In a time of prosperity, it is still important to pay attention to how you spend your money; in a time of scarcity, it is critical.
Regardless of whether any of us likes it, a discussion about money and how we spend it today is going to be 100 percent different than a conversation we might have been having in early March. It seems insane to think about how much has changed with our economy in such a short period of time, but the fact that it is inconceivable doesn’t make it any less real.
And because it is real, we are having these hard conversations about money – in our homes, our businesses, and our government.
The Powhatan County Board of Supervisors and the Powhatan County School Board, along with the county and school employees advising them, will be faced in the weeks ahead with making those hard decisions, and I don’t envy them.
On April 14 and 16, the school board and board of supervisors, respectively, met to start talking about the very real problems they are going to face in the weeks ahead with creating a balanced budget for this county. And the first real hurdle: lack of information.
Right now, the two boards are faced with balancing multimillion-dollar budgets despite the very real problem of not knowing how much revenue will be coming into the coffers. On the county side, there are huge question marks regarding how severely the pandemic and a possible recession will impact sales tax revenues, personal property tax revenues, state funding levels, and tax collection rates.
The school board has to worry about state funding decreases, lost income from fees for the remainder of the school year, and how all of those decreases on the county side will impact the size of the school transfer.
Because of all of those unknowns, the two boards are trying to wait as long as possible to make lasting decisions to give them more time to gather better data. The board of supervisors has until the end of June, but the school board is on a tighter leash with a May deadline.
Watching those mid-April meetings online, it seemed pretty obvious from the discussions that anything except absolutely essential changes involving increases may be off the table – although the language used by the school board was less austere than that of the supervisors. If you go back and watch the meetings online, you will see supervisors cautioning the schools that not only are increases unlikely, they need to be looking hard at reductions.
As supervisor Bill Cox put it, “These are really painful things to talk about, but we are in painful times, and I don’t think anybody expects to get out of the year of the pandemic without some pain.”
As we know from the last recession, that can mean reducing services, putting projects on the backburner, or cutting department budgets. That also can mean cutting employee positions or reducing their salaries.
These kinds of changes have lasting impacts on both the employees and services offered in the county with fewer people. And while there have been attempts to improve pay scales and compression issues by the county in the last few years, I recently spoke with one Powhatan teacher with more than 20 years of experience who said the salary for her position (with comparable years of experience) is still not back to what it was before the 2008 recession.
There are possibly some hard decisions ahead, and I don’t think anyone who will be in the position to make them would enjoy the job. But as they are making them, I hope they are doing so not only with hard numbers but with plenty of input from residents.
That means people taking a look at the budget documents or the summary presentations at the board meetings. That means paying attention to proposed changes and letting your school board member or your supervisor know your spending priorities as a taxpayer by reaching out to them by phone, by email, or speaking during the public comment period of a meeting. There are generally two public comment periods at every meeting, and while the lack of people who speak on something as important as the county and school budgets every year doesn’t shock me anymore, it still dismays me.
Local government is where people have the most power to influence their elected leaders, who are literally their neighbors down the street, and way too few people recognize how much power their words may hold.