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Shine a little light

Government, and local government in particular, should be as transparent as possible.  In previous posts we have expressed concerns about the transparency of Stafford County government.   While the government administration has made strides to ensure the actions of the government boards and commissions are open and transparent, there is still much that can be done.

Currently in order to track the voting record or how individual members of a board voted on a particular issue it requires sifting through meeting agendas and minutes.

Over the last several weeks we have been working on a tool to easier track activity of our elected officials.   Today we are launching the Stafford Sunlight Project.   The project is a database tool that enables citizens to easily see how their members of the Board of Supervisors have voted on issues before the board.   The project is not mean as a “gotcha” intended to attack members of the Board.  It is simply a tool to give everyone insight on our government.

 

The intent will be to expand the project to also track activity of the School Board and Planning Commission.   Click on the image above to link to the tracking tool or click here.

Board of Supervisors Adopts a Budget

The Stafford County Board of Supervisors adopted the county’s FY2019 budget at a meeting held at 2 P.M. today.   This follows a work session the board held yesterday at 3 P.M.  It’s disappointing the Board is holding meetings and making significant decisions about taxpayer dollars when few taxpayers and citizens can attend or even watch meetings.  However, there was significant coverage by organizations such as the Stafford Education Association (SEA) to report on actions of the Board.

 

The SEA and and members of the School Board were particularly concerned about the level of local funding the school division was going to receive from the Board of Supervisors within the FY2019 budget.   The Board of Supervisors had increased the tax rate to $0.99 from $0.965 at a meeting held earlier this year.   From a presentation given by the County Administrator in November it was expected by the School Board that at the .$0.99 tax rate the local transfer to the school division would be increased by $7.8 million over the FY2018 budget.  With that level of funding the School Board would be able to ensure school employees received the proposed 2.5% and there would minimal to no negative effects on the level of service in Stafford County schools.

With the lack of local funding the School Board may be at risk of being able to increasing the number of teachers needed in order maintain a class size reduction initiative started three years ago.  The class size reduction initiative has reduced class sizes in elementary schools capping the number of students in K-5 classrooms.   Not having enough funding may result in class sizes growing again the elementary schools.

The Board of Supervisors adopted a budget that only provides the School Board with an additional $6.4 million with hold back of appropriations to ensure school employees receive the 2.5% salary increases.   That will mean the School Board will have a roughly $4 million funding gap in their proposed budget for FY2019, with restrictions on when they will be able to receive full appropriations of their funding.  They will have difficult decisions to make that could have a negative impact on children in classrooms all across Stafford County.

The $6.4 million increase will provide the school division with less than 40% of the total revenue growth the county is projected to experience in FY2019.   Contrary to the presentation by the County Administrator regarding a five-year plan the Board of Supervisors declined his proposal to ensure at least 50% of new county revenue is dedicated to schools.   Over the last several years the trend of school funding in Stafford County has been a decrease of total county revenue.   With the trend continuing it is likely schools will fall well below 50% of the total county budget.  Where is the money going?   Social services has seen significant increases as well as the funding of contingency funds to ensure the county attains coveted AAA Bond ratings.

 

Drinking our way to prosperity?

This is a great podcast by local news source Potomac Local, “We tap into the health of the Prince William craft brewery industry”.  If you aren’t already a subscriber we would strongly suggest you subscribe to Potomac Local’s content.

In this podcast Potomac Local’s publisher, Uriah Kiser, speaks with proprietors of local craft brewery “Waters End Brewery” in Prince William County.  They discuss the rapid growth of local breweries in Prince William and Stafford counties, their impact on the local economies and the challenges the plethora of local brewers are facing.

Over the last several years both Prince William and Stafford Counties have adjusted zoning ordinances to allow craft brewers to open for business and grow.  In Stafford County prior to 2012 brewers were unable to open tap rooms and serve their brews anywhere in the county.  However, the ordinances were changed that allowed for breweries to open up tap rooms, serve their brew and open up new opportunities for locals breweries to expose the public to their craft, entertain and provide addition social and eateries in the county.   The first to open their doors was Adventure Brewery on Perchwood Drive in the middle/south end of the county.  They were followed by several others throughout the county.

The challenge for these local breweries in Stafford County is they are limited to exist only in industrial areas.   Prince William County has taken the route of opening up their commercial and retail spaces to the breweries.  There they have experienced exponential growth of local breweries, however, they have also experienced a number of breweries having to shutter their doors in more recent days.

While craft brewing has proven to be a boost to the local economy it also comes with challenges of sustainability for these small businesses that face a number of challenges.  In Stafford County it would be beneficial to the local craft brew market to allow for the breweries to open their doors in more places.  County officials should explore further adjustment to the governing ordinances and allowing breweries to operate in more commercial and retails spaces.   However, local entrepreneurs should tread into the local craft brewery market cautiously, as it is currently flooded with tasty brews, and has proven to be a challenging market to survive in.

One quote in the podcast that resonates is “over the last year craft breweries have set a record for the number of brew houses opening across the country, but they also set a record for the number of them closing.”

2018 Tax Rate Adopted

The Board of Supervisors voted to adopt tax rates for 2018 as a part of the Fiscal Year 2019 budget process.   The tax rate that garnered the most attention was the real estate tax rate.   Unanimously the Board voted to set the tax rate at $0.99.

Speaking to their support of teachers, fire and rescue, law enforcement and county employees Supervisors stated they were willing to set the rate at $.99 that will effectively be an increase on the average tax bill in the county, to ensure their priorities were funded.   Supervisor Maurer made it clear that  the rate at $0.99 will not fully fund the School Board’s funding request.  In order to fully fund the school’s request, according to Maurer, it would require a rate of $1.05.   Several Supervisors stated that they will encourage and watch the School Board to ensure the money they allocate to schools provides the 2.5% across the board salary increases.

 

County Budget

We have been planning to do a deep dive into the FY19 Stafford County Budget.  Unfortunately we didn’t realize the level of effort that would take.

First the only document on-line, at the time of this writing, is the FY2019 Proposed Budget that was prepared by the County Administrator.   The Board of Supervisors does not typically develop other documents during their discussions while working on the budget.  Furthermore the Board does very little discussing of the budget during meetings that are recorded on video.  Often discussion occurs during committee meetings of the Finance and Budget Committee, whose meetings are not recorded.   The full Board will discuss the budget in a future Board meeting and will eventually adopt the final budget.

The proposed budget was developed with a tax rate of $0.965 which is the equalized rate intended to not change the average tax bill for Stafford County home owners. We have previously detailed the level of education funding in the proposed budget.   The Supervisors, in various meetings, have nearly unanimously indicated their desire to ensure school employees receive a 2.5% salary increase, as proposed by the School Board’s budget.   To that end the Supervisors have advertised the tax rate at $0.99.  It is expected they will adopt that rate when they adopt the final budget.  That rate will provide additional revenue that is expected to be dedicated to education enabling the School Board to provide raises to school division employees.

Reviewing the FY2019 Proposed Budget – budget book is more challenging than expected.   The online version of the budget is nearly 450 pages long.  It’s always concerning when public bodies expand their budget presentations and documents.   Public body budgets should be simple to read, concise and not filled with useless filler intended to distract the reader.  We will withhold judgement as to whether that is the intent of the the county’s budget book, however there is much more material than necessary within it.

The budget book is structured by chapter with a second chapter that is over 40 pages long that contains documents and parts of documents such as the Comprehensive Plan,  BOS Financial Guidelines and other guiding documents.   As we chronicled in a previous post the county lacks a single Strategic Plan and relies on several plans and documents guide priorities and direction.  The County Administrator included these plans in the budget, presumably to provide some sort of measure of success of the budget meeting the goals of the documents.

As we dive into the financial information of the budget itself it starts with information about the revenue side of the ledger.  However, we are going to focus our time on the expenditure side.    Starting on Page 114 of the document the County Administration expenditures and FY19 budgeted items are laid out.  Well at least some of the information.   The budget summary is limited to two lines, Personnel and Operating.   While there are two data points of previous years actual expenditures FY 18 is only represented with what was budgeted in last year’s budget and budgeted amount for FY 17 is not included.   It makes it difficult to see any trends in budgeted versus actual costs and analyze how the county administration and Board is doing hitting the marks on budgeting accuracy.

Furthermore, the Board of Supervisors has been critical of the School Board for having spent money and budgeted for professional development for school staff.  However, it is interesting that in the call out it states there is increases to funding for “seminars and conferences based on historical data.”   The only unfunded items listed are a total of $2,000 for webinars and leadership courses.

The budget continues to go through each county government department.   It’s interesting that there are a number of additional positions added throughout the county government and a number of funding increases.

Members of the Board of Supervisors have stated their commitment and priority to education and ensuring teachers get 2.5% raises in this years budget.  In order to accomplish that the BOS has been very critical of every line of spending proposed by the School Board.  It will be interesting to watch to see if they will be as critical of their own budget as they are of the schools’.   It is obvious there are plenty of opportunities to scrub the county budget to find savings and help the BOS meet their goals.

A particular interesting section of the county budget is the section on Economic Development.  Supervisors, and Rockhill Supervisor Wendy Maurer in particular, were critical of the accuracy of data the School Board provided in student population,  budget numbers and staffing requirements.   They are right to press the School Board on accuracy of data, but the Board of Supervisors should want to ensure data in the county’s budget is accurate as well.  In the Economic Development Department section there is a call out box with department accomplishments.   There are items the department is chalking up as accomplishments, but there should be scrutiny on the claims.  At least one of the companies listed in the section taking credit for adding jobs and leasing corporate space is nothing more than a corporate name change.

DXC is listed in the call box.  The company is a new corporate name for HP Government services.  They are a large contractor supporting Marine Corps IT services.  They lease space in a building on Woodstream Drive.   The company name changed in 2017 and the amount of space leased did not change and the number of jobs did not change.  The good news for Stafford County Economic Development is the company is set to change it’s name again this year . . .perhaps they can take credit for jobs and leased space for the same company again next year.

Another peculiar thing they list as an accomplishment is Aquia Town Center . . .things that make you go hmmm?

How do you define insanity?

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.”  -W. Edwards Deming

For years the School Board and Board of Supervisors have developed the county’s Capital Improvement Plan by first the School Board setting their priorities and adopting their version of the plan.   The School Board would then send their plan over to the Board of Supervisors who would take a look at the proposed School Board projects, combine them with county projects, re-prioritize the whole list, then adopt the county’s Capital Improvement Plan.   Projects the School Board prioritize and included in their plan may or may not have remained on the final plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors.   The school division would have to live with whatever the county adopted as the final plan.

The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) is how the county plans and finances large expense projects.   Capital Improvement Plans are typically reserved for new buildings, renovation of existing buildings and park and transportation projects. The plan details estimated costs and the availability of debt from year to year.

Due to the way the county has developed the CIP for years projects get promoted and demoted on the list somewhat randomly.  The current way of doing it  gives members of the Board of Supervisors more powerful to advocate or eliminate projects than School Board members.   It also enables stronger voiced members to advocate louder for projects in their districts over broader county needs.   Over the years this had lead to situations like Ferry Farm Elementary School continuously being pushed down a list of priority and not being considered for renovation or rebuild in a timely manner.

In 2017 the two board embarked on a fix to the CIP process to adopt an actual process in which the needs of the county as a whole were examined above political or personal motivations of individual board members.   The new process involved a review by committees of staff from both the school division and county administration to analyze needs, projects and prioritization.   The staff committee recommendations were then sent to a joint committee of equal number of Supervisors and School Board Members to review the recommendations.

 

In August of 2017 both boards adopted the CIP process unanimously.    In November of 2017 the two boards held the joint CIP committee meetings and discussed the projects.   There was concern expressed by various members of both boards about various projects.  Three projects of particular note were the new courthouse and whether it would be planned for the full $70 million replacement cost, or if it would be built in phases.   A second project that created discussion was the rebuild of renovation of Ferry Farm Elementary School.  And the final project of significant discussion was whether the School Board should move forward on purchasing the now vacant building owned by the Fredericksburg Christian School in north Stafford.   The FCS school building is proposed to be purchased to help add capacity to the school division and potentially house parts of the division’s preschool classrooms.

After three meetings the members of the joint committee came to a decision, with some information still pending to be collected and decided up on about the courthouse rebuild, to take the recommendation back to their respective boards and continue moving forward in the process.

Somewhere along the way wires got crossed and the process fell apart.  Both boards have now reverted back to the old way of developing the CIP and it appears to be ready to create strife between the boards once again.   The School Board considered and adopted their version of the CIP at their April 11 meeting.   They have adopted the following school division projects in the following order of priority: 1. Purchase and Renovate Fredericksburg Christian School building, 2. Renovate Ferry Farm Elementary School 3. Build High School #6 4. Rebuild Hartwood Elementary School 5. Build Elementary School #18

The sole vote against the CIP was cast by Aquia District School Board member Irene Egan, who has long advocated and supported the development of the new CIP process, citing her reason for voting “no” was due the CIP not being developed within the guidelines of the newly adopted CIP process.

The CIP is now in the court of the Board of Supervisor.  They will need to decide how to work the School Board’s priorities into those of the county and may or may not accept the priorities as the School Board has sent them over to the BOS.

Strategy and Priorities

A well-managed modern organization should have a well developed Strategic Plan with clearly defined priorities and strategies to inform leadership and the organization’s stake-holders of where it is going and how it going to get there.

In this year’s budget battle there has been a lot of questions about priorities.  In particular members of the Board of Supervisors questioning what the priorities of the School Board are and how they are reflected within the school divisions funding request.   Supervisor Shelton in particular asked the School Board about priorities during the March  20th joint hearing.

However, as members of the School Board pointed out to the Supervisors, the board annually adopts budget goals and priorities and they are printed within the budget book provided to Supervisors.   Furthermore, a quick search of the school division’s website the SCPS 2017-2022 Strategic Plan can be found.   The Strategic Plan clearly lays out the strategy and priorities of the division and School Board.

A particular issue of concern for recently appointed Supervisor from the George Washington District, Tom Coen is the expense of a professional development opportunity for county teachers – the Teaching and Learning Summit.  In questions Coen forwarded to the Superintendent after the joint hearing he indicated scrapping the Teaching and Learning Summit could reduce school division costs by $400,000.  Coen has been critical of the division provided professional development opportunity in other pubic settings as well.

However, the School Board has clearly made the professional development opportunity a priority that it desires to provide to school division employees.  In the FY17 budget the School Board included the following in the budget priorities for that year “Provide additional funding for professional development”, in FY 18 the following priorities were presented by the School Board in their adopted budgets “Fund professional development program for all SCPS staff to enhance skills”, “Fund phased computer initiative for teachers and staff to assist in classroom skills.”

Furthermore within the SCPS Strategic Plan the School Board also identifies professional development as a priority.  In Board Priority 1.1 of the SCPS Strategic Plan the School Board makes this statement “Provide professional learning opportunities to expand capacity of staff to support students developing critical thinking, creativity, citizenship, communication and collaboration skills, and wellness across content areas,” and in Board Priority 2.3 “Expand professional growth opportunities for all employees.”

The School Board’s budget priorities and Strategic Plan further detail their priority on staff compensation and student achievement.   The Strategic Plan identifies what the division values and where the School Board would like to drive the division.

So where is the county and the Board of Supervisor with their priorities and Strategic Planning?   If you Google “Stafford County Strategic Plan” you get results that lead you to a couple of documents and plans that inform you about the direction of the county.   However, there is no one Strategic Plan for the county.

A web page titled “Board Priorities for the Community” is undated, but appears to have been written in 2013.  The page references the 350 anniversary of Stafford County, the renovation of Grafton Elementary School and an economic development plan to attract data centers to the county.

The strategic direction of the county is contained in multiple documents, including the Comprehensive Plan, the BOS Financial Policies, and the Economic Development Strategic Plan.  All of the documents and plans that feed the strategy are detailed in this table.

The county severely lacks a well defined strategic plan and vision for the future.   Furthermore there are no discernible measures for success to enable residents of the county to determine if the county’s leadership strategy is meeting the goals of the county or not.

 

Budget Public Hearing – Spring Break Style

The Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on Tuesday April 3rd to hear from the public on the FY19 Budget and the advertised tax rate of $.99.   Unfortunately the Supervisors scheduled the public hearing during Stafford County Public Schools Spring Break.   Many families take advantage of the week off of school to get away and vacation with their family.   Holding a public hearing on such and important topic during a period of time that many county residents are unable to attend is a trigger of concern of transparency.

Board members addressed the concerns that were raised by speakers about the public hearing being held during SCPS’ break.   Supervisor Wendy Maurer stated the scheduling of the meeting was not by designed and continued to state “we have a very strict calendar in order to get our bills out.”   During their March 6 meeting the Supervisors discussed the timeline for setting the tax rate and the concerns of both the Commissioner of Revenue and County Treasurer for completing their work related to tax bills and collection of taxes.

However, the Board ultimately has flexibility on when they can hold meetings, hearings and adopt the tax rate.   Furthermore the county’s budget schedule is often predicated on the Board of Supervisors receiving the School Board’s funding request.   This year the School Board was preparing for presenting their funding request on March 6, but it was delayed by the Board of Supervisors until March 20th.

In September of 2017 the School Board adopted a budget calendar that set March 6th as the target for the School Board to present their funding request to the Board of Supervisors.   The Board of Supervisors adopts a similar budget calendar, however this year the goals of having the School Board’s funding request presented by early March was not met.  Had the board worked together to ensure the funding request was to the Supervisors by the March 6th date the public hearing would have had greater opportunity to have been held on a date other than during Spring Break.

In a previous post we detailed the ideal schedule for the county’s and School Board’s budgets.   Over the years, there has been a lack of communication between the two boards in the time leading up to the budget to ensure both boards are on the same schedule and all conflicting dates are clearly identified.

To see a larger image click here.

Both boards should take note now that Spring Break next year is April 15-19.  It will be helpful to the community if no meetings of significant importance are scheduled during that week.

To see a larger version of the calendar click here.

At the public hearing the Supervisors did hear from several folks expressing their concerns about school funding and other needs.  From Fredericksburg.com

Stafford County residents urge more funding for schools

Budget Battle in Stafford County, again

It’s Spring and here in Stafford County that can mean only one thing . . .budget battle.   This year’s battle of the budgets between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board is shaping up to be one for the ages.

First a quick primer on how the budget process in Stafford County is supposed to work.  Stafford County Public Schools is an independent entity from Stafford County Government, and it is governed by the 7 member elected School Board.   The school division receives funding from a variety of sources from all levels of government, however funding from the local government makes up about 50% of the revenue side of the budget.   Local funding is appropriated by the Board of Supervisors through the county budget development process.  Roughly 50% of taxes collected by the Board of Supervisors is appropriated to the School Division each year.

The School Board develops its own budget, which they ideally present to the Board of Supervisors in March as the Supervisors are working on the county’s budget and setting the tax rate.   Below is a graphic to show the process by which each entity develops their budgets.

Click here to see larger image.

 

The cost of education, like many things today, continues to rise and the School Board’s budget reflects that.  This year the budget request by the School Board is roughly $17 million more than last year’s funded budget with a $13 million dollar funding gap the School Board is asking the Board of Supervisors to fund.   Items included in the School Board’s funding request include additional teachers to meet the demands of a growing population, additional Special Education teachers to meet the needs of a growing special education student population and a 2.5% salary increase for all school division employees.

As they have in the past, the School Board provided the Board of Supervisors with the list of items that they are seeking to increase funding and the items that are required by state or other mandate to fund.  The mandated expenditures are $5.4 million to ensure schools are staffed and supplied to meet federal, state and local standards.  The other signifcant cost driver in the budget is a 2.5% COLA for all school division employees.  That cost is $5.2 million.  Those two items alone account for over 50% of the budget increase.

Click here to see a larger image.

The request is being met with hesitation by the Board of Supervisors.   While members of the Board of Supervisors have indicated their support for the proposed 2.5% salary increase included in the School Board’s budget, they have expressed concerns that the raises may not get to the teachers when the School Board adopts their final budget.

The Board of Supervisors and the School Board held a joint work session to discuss the budgets on Tuesday March 20th.   Members of the Board of Supervisors had several questions for the School Board and their budget proposal.   However, several Supervisors asked questions that appeared to be digging for improprieties buried in the schools’ budget.

Aquia Supervisor Cindy Shelton went on a quest asking why some technology supervisor positions had been moved around from last year’s budget, to which she was provided answers by School Board members on how priorities are set and SCPS CFO Chris Fulmer on how the changes were due to a newly implemented financial tracking software and using position control features within it.  He further explained that the moves did not result in any increase to positions or costs.

Shelton also asked about priories to which several members of the School Board replied with how the Board adopts priorities and they are reflected in the budget.

George Washington District Supervisor Tom Coen dug in further with questions about Administrative Assistant’s pay and compensation studies.   Superintendent Bruce Benson and members of the School Board replied with the priorities the School Board has had several years to bring all school division employees salaries inline the market.   The School Board also rebuked Coen’s assertion that they board had recently paid for several compensation studies.  The last compensation study for Administrative Assistants was in 2006 and more recent compensation studies for teacher and other employees were done internally and not contracted to outside firms.

Coen also inquired about positions advertised on the SCPS website and new positions of need identified in the school’s budget request.   Coen appeared to confuse positions currently funded, job requisition postings, and positions in the budget request to meet growth needs.   Some positions advertised on the SCPS website are positions that the division has had difficulty filling due to certification and license requirements, however they also keep many position requisitions open that are high demand positions that they know they will need to fill.   Positions in the budget request are not yet funded and not yet advertised on the SCPS website.

Falmouth Supervisor Meg Bohmke inquired about a statement of zero-based budgeting and expenditures at elementary schools.    Benson provided Bohmke the answer on school funding and why school expenditures differ from school to school.

 

Late in the meeting Garrisonville Supervisor Mark Dudenhefer questioned the market based teacher salary scale with a what appeared to be an indication that the School Board should look at capping salaries for experienced teachers high on the scale.   However, as Benson responded to Dudenhefer’s concerns, the salary scale will correct itself as the School Board invests in the lower end of the scale, continue to provide all teachers a COLA and other jurisdictions that pay senior teachers less bring their scales up – which has been the recent trends.

The meeting wrapped up with discussion about school security  and action both boards have taken.   Despite Griffis-Widewater Supervisor Jack Cavalier having gone to the School Board at a recent meeting and asking them for input on what they need to improve school security, he and Dudenhefer appeared upset that the School Board had adopted a resolution asking the Board of Supervisors to fund a School Resource Officer (SRO) at every school.   It also appears in retribution to the School Board’s action the Supervisors have taken it upon themselves to direct the Sheriff to form a task force that has excluded school division officials to discuss and develop recommendations for school security.   The task force headed by Sheriff Decatur has been tasked to report to the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety Committee, which meets “as required”, on Tuesday’s before the Board of Supervisors’ afternoon meetings.

 

COMING SOON: A look inside the County’s FY19 Proposed Budget

Still a Cluster, but a smaller one

The Board of Supervisors at their March 20th meeting adopted a resolution that severely curtailed cluster developments in the county.  After listening to nearly two and half hours of public comment the board moved quickly to adopted a revised resolution to adopt a map that reduces the amount of county land on which a clustered development can be built.

This action comes after the Planning Commission held a similar meeting and recommended to the Board of Supervisors to repeal the Cluster Ordinance in a vote of 5-2.   The Board adopted their ordinance on a vote of 6-1.  Jack Cavalier was the only Supervisor voting against the motion after he stated he was not going to vote for appeal because the County Attorney had advised the Board was going to be out of compliance with state law if the ordinance was appealed.  He did not support the map that was eventually adopted because in his opinion there was not enough review and study of the new map.

Virginia state code requires jurisdictions of Stafford’s size and population growth rate to have a cluster ordinance.  Cluster development is intended to build house closer together and leave significant land as open space in rural setting developments.   However, the perception in Stafford County was that the cluster ordinance was not doing what it was intended to do and developers were using it as a means to build more houses.