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Less is not more / March 07, 2013
It’s hard, really, to fault people at the local level for some of the spending and revenue-raising decisions they make. Local governments have been dealt a terrible hand by their betters at the Capital, a.k.a. the General Assembly and the governor, and as a result you end up with governing boards, such as our own Board of Supervisors, stuck with choices that are destined to make no one happy. Cut rescue squads and fire departments, or carve a chunk out of schools? Stiff the YMCA, or the library? Whose pay should be frozen: county staff, school employees, or both?

We get so accustomed to hearing people spout off about wasteful government that it becomes easy to lose sight of the not-wasteful things that our tax dollars pay for. A small example: The Board of Supervisors, in developing a 2013-14 budget this week that came in a half-million dollars below current spending levels, proposes to zero out insurance reimbursements to local fire departments. This is a truly atrocious idea; Halifax County, like most rural areas, depends on local fire and rescue units to handle a good share of our public safety needs. Yet here we are, about to load one more discouragement onto the backs of the volunteer-minded. Fire departments are riding a time-warp back to the bucket brigade era — except instead of carrying water, firefighters are being forced to pass those buckets around to gather up spare change.

It might be helpful to develop a few rules of thumb for distinguishing between what is and what isn’t a sensible budget cut. Here’s a multi-pronged rule that ought to top the list: Does a funding cut force departments to operate more efficiently? Can similar levels of service be attained using fewer dollars? Or are unavoidable expenses simply being fobbed off onto someone else to shoulder? You’d think the supervisors would be especially sensitive to this latter possibility, insofar as they tend to be on the receiving end of Richmond’s penchant for obligation-shirking.

Let’s go back to rescue squads: One of the things the state has done over the past few years is cease payments for line-of-duty insurance coverage of local EMT workers, volunteers included. Counties and cities were left holding the bag. Did anyone save any money out of the deal? Almost certainly, the answer is “no.” Yet for all their complaining about the state’s shoddy treatment, the supervisors essentially are proposing a similar bum’s rush for local departments and agencies that do essential, and oftentimes expensive, work. Because the need isn’t going away, all anyone has achieved is shifting the bill to someone else — again, to those people holding empty buckets to fill.

Can I suggest another rule of thumb? Here it is: Money that’s spent in the community and stays in the community doesn’t constitute a huge expense to the community. School employee pay is the example that comes to mind. Unlike county employees, who at least received a small salary increase last year, school personnel haven’t gotten a bona fide raise in five years. (There have been some one-time bonuses awarded during that time, paid for, natch, by someone other than the Halifax County Board of Supervisors.) Setting aside the issue of whether the raises are deserved — because let’s face it, who’s the cad who will step forward to say our teachers don’t deserve a measly extra 2 percent? — it behooves us to remember that HCPS is the county’s largest employer, and teacher paychecks support lots of economic activity in town. The fact that better pay encourages a higher-quality system of education is practically a fringe benefit in this context.

The supervisors’ draft budget provides enough new money — $360,000 — for the School Board to come up with the required funding match for a state-supported 2 percent teacher pay raise (the county’s share works out to around $90,000, in exchange for which Halifax public schools will receive $416,612 in state dollars to provide what can only be described as a very, very modest pay raise — to repeat, the first such raise in five years). After that, there might be enough money left over to extend the 2 percent raise to everyone else in the system — secretaries, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, administrators, guidance counselors and all others who are not considered instructional personnel, the recipients of General Assembly largesse. (The distinctions among various employee groups are spelled out in the Virginia Standards of Quality, and yes, if you are interested in learning more, I heartily suggest Google.)

Assuming the School Board can scratch up enough cash for pay hikes for everyone, that leaves nothing to cover an accompanying loss of $461,121 in state education operating funds, another gift from higher-ups in Richmond. Our local schools are stretched tight as a drum as it is. Relief would require adding an extra cent or two to the county’s 45-cent property tax, but given the consequences of doing nothing, it’s difficult to say that raising taxes is an option so terrible that it trumps all the rest.

There’s a third rule, if I may be so bold, that supervisors should follow in budgeting: investments matter. (Bad investments might matter most — something the supervisors, with their purchase of the county fairgrounds and subsequent dithering over what to do with their new possession, should understand better than most.) Entities such as the IDA and the tourism department should share in belt-tightening — like all such ventures, they have an obligation to produce, and if they are forced to scale back in the short term, that’s hardly fatal to their success in the long term. Can one, however, say the same for the schools, or community institutions such as the library? These are the things that make life in Halifax County more desirable, more marketable, frankly more tolerable. The Board of Supervisors needs to ask whether a libertarian approach to the budget will make the community a better place, or render it a hollowed-out wasteland. I fear we’ve moved too far in the latter direction already.

Yes, taxes. Increases would be tough to swallow, especially during these times of economic weakness. But we face the same problem every year (and I seem to end up writing the same column) with no sign that the miserly approach espoused by the Board of Supervisors, among others, is getting us anywhere. It would be far, far better if Halifax County could benefit from enlightened policy coming out of Richmond and Washington, but unfortunately it’s Congress’s world and we just live in it. Here at home, the natural response is to cut back, reign in, retrench. Fine, but don’t be surprised if “less filling” turns out to taste “not all that great.”

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