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David Reynolds: The budget circus

Column by David Reynolds
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Whew! That was close. It’s a good thing that the local budget season is over. One of these years a budget will cause real damage. Or do real good. But not this year. 

However, you would never have known it according to the local press. Each week there were doomsday stories of our three governments about to grind to a halt. And that life here would never be the same. It would be paradise lost.

Yes, we know that a school was shot down (the wrong one, more on that later) and a golf course was in the rough.

And we know that when things don’t work out as planned at the circus, we tend to blame the lions. Seldom the lion tamers.

Don’t worry. If you missed this year’s circus, there will be another one. Same time, next year. The same sky will fall. The same lions and tigers will be on the loose. And our local three ring circus will begin again.

But for now, two questions: Did we waste a recession? Did we, as usual, keep a little fat in our governments because they taste better? Two answers: Yes and yes.

The political class keeps telling us that a recession is a terrible thing to waste. That is one reason the U. S. Treasury has its biggest debt in relation to GDP since the end of World War II. 

Meanwhile on the local front, where budgets are balanced, there are opportunities to do more with less. That is unless we keep insisting that there is no such thing as a marginal dollar. We debated a school budget as if the last half million dollars spent was as vital as the first half mil.

Another point: You can’t win any budget battles if all you do is play defense for a few months and take the rest of the year off. Those were fine words in support of five year budget plans. But just words.

And why drive down I-64 to the imperial city if it was only to show the local flag? If it was, no one in Richmond saluted. Those along the James know that the NoVa cash cow is out of milk. Now those of us along the Maury know it, too.

We all know why the milk gave out in ’08. Between those running the casinos on Wall Street and with Fannie and Freddie passing out mortgages to home owners unable to pay the minimum on their credit card balances, a financial meltdown was inevitable.

If you think that this is only a brief shower to be solved by a larger rainy day fund, think again. The sun won’t shine until the capital losses on all those 1040 and 760 forms play out. With a $3,000 annual limit this will take a while.

Back to our neck of the woods where we know that the budget season is not hunting season. When hunters don’t bag their limit they don’t cry on the game warden’s shoulders. No one plays the victim’s role. And unlike those who work indoors, every outdoor hunter we know shoots straight.

As a result we witness budget hearings where strange words and a superfluity of numbers are mumbled. It is all blue smoke and mirrors put up by folks never elected. So their elected bosses nod on cue as if they understand. This seems to satisfy those handful of citizens sitting in the hearing room. Their television sets must be broken.

Nevertheless, twice last season the sun came through. There were two attempts to shine some light on the budget proceedings. Yet not one local publication bothered to print the key information presented by County Administrator Claire Collins and School Superintendent John Reynolds. Both clearly explained the county’s budget and various options. With understandable bar and pie charts Collins showed the program composition of the county’s budget. With a category-by-category break out, Reynolds (no relation) showed the potential savings from (a) program cuts, (b) combining two elementary schools and (c) combining two middle schools.

We know that (a) was a bad idea and that (b) was the option selected by the school board. However, was it selected because the savings from closing Effinger Elementary School happened to match this year’s budget shortfall? From here it looks that way.

Option (c), combining Rockbridge Middle School with Murray River Middle School, was never fully debated in spite of: (1) a $950,019 annual savings, $423,041 more than closing Effinger; (2) a reduction of 24.8 positions; (3) reduced cost per student of over $1,700; (4) general agreement among educators that it is better to consolidate grades 6-8 than grades K-5 in community schools; (5) both schools require reconstruction; and, (6) construction and student disruption costs can be significantly lessened by closing MRMS for 15 months and fully utilizing all area schools (including EES) during construction.

Until the general public is clearly informed by government and the press, local issues will continue to be decided on a stopgap basis. And the views of the community at large will continue to be left out. A budget is a process, not a product. It is an opportunity, a challenge, to do more with less over the long run — not to conveniently match savings with a one year shortfall.