judge. Those are the ones she takes before a jury.

“It’s going to cost more money, but there are some types of cases I think the citizens ought to have a say-so on like the serious sex cases, violent murder cases and child pornography cases. They’re hard for jurors and spectators, and it’s going to cost money, but I think it’s money well-spent.”
Also speaking Monday night was Karen Cameron who outlined community- based benefits and resources Halifax County has received from participating in the Central Virginia Health Planning Agency.

She explained that in the face of state cuts, her agency already has been forced to lay off one of three full-time employees and discontinue all company  retirement contributions.

“We have made drastic cuts in our organization, and we are determined to continue serving the community, but we need your help to do that,” she said urging supervisors to consider reinstating some of the 50 percent funding cut made last year, but at the very least not cut the organization’s funding anymore.

“Frankly, we couldn’t do without you,” she concluded.

SVHEC’s chief financial officer Patty Nelson asked for the county’s continued support pointing out their “parking lot is packed” with 1,371 students enrolled in the fall seeking degrees ranging from GEDs to PhDs.

She informed supervisors the SVHEC has nine educational partners who do not share in any of the operating costs, nor does the SVHEC receive tuition or higher education funding from the state for any of its programs such as the Business of Art and Design or the Center of Nursing Excellence.

The SVHEC has received grants from the tobacco commission; however, Nelson pointed out tobacco money does not fund operating expenses either.

The county has provided $25,222 a year since it first opened as the CEC in a trailer in 1986, according to Nelson.

The agency has grown from two full-time employees to 13 state funded employees and nine full-time employees funded by grants.
“We’re not bloated with staff. We run very efficiently, and we stretch it as far as we can,” she added.

She pointed out the SVHEC lost 3 percent of its budget in 2008, 10 percent in 2009 and another 10 percent in 2010 for a total of 23 percent in budget cuts totaling $450,000 in cuts out of a $1.9 million budget from the state.

Currently five of the full-time staffers are funded by grants, and that money will be gone in 2010, she explained.

“These positions will have to be let go, and that’s not something we want to do,” she said adding, the SVHEC also is going to its partners, the hospital and the Halifax Education Foundation seeking funding.

She asked the supervisors to consider not cutting the SVHEC’s budget and instead to consider actually increasing the budget.

“I’d like just one position funded by the county,” she said, adding, “I know I’m going upstream, but we have been a worthwhile investment for this county, and I hope you feel you have gotten a really good return on your investment.”

Others asking not to have their budgets cut Monday night were Roanoke River Basin Association President Harold Carawan, Virginia Cooperative Extension Unit Coordinator Dana Ward and Old Dominion RC&D representatives Carlyle Wimbish and Dave Roberts, each pointing out their organization’s benefits to the county.

After listening to all of the speakers, Finance Chairman Doug Bowman said all agencies in the spirit of economic times the county is facing have tried to hold their requests to reasonable numbers.

“The decision that we’ve got to make is (what are) our priorities, the resources available and how do we allocate those,” he said.

“The biggest decision we make is (setting) the local tax rates because those are the only real revenue options the county has,” Bowman said.

In preparing the budget, county officials used tax rates of 43 cents for real estate, $3.60 for personal property, and $1.26 for machinery and tools tax.

Although the current real estate rate is 44 cents per $100 value, the new assessment figures required the rate to be lowered to 43 cents unless supervisors advertise an increase in taxes.

Based on current assessments and figuring in the estimated $80,000 impact of agricultural forestal districts (AFDs), the impact of raising any tax by one cent would yield the following results:

• Real estate tax increase of one cent would generate approximately $373,500;

• Personal property tax increase of one cent would generate approximately $18,750; and

• Machinery and tools tax increase of one cent would generate approximately $11,200.

County Administrator George Nester concluded the meeting Monday night saying, “I think the reality is we’re all flying blind until we have some better idea of what’s going to happen in Richmond and how it will affect our budget.”

Supervisors will hold another hearing tomorrow night when department heads and outside agencies will be offered another opportunity to address the board concerning projected budget cuts. (See related front page story.)