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