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Early Budget Observations

The new Board of Supervisors takes a more conservative approach to budget deliberations.

Here are some of my observations after the first full week of county budget deliberations:

Budget Process

The Board of Supervisors’ decision to start with the budget scenario that would reduce the average tax bill by 5 percent, rather than County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s recommended budget, was significant.

Usually the Board starts with a higher tax rate than it wants and votes on reductions to get the rate down to a level that a majority find acceptable. It takes a majority vote to make any individual cut.

This Board is taking the opposite approach. It is starting with a budget that shuts down some programs, lays off employees, and eliminates employee pay raises. It takes a majority vote to add items to the budget.

This makes a difference on tie votes, which happen occasionally. But the more important difference is in the Board’s collective mindset. They are signaling that they are serious about reducing tax bills.

Nearly all supervisors like to see downward movement in the tax rate during the budget process. It’s hard for them to see the tax rate rise as they add things back to the budget.

There is also the matter of managing the public’s expectations. By starting at a tax rate of $1.21, they have set the bar very low.

Rightward Shift

One way to assess the rightward shift of the new Board is by looking at the board majority in relation to the two returning supervisors. Sterling District Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio has been a fixture on the polar right for over 12 years. Chairman Scott York is also a conservative, but more moderate than Delgaudio.

York was one of the three most conservative members of the last Board, outflanked on the right only by Delgaudio and Lori Waters. Now there appears to be a sizable Board majority that is lining up rightward of York.

For example, York and Dulles Supervisor Matt Letourneau were the only supervisors to favor using Hemstreet’s recommended budget as the starting point for budget deliberations. Then, in a March 8 straw vote, York was joined by only two supervisors in a vote to restore the Drug Court to the budget.

On the other hand, every year Delgaudio offers a list of proposed budget cuts. Most years, few are adopted by the board majority, and many of his motions fail to get a second. Drug Court and the DARE substance abuse prevention program have long been among Delgaudio’s targets.

On March 8, he was among a 4-3 majority (with two absent) that voted to kill the Drug Court. DARE barely squeaked by on a 4-3 vote. York voted to keep both programs.

It brings to mind a quote attributed to then-Supervisor Roger Zurn after a similar rightward shift on the Board 20 years ago: “It’s amazing what can happen in only a year. I’ve gone from [being] the most conservative [supervisor] on the Board to [being] the flaming liberal.”

Drug Court

The vote to kill the Drug Court program was surprising. The program has been strongly backed over the years by the judges, and it’s very unusual for the Board of Supervisors to vote against the judges’ wishes.

Supervisors rightly examined the program’s success in making their decision. Supervisor Ralph Buona pointed to a low graduation rate as evidence that the program doesn’t work.

But there are other measures of success. York argued that, even if its graduation rate is low, the program saves the county money compared to the costs of incarceration.

The debate over this program, as well as the DARE program, illustrates the difficulty in quantifying the benefits of prevention programs. Although it is important to look at research on the effectiveness of such programs, it is impossible to tell with 100 percent accuracy how much crime and human suffering they prevent.

It is also important to consider the opinions of judges and staff members who work closely with the Drug Court, as well as offenders who have participated in the program, and their family members.

In this case, I agree with York and those who voted with him. Killing the drug court is a classic case of being penny wise and pound foolish.

It Ain’t Over

It is important to keep in mind that none of these votes are final, since the Board has only been taking straw votes. Two members were absent on March 8, and could vote to overturn the Drug Court and DARE votes. And none of the straw votes become final until the Board votes to adopt the budget in April.

I would not be surprised to see funding for the Drug Court restored in the final budget.

Jonathan Erickson March 16, 2012 at 10:53 AM
How many people are enrolled in the drug court. At 260k I would like to know what the cost is per person. As for the judges being in favor of the drug court they do not set the budget if the results are minimal or to expensive then cut the program. I see incarceration at 24k a year and this program seems to pay more then that. Until and unless you can show me positive results then the money is just being spent for hopes and dreams and should be cut.
Jim Kelly March 16, 2012 at 01:31 PM
Another budget cut narrowly-approved by a straw vote was elimination of the urban horticulturist position. This job oversees the popular Master Gardener program, which has over 175 active volunteers in the county advising citizens on practical matters like maintaining their lawns and growing vegetables. The Board does not endear itself to most homeowners by such dubious economy. It's saves $88K but sacrifices thousands of volunteer hours that Master Gardener contribute yearly. The Board needs to re-think this vote and restore the urban horticulturist position.
Supervisor Delgaudio March 16, 2012 at 02:38 PM
Thanks for the warm embrace. I hope you are still not smarting over the combination of the public relations department with the administrators office instituted upon your departure or the frequent proposals to abolish your PR department. I genuinely and sincerely salute your hard work and the hard work of all government employees. My frequent proposals to reduce spending are clearly and emphatically embraced by the people of Sterling as I am returned four times now. My proposals are also embraced by successive administrators and are cannon fodder for everybody in politics so I am a full time full employment Supervisor for informed and influential pundits like yourself and others on both the left and the right. There's a lot going on and I have a lot of proposals and so do the other supervisors and when the smoke clears the rate will be definitely lower. I am sweating and working daily to honestly submit reductions for debate and (sometimes it takes more than one budget cycle) encouraging others to do the same. Each supervisor has actually proposed further reductions which I have voted for over these many nights. Again hats off for the work you do even after your time and devotion to public service.
Jim Barnes March 16, 2012 at 02:54 PM
Thanks, Eugene. Actually, I think merging PIO with the County Administrator's Office was a good move. I never wanted to split the office away from County Administration in the first place. And I never took your proposed budget cuts personally. But I can't help but empathize with the employees who are called up to defend their jobs publicly, sometimes unsuccessfully. I'm glad I don't have to do that anymore!
Jonathan Erickson March 16, 2012 at 04:05 PM
It would be nice to spend money on something pleasant like the Master Gardner program instead of a dubious return from the drug court. Decrease the drug court by 30% that would give you 84 thousand dollars to pay for a Master Gardner and still have 196 thousand dollars for the drug court. Overall savings of 88k from the budget but we keep the Master and the drug court.

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