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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.

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

Mark your calendar

Stafford Growing Pains has a great rundown of upcoming meetings this week.  The rundown of the Board of Supervisors’ Finance and Budget Committee and joint work session with the School Board outlines the challenges the boards face this year.

Some trivia about the Stafford County FY19 Budget:

  • The Budget Book is 448 pages long! Ugh
  • There’s a proposed 2% raise for most County employees. (School employees are considered within the School Board budget.)
  • The Public Safety budget (Sheriff’s office and Fire & Rescue) and the Social Services budget receive “catch up” funds to help them hire new employees to deal with increased workload caused by population growth.
  • Sports Tourism is an important element in our “Positioning for the Future” strategic investment.

The County budget was prepared prior to receiving the School Board’s funding request. In order to balance revenues and expenditures the School transfer increase was calculated at $3.27 million. The SB’s funding request asks for an increase of $12.43 million. The SB will present its budget to the BoS at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday with a joint work session immediately following the presentation. Both of these sessions are listen-only meetings for the public.

As Stafford Growing Pains reports, the meeting in which the School Board presents their budget is a “listen-only” meeting and the public will not have ability to comment on the School Board budget to the Board of Supervisors until their meeting at 7 P.M.  The Board of Supervisors has no specific agenda item on their 7 P.M. meeting regarding the School Board’s budget request.  In years past the School Board was able to present their budget in the 7 P.M. session of the Board of Supervisors, enabling more of the public to be able to attend the meeting, hear the presentation, hear the questions that the Supervisors ask of the School Board, and then be able to provide comment and input immediately within the meeting.  Questions of transparency can arise when the Board of Supervisors elect to conduct business of significant public interest in committee and during hours when much of the public is not able to view or attend.

The first item on the Board of Supervisors agenda in their 7 P.M. session is consideration of resolutions to authorize the County Administrator to advertise a proposed tax rate.   At this point the Board will consider advertising the tax rate at the County Administrator’s proposed rate of $0.965 or adjusting the advertised rate up or down.   The advertised rate is the rate that will be published and considered for adoption at a future meeting.   When the Board considers final adoption of the tax rate they can lower the rate from what was advertised but can not increase it.

The tax rate was initially on the Board’s agenda and brief discussion was held regarding it at their March 6 meeting.

The process in which the Board is considering the advertised rate could be cause for concern of transparency.   The agenda item, while in the 7 P.M. session of the Board and more members of the public can attend and/or watch on television, is not being done as a public hearing.  The public will not be able to comment after the County Administrator presents the proposed resolution and the members of the Board provide their comments and questions.   If members of the pubic wish to provide input on the advertised tax rate they will need to do so during Public Comment which at the top of the Board’s agenda at 7 P.M.

Dive into the numbers

Public budgets are fairly simple documents when done right.   When government wants to skip transparency it is also fairly easy for public bodies to obfuscate information for public digestion.

To the County Administrator’s credit when he presented his proposed budget to the Board of Supervisors, while one slide indicated a $6.36 increase to education funding, he did have a slide that detailed the breakdown of the funding and did point out that nearly half of that money was going towards Public Day School funding and would not be money to be spent at the discretion of the School Board.

Stafford Growing Pains has been doing an analysis and following the education funding in the County Administrator’s proposed budget in great detail.

With regards to the public day school funding SGP says:

The funds for Private Day School placements are required by law to come from the County budget not the School Budget. Therefore, the $2.69 million identified for Private Day School will NOT be transferred to the School Board.

— The proposed budget includes $285,000 to create a Public Day School classroom in one of our public schools. This project is intended to group up to 6 students who would otherwise need to a Private Day School placement, 

Stafford Growing Pains will continue following the budget process and has a keen interest in education funding in the county.

For the Board of Supervisors their work is just beginning on the budget.  They will continue to have work sessions and meetings as they continue to develop the final FY19 budget for Stafford County.  The topic of education funding and the funding of Public and Private Day School will continue to be a hot topic in those discussions.

Government Transparency

This week the Board of Supervisor had an agenda item to discuss Stafford County Government’s transparency.   Transparency is very important for the government, as it is the people’s business and every private citizen should be able to know what their government is doing.

The agenda item was added at the request of Chairman Meg Bohmke after she became aware of a 2010 report produced by The Thomas Jefferson Institute.  According to their website, the mission of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy is to provide Virginia’s political, business, academic, community and media leadership with thoughtful, realistic, useful and non-partisan analysis of public policy issues confronting our Commonwealth.

While the report was published in 2010, and has not been updated since, it is relevant as a means to look at how Stafford County is doing with regards to transparency.   Within the report Stafford County ends up in the middle of the pack among all jurisdictions in the Commonwealth of Virginia.   The county would probably score a little better today as they have taken steps to improve the county’s website and post information.

One of the largest risks to transparency for the Board of Supervisors is the “Consent Agenda” which is on every agenda for Board of Supervisors meetings; School Board and many other governing bodies.   The intent of the Consent Agenda is to quickly deal with issues and agenda items that are deemed non-controversial and don’t need any significant discussion for passage.   The items should have been on for discussion in previous meetings.  However items have from time to time slipped onto the Consent Agenda with little or no public review.   While members of governing bodies have talked or discussed the issues at ad nauseam at times, the public may have not had a good look at the issues.

Recently there have been a couple of examples of this by the Board of Supervisors.  In their February 6 meeting the Board had an item on their Consent Agenda related to a 5-year funding plan they have been working on.  The Board discussed the issue at an offsite retreat they held and likely within their Finance and Budget Committee, however, the issue had not been widely discussed in their regular meetings.  Per the Board rules and by-laws any member can request an item be pulled from the Consent Agenda.   In this case the issue was pulled of the Consent Agenda and discussed in open session.   More recently at their March 6 meeting the Board had an Consent Agenda item that would have approved advertising the FY19 Real Estate tax rate at $0.965 which, if not pulled off Consent and passed, would have advertised the tax rate and the members of the Board would have not been able to adjust the rate if through the next several weeks they deem it needs to be adjusted.   In this case Supervisor Maurer, Rock Hill District, asked for the item to be pulled off the Consent Agenda which led to open discussion and eventual deferral of advertising the tax rate.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Stafford Forum encourages the Board of Supervisors and School Board to make continuous improvement to transparency.  And be careful with use of the Consent Agenda.  The purpose of this website/blog and the many others that have grown over the last several years are intended to increase transparency of our government.   From the Thomas Jefferson Institute Report:

The internet has opened up a new, more vibrant public square where debates about all sorts of local issues happen, with greater frequency and inclusiveness than in previous eras. As its use and the universe of those using it continues to expand, expectations for how people access information, and how much information is available, are rapidly changing.

Local blogs, message boards and listservs have made it easier for citizens to engage in public debates and make their voices heard on questions of local governance. These tools have radically lowered the barrier to becoming involved in public debate and have greatly increased the ability of citizens to hold their government to account. It has also made it far easier for local governments to engage their residents on questions of governance and public spending