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Money in their pockets

SoVaNow.com / April 25, 2013
As of this writing, the Halifax County Board of Supervisors hasn’t decided what it plans to do with an extra $593,000 that County Administrator Jim Halasz located in the budget and that’s been burning a hole in the supervisors’ collective pocket ever since. Buy a Ferrari or three? (Oops, too soon for jokey references. It’s Virginia’s governor who has the Ferrari fetish, a subject we’ll explore in just a smidge. See below.)

The supes certainly have no lack of good candidates for the money. More likely than not they’ll use it to pay for a variety of plenty-legitimate needs, which is fine. It would be better if they’d simply hand the money over to the schools, which have no shortage of needs of their own, but such ideas tend to trigger an allergic reaction within the county’s leadership ranks. Must be all the pollen at this time of year.

People rant and rave about wasteful spending by the School Board — some of these people sit on the Board of Supervisors — but even the trustees’ most questionable priorities don’t add up to that many dimes in the context of a $57 million budget. As a matter of fact, most of the biggest fights that have broken out on the watch of new Superintendent Merle Herndon have been over drawdowns in spending (at least in the short-term): cancellation of the LORP early retirement incentive benefits, “equalization” of employee salaries, high and low (mostly high), and the thinning of the ranks of secretaries, support personnel and the like. Herndon and School Board members are smart enough to know their chances of convincing the supervisors to adequately fund local education are roughly equal to my chances of scoring a Pulitzer. Is any real purpose served by wailing constantly about the injustices of the world?

Actually, yes. For a time, the supervisors looked like they might do the right thing when the finance committee, made up of Chairman Doug Bowman, J.T. Davis and William Fitzgerald, recommended giving the schools an additional $240,000 to ensure that employees could receive a stinking 2 percent salary hike. (I use the word “stinking” advisedly. Not only would the raise be the first in five years for teachers and other staff, Halifax County has to come up with local matching funds to receive $419,000 that the state has earmarked for the pay increase).

The finance committee’s sensible, even modestly brave proposal was destined, alas, for the trash bin of history. The full board rejected the $240,000 request by a unanimous vote, the final margin presumably representing a nod to reality rather than uniform opinion among members (after all, there’s not much point voting to raise taxes when you know you’re going to lose). Sadly, the rejection underscores another reality: This board has no clue what it’s doing, other than to preside over the decline of the school system and the entire county, as evidenced by its willingness to do its part to hollow out the county’s most important institution. The supervisors’ fecklessness towards the public schools just goes to show that there are still jobs in this world that pretty much anyone is qualified to do.

People need to go back and read the school efficiency study that the Board paid so dearly for. The report is quite clear on the subject of Halifax County’s lack of competitiveness on teacher pay. No doubt things can be done to redirect existing spending and ameliorate the problem somewhat without boosting the overall budget, but there is no way the School Board can close a widening pay gap with neighboring school divisions — to say nothing of locales such as northern Virginia or most of North Carolina — on its own. Someone is going to have to step up to help on the money front, and not just stand down, which is all the supervisors seem capable of managing nowadays.

Yes, yes, I know: The economy is iffy at best, the county is eternally hard up for money, and lots of people think no one deserves a raise at the public’s expense. It’s the same Tea Party-infused argument that you hear everywhere, and it’s as idiotic here at home as it’s proven to be on the national stage. I don’t have a great reserve of sympathy for some of the more exotic uses of county money that you read about — here’s looking at you, modeling and simulation center — but the school system is truly the community’s bread-and-butter. This is true not only in terms of its impact on our overall quality of life, but also in the sense that the school division is Halifax County’s largest employer, and a 2 percent pay increase — which, let’s face it, is nothing more than a cost-of-living adjustment — will filter down throughout the economy. None of this should be hard to understand, but the supervisors steadfastly refuse to understand it. If obeisance to the herd mentality is all the supes have to offer, is it too much to wish for a better herd?

***

While the public sector gasps for dollars, the high rollers in the private sector are having a ball. Nothing wrong with that, of course, as long as folks earn their big bucks honestly, but more and more you get the sense that too many private fortunes have been built on the good graces and leverage of the government. How else to explain the millions and billions spent on lobbying, political donations and the like?

This brings us (again) to the unseemly story of Star Scientific and its ties to Virginia’s two most powerful politicians, Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who is running to be McDonnell’s successor. Since we last looked at the Star controversy, several developments have transpired: One, Cuccinelli has sold his stock in the troubled dietary supplement maker (known around Southside mostly for its previous line of business, tobacco), thus ending an obvious conflict of interest for Cuccinelli inasmuch as the Attorney General’s office has been defending the state in a tax dispute with Star. (Besides selling his stock, Cuccinelli also named outside counsel to take over for the AG’s office in the litigation, further undermining his initial claim that there was no conflict with his office handling on the case.) For all of Cuccinelli’s twists and turns, however, the real flopsweat here has come from the governor.

McDonnell, as we now know, allowed Star Scientific head honcho Jonnie Williams to pay the catering bill at his daughter’s wedding — a $15,000 favor — which became the talk of the town and the state when the story showed up in The Washington Post. Since then the governor has been trapped in a massive public relations fail of his own making. First he said the gift was purely to his daughter and his son-in-law, and thus not subject to Virginia’s pathetically weak disclosure laws that exempt family members, only for it to come out that McDonnell pocketed a refund on his deposit to the caterer, which more or less shot that story to bits. Subsequently, we also learned that the governor has enjoyed tooling around in Jonnie Williams’ Ferrari, another of the businessman’s “gifts” to Virginia’s chief executive. Is there no end to the fun with this story?

Just to return to why this all could be a problem for the governor, Virginia’s interests and Star’s interests are not one in the same, as the dispute over the company’s state tax liabilities, reportedly as much as $1.7 million, shows. What might even be worse, however, is the sense that McDonnell has rented out the state’s prestige to Star — hosting a reception at the Governor’s Mansion for a product rollout, standing by as his wife cheered on Star at a Florida conference — in return for, well, we don’t know quite what. Ferrari rides? Subsidized wedding parties? Who knows what else?

The sad thing is, it’s possible no one would be questioning the propriety of the Governor’s actions if not for the fact that (1) Virginia’s leaky ethics laws practically invite public cynicism, and (2) Star and Williams have a rather tetchy history and a current crop of problems that includes a federal investigation into possible stock irregularities, investor lawsuits, and a string of businesses losses as far as the eye can see. Maybe McDonnell would have walked away without a scratch if, say, a putatively respectable outfit like Altria had paid for his daughter’s wedding and reported the gift. Then again, given the lengths to which the governor has tried to distance himself from this controversy, maybe not.

***

Now here’s a surprise: The U.S. Senate, which seems incapable of getting anything done, apparently is poised to pass an Internet sales tax bill. You hear various arguments and excuses for why closing an obvious loophole that favors on-line retailers can’t or shouldn’t be done, but from where I sit, there’s no compelling reason why Amazon shouldn’t have to pay the same sales tax that Main Street merchants are required to collect every day — putting them at a competitive disadvantage, obviously.

If the Internet sales tax clears the Senate, as seems likely, it’ll be up to the House of Representatives to determine its fate. (President Obama has said he’ll sign the bill). Our representative, Congressman Hurt, always has much to say about taxes that allegedly crush small business, but he seems mighty quiet on legislation that would level the playing field for businesses that compete with online rivals.

Who will Hurt answer to, local chambers of commerce or Jeff Bezos?

I, for one, will be very interested to learn the answer to that question.





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