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FAMIS, K-12 funding on Assembly agenda / December 13, 2017

Del. Tommy Wright and state Sen. Frank Ruff attended the monthly meeting of the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors on Monday to review the agenda for the upcoming session of the General Assembly.

Wright said from the House of Delegates’ point of view, the economy is improving, but the money needed to fund what he called “budget drivers” — core priorities such as education and Medicaid spending — outweighs available revenues.

In the past, Wright said, Virginia counted on northern Virginia to provide many of the tax dollars used to fund education and programs such as FAMIS/CHIP. Yet that area is still suffering from cutbacks in defense spending, Wright said, and as a result is not as productive in terms of providing tax revenues as it has been in the past.

Wright said he is especially concerned about the future of Virginia’s CHIP program. On Monday, the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS) began notifying Virginia families with one or more family members who are enrolled in the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) that they could lose their coverage unless Congress reauthorizes the program soon.

If Congress does not reauthorize CHIP funding, Virginia will run out of funding for its program, called FAMIS, on Jan. 31. As of Dec. 1, nearly 70,000 Virginia children and over 1,000 pregnant women stand to lose health care coverage if Congress fails to reauthorize funding for CHIP.

Wright said he was equally concerned about direct aid for K-12. “The re-benchmarking being done by the state calls for increased spending,” he noted, and Wright tied this to the state and local focus on workforce development. “Most people think or have thought that a four-year degree is what is needed to be successful, but that is not true,” said Wright.

“There are many good programs, like the lineman, cyber security, welding, robotics offered through SVCC that will qualify our high school students for high paying jobs.” Funding must be found to pay for these programs, according to Wright.

He also said he believes the Virginia Tobacco Commission will need to find more than $10 million currently set aside for last mile broadband projects throughout Southside Virginia. “Broadband is no longer something that is nice, it is a necessity,” said Wright.

Before closing, Wright made a passing reference to the political balance of the House of Delegates. The November election resulted in a 15-seat change in the House. Now Republicans who once held a 66-34 seat majority are clinging to a tenuous, 51-49 majority. Four seats remain in contention, with recounts scheduled, and their outcome could shift partisan control of the House from Republican to Democratic.

Wright did not say how or if he expects this potential change in the majority to impact the legislative priorities of the House during the coming session of the General Assembly.

Ruff spoke on the outlook in the upper chamber of the General Assembly. “From the perspective of the rural caucus we have a real challenge,” said Ruff. “As new people come in [to the General Assembly] we have explained the difference between things like the nice sidewalks in Fairfax County and rural Virginia. I am always concerned about how these new people will respond to the needs of this region [legislatively].”

For example, “the top three counties in terms of number of students equals 109 school divisions. So, we have to explain to people from Loudoun and Fairfax [counties] things like transportation costs that are not an issue to them, but they are to us where the routes are longer, and all buses might not arrive at school full of students. The results are that our cost per students may be higher because of factors such as transportation costs.

“An effort was made last year to help counties losing population,” Ruff said. He anticipated “an effort to continue that support and hopefully keep coalition together to speak with a louder voice.”

Ruff said when it comes to projecting revenues and developing a budget, the Senate was not as pessimistic as the House or as optimistic as the Governor. One area of increased spending in the Senate’s proposed budget will cover pay raises for deputies. “We had to do something for State Troopers in last cycle because we were losing them faster than we could train them. It left an unfair situation for the deputies, and so we will try to catch them up [with this budget] because if you are doing the same work you deserve the same pay.”

At the end of their talk, Chairman Glenn Barbour implored the two to avoid cuts to school funding. “It appears that the trimming everyone gravitates to is K-12. Please stay away,” he said.

In other business, supervisors approved extending tax exempt status to Mid-Atlantic Broadband for purposes of paying county property taxes. The company is a 501(c)(4) corporation, which does not entitle them to an automatic exemption from property taxes. Each county must adopt a resolution recognizing that exemption

David Alga provided an overview of the county’s financial position following the most recent audit. He said over 50 percent of the county’s assets are unencumbered and as a result Mecklenburg is in “great financial position.”

Supervisors agreed to accept an additional 0.78 acres of land from the School Board. This property is adjacent to the former “In Service” building in Boydton that the trustees surrendered to the county last month. The building and adjoining property, which was once part of the Boydton Elementary School campus, were no longer used by the school division.

Supervisors also voted to purchase 12.4 acres of land near Ridge Road from Garnell Walker for $17,000. County Administrator Wayne Carter said this land would be held for future use. When asked if this purchase had anything to do with the site for the new consolidated high/middle school, Carter said, “No.”

The Sheriff’s Office was authorized to begin a program known as “selective enforcement.” According to Captain Andy Ezell, road deputies will work overtime on highway safety issues beginning Dec. 17. The fines collected from these efforts will not only pay for the cost of the program, but will increase revenues for the sheriff’s office.

“The additional monies would be used to retain and recruit qualified personnel,” said Ezell adding that it would also improve safety for the citizens.

Deputies would work an additional 24 hours each month. Ezell estimated the overtime costs at just under $1,000 per month, but anticipates generating at least $1,350 in fines per cycle.

During public comment, School Superintendent Paul Nichols invited the members of the Board of Supervisors to attend the regular monthly meeting of the School Board on Monday, Dec. 18. At that meeting he would outline efforts being undertaken by a rural school coalition to draw attention to the problems and needs of rural schools, particularly when it comes to legislative agendas and funding.

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