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Banking on a fantasy
SoVaNow.com / May 09, 2013Before getting carried away, I suppose I should state up front that I happen to personally like Barry Bank. Back in the day when he and his wife ran a print and office supply business downtown, I’d poke my nose through the door to seek help and advice from time to time. Barry and I were fellow computer nerds (members of the Mac OS tribe) and he was an early adopter of desktop publishing software that became the standard in the print and publishing industries. He always struck me as a solid operator who delivered his goods and services at a fair price. I enjoyed doing business with him.
From this standpoint, I guess his election last year as a county supervisor should count as no big deal — indeed, one could view his ascension as a good thing for a board that had lost its one true gadfly with the passing of R.E. “Dickie” Abbott. Plus, we were talking about Bank filling one seat and one seat only. (It’s merely a coincidence that as a resident of the eastern section of South Boston, he happens to be “my” supervisor.) The purpose of any board is to incorporate different and often competing viewpoints and synthesize them into a coherent whole.
Alas, if only that is how matters had worked out. Instead, somehow or another, Barry Bank has become not only the Board of Supervisor’s rookie member, but its guiding light. Past business dealings aside, the other thing I associate with Bank is his Tea Party-inflected outlook on just about everything — a political worldview for which our supervisor makes no apology, no matter how inane the particulars. Unfortunately, though, the know-nothing, do-less Tea Party spirit seems to have gripped the board as a whole, with terrible consequences for Halifax County’s future.
This week, the supervisors did something utterly mind-boggling: They thumbed their noses at the School Board, which desperately is scrounging for whatever local cash it can find to make up for diminishing state support, and rejected a plan to give the schools an extra $150,000, despite the fact the county has the money on hand. The last part is crucial: It’s always somewhat depressing to see this or any other Board of Supervisors reject school funding requests, but typically the decision is driven by an inability to raise the cash without also raising taxes. No such tradeoff was required this time, with the county having $593,000 in unencumbered funds to plug into the new budget. So what, then, is motivating the supervisors’ (in)action — if not short-sightedness, pettiness or spite?
I get that Barry Bank subscribes to the worldview so vividly expressed by Grover Norquist, who once described government as a baby that needed to be drowned in the bathtub. Bank advocates Halifax County’s transformation into a retirement community, which seems to require little actual action beyond lowering taxes for well-to-do retirees who otherwise might be tripping over themselves to relocate here. (In Bank’s telling of the tale, our nice climate is pretty much all that’s required to seal the deal. Mother Nature must have skipped the memo this week.) Of course, there’s a gaping hole in Bank’s logic — Halifax County already features some of the lowest tax rates in Virginia — and it’s unclear who or what he thinks we’re supposed to be competing against. If a low-tax, low-service, government-averse environment were all it took for a community to become a retirement mecca, old folks would be flocking to Somalia by now.
I can’t believe that Bank’s Boca Raton fantasies could possibly gain purchase in our local corridors of power, but you know what they say — you can’t beat something with nothing. Which other supervisor has taken on a role of leadership, intellectual or otherwise, with this goshforsaken board? Tom West, its chairman? The term “placeholder” doesn’t even begin to do justice to West’s leadership style, or, more appropriately, lack thereof. I don’t know what’s happened to William Bryant Claiborne, the vice-chair, who’s barely heard from these days unless you happen to be his friend on Facebook. (I am.) Lottie Nunn? Wayne Conner? Please. (At least Conner is taking the matter to its logical conclusion and retiring at the end of the year). William Fitzgerald? For some reason he’s gotten a bee in his bonnet over the schools and become the loudest opponent of additional funding, marking an embarrassing capstone to a career that, like Conner’s, will come to a merciful end with his decision not to run for re-election.
Let’s keep in mind what is at stake with the School Board’s request for funding. Set against a $57 million school budget, $150,000 might not sound like much, but in the context of a budget that has little room for error, it’s actually quite important. We know, for instance, that the School Board is trying to scrape up enough cash to grant a 2 percent pay raise for employees — which would be their first raise in five years. The challenge for the School Board is two-fold: First, find matching funds to qualify for $416,612 from the state which can then be applied to teachers and other certificated personnel, and second, find enough money to extend the same 2 percent hike to the rest of the workforce. After many agonizing steps — including program reductions and individual salary cuts — the School Board remains about a quarter of a million dollars short of its target. A little help from the supervisors right now would go a long way.
It will come as no surprise if School Board members, frustrated by the supervisors’ intransigence, eventually throw in the towel on granting the pay raise — for any of its employees. Without some help on the spending side, the trustees’ choice basically boils down to making more cuts (including, possibly, more layoffs) or letting the 2 percent hike fall by the wayside. True, Halifax County schools would forfeit nearly half a million dollars on offer from the state of Virginia, but at least programs and payroll would be left intact at existing levels. If the pay raises don’t happen, everyone should know who is to blame.
Candidates and officeholders nowadays love to chest-thump about the importance of running the government like a business, but it’s an incompetent businessman indeed who can’t grasp the case for putting up a dollar if it means getting two dollars in return. (Let’s not even confuse matters by mentioning the need to offer competitive wages to attract high-quality teachers). Even if the request by the School Board compelled a tax increase, the case for doing so would be sound. The school system is our largest local employer. A 2 percent pay increase, paltry as it may be, will filter through the local economy in all sorts of positive ways, and if Halifax County doesn’t take the state’s money, it’ll surely wind up somewhere else. Tea Party dogma may hold that government spending is wasteful through-and-through, but seeing the reality play out at the local level is enough to put a lie to that claim.
Barry Bank may envision a future for Halifax County in which the schools receive minimal help and the savings are plowed into hiring golf instructors for a new wave of citizen-retirees. I prefer to think of our schools as the heart and soul of the community — recognizing full well that the School Board, and the Central Office administration, don’t always make it easy to defend this view. Since taking over as superintendent, Merle Herndon has made several decisions that I don’t agree with, and which I think are ultimately counterproductive, but I don’t doubt the intense financial pressure she is under. In fact, Herndon’s most controversial moves — cancelling the LORP early retirement incentive program, selectively cutting employee salaries — are largely, if not entirely, budget-driven. You would think the supervisors, of all people, would appreciate this fact.
Yet seemingly they don’t. Give credit to two members of the board — Doug Bowman and J.T. Davis, who sit on the finance committee that called for giving $150,000 to the School Board — for sticking up for the schools’ behalf, even if neither man has been quite as vocal in their support as one might like. As for the Board of Supervisors as a whole: the word “hopeless” comes more and more to mind. For all its supposed fiscal conservatism and tough-mindedness, what really shines through is that few in the bunch seem to have a clue. (The supervisors’ dithering over the future use of the fairgrounds, for which Halifax County shelled out millions, is only the most obvious example). Nature abhors a vacuum — and bad ideas and silly prescriptions will forever win the day if no one is willing to stand up for the alternatives. Boca Raton, here we come.