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Powhatan supervisors take steps forward in budget process

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POWHATAN – The Powhatan County Board of Supervisors decided in a split vote last week to advertise the proposed fiscal year (FY) 2023 budget at $109.9 million, which the public is now being asked to weigh in on during a May 3 public hearing.

The 3-2 decision in favor of advertising that amount came at the end of a two-hour discussion on the budget that didn’t yield much change at the board’s budget workshop on Monday, April 18.

Chair Mike Byerly, who represents District 3; Steve McClung, District 2, and Karin Carmack, District 5, voted in favor of advertising the budget at that amount. David Williams, District 1, and Bill Cox, District 4, voted against it.

The $109,908,958 the county is advertising is the total proposed FY2023 operating budget without transfers included. The proposed amount represents a $9.8 million increase (9.8%) from the county’s FY2022 adopted budget, which was over $100 million.

Last week’s budget discussion didn’t follow a set path, mostly flowing between topics as different board members raised issues of concerns. The mood of the meeting was also all over the place, with board members vacillating from jokes and smooth discussion to moments of high tension and budding arguments.

Most of the concerns were raised by Cox and Williams, but all of the board members engaged in the discussions to varying degrees, depending on the topic.

The board did not vote on any discussion item within the budget discussion as to whether it would stay or go. They only voted on the advertised budget amount, which they can reduce but not increase before it is adopted, unless they advertise the budget again.

The remaining timeline for the FY2023 budget schedule includes: May 2, a budget workshop with a public hearing on the real estate tax rate and adoption of the rate; May 3, budget workshop with public hearing on budget, and May 10, adopt budget and CIP. The times for all of these meetings is 6:30 p.m. The board actually has until June 30 to adopt its budget but has to adopt the school budget in May to allow it time to work on employee contracts for next school year.

Schools

A good portion of the early part of the meeting was focused on schools. Spurred by questions from Cox and Williams, the board and county administrator Ned Smither discussed the county’s proposed local transfer. Smither’s proposed budget includes more than $2 million extra to help the school division make up some of the money the schools would have received if its Composite Index hadn’t been impacted this year.

Williams again took issue with the school division’s continuation of its retiree health care supplement, which pays a portion of retiree’s health care premiums when they retire before they are eligible for Medicare.

Carmack pointed out that the board of supervisors can appropriate the total amount of money to the schools division, but the school board gets the final say on how to use those funds.

The discussion then touched on a few more key topics, including looking at tightening funding so as not to incentivize the school division to have unspent funds at the end of the year that will go into its capital maintenance reserve.

The board also had a larger discussion on the future of school funding as a whole, with Cox again raising concerns about school spending growing faster than the county’s actual revenue growth.

Compensation

A portion of the discussion circled around the issue of employee compensation, which is seeing a bump in many ways in the proposed budget for county employees (which is done separately from school employees).

According to the current figures, the budget includes money for 5% raises for county employees ($600,000); benefits associated with the raise ($158,500); the county covering the 19.1% health care increase ($465,000); addressing compression issues ($400,000), and a 1.92% Virginia Retirement System increase ($198,000).

The only item the board has actually voted on at this point was the 19.1% health care increase.

Cox brought the issue of compensation up a few times. He didn’t denigrate any particular line item but challenged the board to look holistically at what they are proposing to spend on employees.

McClung, Byerly and Carmack all talked about the importance of addressing compression to remain competitive in the current market.

Cox brought up the issue of “balance,” saying it was not wrong to take care of employees, but the board also needed to give back to citizens. This sparked a lengthy comparison with what Chesterfield County’s board is doing but came back to whether the board wants to stick with a plan laid out last year to create a stable tax rate, which Byerly reiterated, or go back to having it go up and down every year depending on the real estate market.

McClung ended the comparison by pointing out Powhatan is a bedroom community and the board needed to focus on its makeup, not that of Chesterfield.

CIP projects

Within the discussion about what should or should not be in the budget was a few additions to the capital improvement plan (CIP) that are under debate.

Carmack had proposed the board discuss a senior center as a possible future project and the CIP had a $500,000 placeholder for that project.

The board debated at length on the topic of the senior center and whether they had enough data to say it was warranted. While not arguing directly against it, Cox and Williams both defended the need for more concrete data on the needs of Powhatan seniors and more discussion before the board moves forward on the project.

Williams shared an email from Senior Connections about a needs assessment study it will be creating for Powhatan in conjunction with the VCU School of Gerontology and the Longevity Project. Gathering data like this, he said, will give the county better data before it decides how to proceed. He also reiterated a point he has made previously that one of the key hindrances with projects for seniors is reliable transportation and requested again to have a workshop on the topic.

Cox took issue with a proposal to fund a senior center with $500,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds, calling it a shell game, and also with a proposal by Smither for $1 million in unused bond funds that could be used for possible economic development investment by the county.

The CIP project description describes the $1 million project as funding to purchase property to be used for commercial real estate development and marketed by Economic Development staff for business expansion or investment.

According to the project’s justification description: “As Economic Development opportunities arise for Powhatan County, the ability to own and market commercial property offers the opportunity for the County to control and fast-track development where appropriate. As commercial sites are limited in the County and the opportunities for expansions and new investment increase, the need for controlled sites to offer become more important. Counties with industrial and commercial sites increase the marketability of their communities to create business investment and tourism opportunities.”

The board heard a presentation on this possible future action at a recent joint workshop with the Economic Development Authority but did not vote to take any action on the item.

Carmack eventually took issue with Cox’s “combative” approach to questioning Smither and the other board members, saying it doesn’t lend itself to productive dialogue and only creates unnecessary friction. Making a motion to take a project off the table is fine, she said, “but to go and slam the county administrator and say that he is hiding something, calling (the senior center) my pet project and going around the table, you know, and chastising all your colleagues… help me understand what that accomplishes.”

Other business

At the beginning of the workshop, the board voted unanimously to pass a resolution supporting an application through the community funding program for $880,000 in Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) improvements to Fighting Creek Park.

After the county’s success in receiving $150,173 in federal funding to be used toward trail expansion in Fighting Creek Park through the efforts of Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, the county decided to apply in the new rounds of these funds.

After examining the county’s existing CIP projects, Bret Schardein, assistant county administrator, presented a proposal to submit an application to complete two existing projects. These included a $300,000 CIP project to add additional bathrooms in the park and a $580,000 project to make athletic fields ADA improvements.

After hearing his explanation, the board then voted unanimously to pass the resolution submitting the application.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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