By Randy Arrington, publisher
If money brings out the worst in people, then budget season brings out the worst in government. Since its biggest job is spending our tax dollars, it makes sense. And every March and April an “us versus them” battle rises between those who control the funds and those who need the funds.
While literally hundreds of line-item decisions go into shaping the county’s $69 million budget, two key areas always seem to draw the most “debate” from decision-makers and the most interest from the public — two areas with the biggest price tags, jails and schools.
Both consistently need a growing cash flow in order to operate, but members of the Page County Board of Supervisors are determined not to raise taxes in the midst of a pandemic — the same position they held last April when they actually lowered three tax rates.
Last Thursday, Page County Sheriff Chad Cubbage delivered his budget presentation to the supervisors, asking for increases in almost all areas of his department to the tune of $1.4 million. This comes after the sheriff’s office has overspent its budget in four of the previous five budget cycles and looks to potentially do so again before June 30.
Thursday’s meeting was much more cordial than a similar meeting in early August in which Cubbage stormed out of the meeting after being questioned intensely by supervisors about the habitual overspending taking place in the Sheriff’s Office.
“If every meeting goes this well, I think we can get something done,” Cubbage said on Thursday.
The sheriff consistently blames his budgeting problems on unforeseen costs at the jail, and while those costs (especially medical) are unforeseen, the increasing jail population is a major driver behind those additional costs.
A decade ago, Page County housed an average of 79 inmates, according to a jail study the sheriff’s office submitted to the supervisors. The next year, in 2012, the jail population was 75. When Cubbage was elected in 2015, the inmate count had risen to 114. According to figures presented to the board on Thursday, the jail currently has an average of 70 inmates, with another 160 shipped out to various facilities throughout the state — a total of 230.
Cubbage claims that higher incarceration rates are due to a “zero tolerance” policy on drugs. About 70 percent of monthly indictments over the past year have been drug related, and the cost to incarcerate 230 inmates (with 70 percent being transported out of county) is a lot more than jailing 75 in-house. In other words, “zero tolerance” comes with a hefty price tag.
All of this is building up to the construction of a new $54 million jail, and the county is already scouting potential sites. That’s about the same amount the county spent to build two new high schools that opened in 2009. However, as a new jail would save money on transporting inmates, it would also cost more in personnel and supplies to operate — so “savings” can be a relative term.
While Sheriff Cubbage engaged in an amicable conversation about his overspending — receiving encouraging comments of “we’ll do what we can” and “we’re not proposing to defund the police” — the school system received a much different reception.
“There’s just this feeling that we’re the extra step child they have to take care of, and it’s just disheartening sometimes when you go there,” Superintendent Wendy Gonzalez told members of the Page County School Board at its March 22 meeting.
The action that prompted that comment was the supervisors’ decision earlier this month to not vote on allowing the school system to keep the $1.5 million in savings it saw during the past year. The rollover funds were already committed to buying textbooks, buses and making a contribution to the schools’ capital improvement plan for maintenance projects. However, despite the fact that the rollover funds were listed as an action item on the agenda (and promises had been made that the schools could keep the funds) — no action was taken, which will likely cause timing problems again this year with the purchase of textbooks and buses.
“It’s a weird situation because these are planned purchases,” assistant superintendent Eric Benson told school board members on March 22. “These are purchases we were planning to make last spring, and then COVID happened. So, we made some accommodations to get through this year.”
School officials were directed by the state to hold off on those purchases last spring because of the uncertainty of the pandemic. Now, instead of being held up by COVID-19, the school system is waiting on the fiscal mercy of the supervisors.
“I pointed out to them, your audit took longer this year because of ‘that situation’, but ‘that situation’ has put us later,” Dr. Gonzalez told the school board. “We should not be having a conversation about rollover funds at the end of March. We usually have that a couple of months earlier.”
The “situation” that school board members referred to several times during their March 22 meeting was the dismissal (or was it a resignation?) in July of former county finance director Dennis Click, who took thousands of dollars out of the county coffers to further his education without permission (also known as embezzlement). Click has yet to be indicted, despite that his actions have been documented.
And with the money crunch being felt at all levels across county government, it didn’t help ease concerns by school officials that county officials recently touted increasing their fund balance (reserve) to $14 million.
“I watched the [supervisors’ meeting] and I thought some of the stuff was absurd,” school board chairman Scott Breeden said. “How is providing radios for the county and fixing the plumbing at the jail any more important than buying textbooks and buses for the students. Use the $14 million you got sitting there for those projects and give the schools back the money we already had… It’s not like we were trying to go into your slush fund.”
“One [supervisor] basically wanted accountability at the line item level. I was appalled by that…they are not responsible for line item. It’s this board that does that,” Breeden continued. “If you’d been doing that all along, maybe you wouldn’t had that problem in your own yard that you’re not telling everybody about and now you’re affecting us because you’re still covering it up.”
The county does face several high-priced items in the next few years with tens of millions going toward a new radio system and potentially a new jail alone. However, school officials feel like their projects don’t seem to get the same lip service that other departments receive.
“While others are receiving hazard and bonus pay, we’re still trying to cover the basics,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “I made it clear that we are behind the eight ball. Unlike other entities [in the county], we can not be [over] budget.”
School officials feel as if they are being penalized after underspending for two consecutive years, having to fight to receive that surplus as a rollover, and then receiving level funding with no local increase for two consecutive years.
In order to stay under budget, the school system has delayed big-ticket items, such as not purchasing a school bus in five years. Now, its aging fleet of 70 buses — one dating back to 1991 — was planning to replace three buses with the $1.5 million rollover from savings. Textbooks are ordered about every five years, but they have been delayed due to COVID and now a funding gap. Since the county does not fund the schools CIP, the division must find funds for maintenance projects where they can.
“We’ve been good stewards of our money. We sat on [those purchases last year] because we didn’t know our revenues,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “We were being conservative, so as to not go over budget.”
Even greater than the funding disputes, school officials were surprised at the lack of understanding over what the school system does that was displayed by the supervisors during the recent budget discussion. One supervisor didn’t realize that some students had been attending in-person instruction for almost the entire school year, and another supervisor asked for a report on the division’s savings due to the pandemic when the figure was clearly displayed on an overhead projection for all to see.
“We feel like we have a lack of understanding between the two boards, and a lack of understanding of what we’ve been doing,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “Everything we had agreed to is not coming to pass.”
We will see if that changes when the superintendent approaches the board of supervisors tonight to discuss finances during a budget work session scheduled for 7 p.m. The session will be live-streamed on the Page County Board of Supervisors YouTube channel.
The tone and content will be interesting to note at tonight’s budget session. The tone of the March 22 school board meeting was heated to say the least, but the school board has never been more united — focusing on a common enemy will do that.
But what really needs to change is the attitude that local government officials have toward each other. The current tone encourages referring to the county’s fund balance as a “slush fund” and comparing notes on which embezzlement case involving a finance director was worse — the one county officials and state police investigators are dealing with now (involving a special audit) or the one that school officials worked through several years back (involving a special audit).
Why can’t the attitudes reflect a collaborative “we” serving the public at-large, rather than an “us versus them” bunker mentality? Two supervisors previously sat on the school board for several years before joining the ranks of the supervisors. Their change in perspective has surprised many.
“Now that they’re there, they have forgotten everything about here,” the school board chairman said.
The school system does seem to be an annoyance to the supervisors, and that is not new — they ask for the most money. For years, there have been comparisons by supervisors and county staff about what the state requires from localities to fund schools (the minimum by law) and what is really needed. It’s always been interesting how county officials have viewed the operations of schools starting at the bottom bare minimum — and that’s been happening in Page County for decades (that’s why it took 70 years to build new high schools).
Here’s an idea…in addition to creating a drug court and investing more in programs to stop repeat drug offenders from moving through a revolving door at our local jail time and time again — maybe if we spend more on education, we won’t need to build bigger and bigger jails in the future.
Just a thought.