Commentary: Choices made with no vision keep us stuck in the past

Shenandoah County is at a crossroads. Will our county move forward, or will this year’s funding by the Board of Supervisors continue a retreat of support of vital county services including schools, Sheriff’s Office, public safety, and libraries?

Today, the Board of Supervisors will meet to decide on the tax rate and budget for fiscal year 2018. At an April 13 public hearing, community voices were heard at a ratio of 4 to 1 in favor of the 64-cent rate. Many even argued that the prospective rate was not enough. Supervisors have received many contacts that make the same case.

Some supervisors say that they simply seek “level funding”and are wielding their budget ax only at “increases.” This “level funding” does not account for factors such as inflation, cost of living adjustments, equipment replacement, neglected capital improvements (for which costs will only escalate), and additional cost for training of new employees to replace employees who leave. Capital improvement needs continue to increase. Most of the county’s vehicles, including school buses, are old with high mileage. Social services and supports for the poorest children and elderly have been cut in the name of “level funding.”

No dollars have been added to the county “reserve funds” in the last three years – funds needed for extraordinary and unexpected expenditures. Instead, some supervisors want to spend these monies down for operating expenses — commitments that don’t go away and will dry up the reserves in no time. This formula hits schools the hardest, where staff are already stretched, and their well-deserved salaries and benefits lag behind neighboring divisions. And what happens when an emergency need arises and the county has no reserves remaining?

In recent Board of Supervisors budget work sessions, Sheriff Timothy C. Carter, Fire and Rescue Chief Tim Williams and schools Superintendent Mark Johnston have had their expert professional opinions ignored by some of the supervisors. This is not good.

Of particular concern to me as a Shenandoah County Public School Board member is that the carry-over money that was agreed upon at an earlier Board of Supervisors budget work session to be put into capital improvements (although in 2018-19, instead of this budget year as the School Board requested), that money is now being suggested to go into the operating budget. That forces the school division to expend these funds that were saved in operating expenses this year on one-time expenses since there is no guarantee we would see the savings again next year. For example, Shenandoah County Public Schools spent less than $5,000 on snow removal this year. Our energy costs were reduced due to warm weather. What happens when we get more snow than usual; colder, or hotter weather resulting in increased energy costs?

Some of the numbers being thrown out by some supervisors are not accurate. The Virginia Retirement System (VRS) rate is determined by the legislature so to suggest funding at some percentage of the increase shows lack of knowledge of Virginia law and VRS regulatory requirements.

If a tax rate and budget are not approved that supports our educational system, the ability of Shenandoah County Public Schools to be competitive in salaries and student outcomes will be more compromised than it already is.

Will Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors members hold a thoughtful discussion on the tax rate and budget and consider citizen response at the budget hearing? Will they compromise for the good of Shenandoah County?

What is the vision of our Board of Supervisors members? If there is no clear vision, a deliberate plan for the future, we are stuck with a default plan from the past. Choices made without a vision for the future involve repetitive, reactive decisions that keep us stuck in the past and do not move us closer to a brighter future. We need a blue print, as well as a tax rate and budget, that will move Shenandoah County forward with clarity and confidence to a better future for all of us.

The meetings today in the County Board Room, will give the community a chance to watch our leaders in action. A Board of Supervisors budget work session will be held at 5 p.m. today, followed by a regular meeting at 7 p.m.

Karen Whetzel is District 1 representative and chairperson of the Shenandoah County School Board.