Transparency failed last week.
Only a week ago, I wrote another column urging our readers to pay more attention to Powhatan County’s budget process. It has been a really long few months covering the budget meetings and workshops and coming to understand what a momentous task it is for staff members and the board of supervisors to create a viable budget in such uncertain times. No matter what similarities there may be to other times of crisis in the United States, I can’t see any point in history that had such a unique convergence of events. In so many ways, it feels like we are stumbling in the dark as we struggle to find the way out on the other side.
That said, I still believe in the process and that our citizens should play a role in helping decide how local government – the place where I have always argued they had the most influence – is run.
To be on the safe side, Powhatan advertised an $88 million budget net of transfers in June because the county can adopt a lower amount but can’t go above that figure. Then we get to the June 22 meeting of the board of supervisors. One week before the budget was scheduled to be adopted and we had literally not heard a single board member put forward a plan or general direction they would like to see the county go in moving forward. Would it be $88 million, something slightly lower, or would we be seeing more significant cuts? We had no idea.
A week before the June 22 meeting, supervisor Larry Nordvig suggested they all come ready to discuss their plans. I thought that was a great idea. Yes, it was cutting it close to June 29, the date they had always said they would adopt the budget so they could have time to gather as much information as possible before they were legally required to pass the budget, per state code. But having that discussion on June 22 still left a full week in which citizens could consider any proposals made and hopefully reach out to their supervisors and share their opinions.
But while the June 22 meeting did feature a public hearing on the budget, chairman David Williams steamrolled through the board comment section of the budget discussion and nobody called him on it.
In the week that followed, the county put out a board packet for the June 29 meeting that included a budget proposal – basically the 85-cent proposal that would eventually pass – and then amended the packet several times to add more proposals.
And we did get our discussion – a robust, mostly civil discourse that laid out three different plans for how the county could move forward with its budget in what each supervisor supporting it argued was the most fiscally responsible way. In my opinion, it was a fair and balanced discussion that laid out three varied budget options for the county, and I think many would agree that each plan had some good points. Added to that, each was presented by a supervisor that passionately supported it.
The problem is that the plans still came a week late. Taking your time to gather information and propose a responsible, balanced budget is admirable. But if you really want to have an educated citizenry and give them a real voice in the matter, you can’t lay out all of your plans at the 11th hour, without allowing any public comment on the specific plans once they have been presented, and call it transparent.