County officials prepare for axe

Virginia’s state budget crisis is filtering down to the local level, posing threats to Rappahannock County in diverse ways ranging from school funding to plans for a new regional jail and the potential loss of popular 4H youth programs.

All that became clear Monday during discussions at the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors meeting. But just how much county plans and programs may be affected won’t be known for at least another couple of weeks as the Virginia General Assembly tries to reconcile by a March 13 deadline the conflicting budget bills passed by the House of Delegates and the state Senate.

The outcome could kill plans to build a regional jail to replace Rappahannock’s ancient county jail, close the county’s Virginia Co-operative Extension office (see separate story here) and imperil its 4H programs, and pose some cuts in county offices and spending cuts at Rappahannock public schools.

The Virginia legislature’s competing budget bills now are before a conference committee that will hash out their differences, County Administrator John McCarthy told the supervisors. In a briefing on the budget outlook, he highlighted some of the potential impacts on the county.

Rappahannock’s plan to join with Warren and Shenandoah counties to build a large regional jail for all three jurisdictions may become a victim of the budget cutting, he said. The Senate-passed budget bill includes the state money needed to build the facility, starting in 2013, but the House bill does not.

“Unless the Senate version is adopted, the project will be dead,” McCarthy told the board. The 460-bed jail was projected to cost $78 million to build, with the Commonwealth expected to pick up nearly half the construction costs. Lack of the state’s share would doom the project.

School funding for Rappahannock also remains uncertain, though the picture has improved somewhat because both House and Senate budget bills include a new $250,000 state-aid supplement not previously available to the county. This “bonus” aid flows from a bill passed last year that allows Rappahannock to adopt the more-favorable school aid formula of Madison County under an agreement to share some school services with Madison.

Previously, it was not clear that the $250,000 bonus would survive in the General Assembly, but the fact that it is included in both bills improves chances it will remain in the final melding of the bills. Assuming that $250,000 bonus survives, state aid to Rappahannock would decline about $59,000 from last year — a 2.3 percent cut that School Superintendent Robert Chappell has already absorbed into his proposed budget.

Prompted by Jackson District Supervisor Ron Frazier, the board engaged in a lengthy but inconclusive discussion of school budget issues, including the question of how to pay for energy-saving steps such as replacing windows, heating and cooling controls, and lighting.

Frazier is pushing for additional cuts to school spending, but getting little visable support from any of the other four supervisors, who were mostly silent on the issue. The bonus $250.000 in state aid is earmarked for instruction purposes only and cannot be diverted to other uses, and under the law must not be used to replace local funding.

That would seem to “lock in” the county contribution to Rappahannock schools at the current year’s level of $8.5 million, which is the figure proposed in Chappell’s draft budget. The Board of Supervisors normally approves an overall lump sum for county funding, leaving it up to the school board to decide how to use that $8.5 million. Frazier suggested the supervisors could adopt the school budget on a category-by-category basis, rather than a lump sum, and by that method make cuts in some categories to provide funds for the energy-saving renovations.

“Unless you can find money within the budget, you are going to have to borrow money or raise taxes” to make the renovations, Frazier said.

During public comment, Roger Cordani of Flint Hill, one of the founders of the Concerned Taxpayers of Rappahannock, also urged spending cuts to provide funds for the school renovations. “It’s your job to make sure how the money is being spent,” he told the supervisors. “Every single school district around us is having to make major cuts due to what is going on in the economy,” Cordani said, waving newspaper clippings of other counties’ budget cutting.

“If the county borrows money” to make needed repairs to school buildings, he warned, “I am going to put up signs all around the county and I’ll start the Rappahannock revolution . . . You control the purse strings, and I’m asking you to start doing it.”
In a separate action, the board approved appointments of 11 persons to the new county Tourism Advisory Group. The appointees are: Judith S. Tole, Jim Offutt, Sheri Fickel, Debbie Donehey, Bill Gadino, Cliff Miller, Kevin Adams, Rachel Hayden, Esther Schmidt, Phil Irwin and Barbara Adolfi. The advisory group would help the county create and run a visitor center, probably at Avondale, the county-owned farmhouse adjacent to the county library on U.S. 211 outside the town of Washington.

James P. Gannon is the editor/publisher of www.rappvoice.com, where this article first appeared.

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About James P. Gannon 21 Articles
James P. Gannon is a retired journalist who lives near Flint Hill. In his newspaper career, he served as a reporter and bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal, as Editor of The Des Moines Register in Iowa, and as Washington Bureau Chief for the Detroit news and a columnist for the Gannett newspapers.