Monday, October 24, 2011

Fiscal Health and Local Government

New Challenges Require Clear Vision

The next board of supervisors will face some tough choices. The problems facing local governments today require thoughtful solutions rather than simple slogans.

The local newspaper said it well: "The next Augusta Board of Supervisors will have to make some difficult decisions." The phrase: "Bring me men to match my mountains." comes to mind. Indeed, the need for informed individuals willing to hammer out the hard choices has never been clearer. The recent property assessment debacle proves that well.

Nichole Gelinas in City Journal writes about the indicators of health in local and state finances. Her article: Hidden in Plain Sight [click to read] says that disclosure requirements are a step in the right direction, but they alone will not fix the situation.

Fair and Honest Property Assessments

Think of our own local government and the recent property assessment battle. The historical pattern had always been one where assessments were performed in a rather casual way to follow the then predictable rise in real estate values. Governments planned expenditures based on this pattern and boards of supervisors rubber stamped the whole process.

In a steadily growing economy there was no need for questioning reality, after all. The can kicked down the road was highly unlikely to roll back on you.

After 2006, reality changed. The appraisal and budget process that followed underscored the need for lively and open debate. Tracy Pyles, supervisor from the Pastures District, took the bold and necessary step of addressing flaws in the process that would eventually come back to bite us. The assessors were using values derived from a real estate bubble that had already burst. There was no reality in letting tax rates be driven by these numbers. Furthermore, the inflated numbers created a false report to state revenue agencies, resulting in reduced payments to the county from state taxes collected. Northern Virginia localities saw their property values reduced in a more honest process and actually received increased state funding while Augusta's was reduced.

The inability of other local elected officials to throw themselves into this debate is telling. In low-crime Mayberry, Barney Fife can keep his service revolver empty and his bullet in his pocket. If revenues can be counted on to rise 'safely,' we can afford to let the supervisors kick the can down the road, or so it might seem. Actually the need for open and honest debate is even more important when we might plan honestly for a range of contingiencies. The best reforms happen quietly and in a timely manner. They may never show up in print.

The 2011 campaign for supervisor's seats in Augusta County should create no less than a mandate for the kind of debate that will monitor county vital signs BEFORE a fiscal disaster occurs.

First Responder Support Strategies

Recent audits of Augusta's fire stations uncovered problems that beg the question: "Why didn't the board of supervisors impliment key elements of a fire plan they commissioned?" David Karaffa, candidate for Beverley Manor District Supervisor proposes some strong steps to support our volunteer community. Property tax credit of up to $750 is a great incentive for someone like an artisan farmer who is willing to give her time to protecting the community as a fire fighter/EMT. Reimbursement for mileage and training also help her with practical support as she provides real safety to the county. Tuition credits for young first responders would enhance recruitment of the next generation.

Supporting the volunteer community now makes perfect sense. This 'stitch in time' response to volunteer support would help to preserve the ideal of self-protecting community service. At the same time, Karaffa suggests, we need to unfreeze and fill key paid positions.

Education as a Priority

Seeing an educated population as a key element of economic development, Karaffa says: "Education is vital for our economy, our children, our government, and our future. If elected, I will work side by side with the school board in terms of budgeting and other needs to make sure that every dollar put toward education is used to its fullest and not wasted. I will frequently be checking in with the school board representatives and will attend their meetings to hear the concerns of the parents in our community." Believe him. As the parent of two young daughters, he's concerned that monies reach the classroom. He's already going to more meetings than some people who are already elected and makes a practice of informing himself going into decisions.

Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability to the People

David Karaffa supports budget process where the people are given the opportunity to see the actual figures before the budget is voted on. Openness, he feels, would be a great deterrant to unnecessary and frivolous spending. A quesionable hundred-thousand dollar expenditure on new cell phones for county employees might well have been cut before unnecessary spending occurred. In an era of tightened belts and necessary sacrifice, it is refreshing to see a new generation of candidates who see tax revenues as the people's money.

Note: The Author of this post actively serves in the campaign of David Karaffa for Supervisor.

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