It’s budget season, in conversations behind those doors…

Did you live through Watergate?  Have you dealt with government officials who said one thing and did another?  If so, then you know that you can see what’s really important, and really going to happen… not by listening to the speeches, but by following the money.

Policy and planning pontifications by politicians have potential (try saying that fast three times in a row…), but the budget determines what gets done in the real world.  At the moment, key decisions are being made by Prince William County officials for the next budget that will cover July 1, 2010-June 30, 2011.

The public process comes later.

Most of the noise next Spring will be about whether the property tax rate will go up/down, and whether property owners will pay more/less compared to next year.

Because the assessed value of commercial property has dropped significantly while the value of residential property is starting to recover, expect a discussion on whether this is the year to add a special tax on commercial property to fund transportation projects.   If added this year, the commercial property rate could go up while total property taxes paid on a parcel would still go down, compared to the current year.

Gov. Wilder once described the budget process as choosing between “niceties” and “necessities.”  Despite the current budget shortfalls, “Growth is Good” and “More is Better” are still ingrained in the psyche of county officials and “sustainable development” is perceived as something to be studied/encouraged… but not implemented.

For example, the Board of County Supervisors has structured fees so county taxpayers subsidize the costs of processing standard subdivision rezonings and site plans.  Application fees don’t cover the county’s costs to process the paperwork.

The developer community is singing the praises of the county’s fees and staff these days – but as noted in the Washington Business Journal, current residents are paying for developers to bring new residents to the county:
In a presentation to county supervisors, the department said it needed $3.57 million from the Revenue Stabilization Fund for site development work in fiscal 2009 and would need $2.49 million in fiscal 2010….  It needed $400,919 for building development costs in 2009 and will need a projected $827,500 for the work in 2010.

What’s missing from the annual budget discussions are proposals to change business as usual so we reduce long-term costs.   We keep digging ourselves deeper into the same hole.

Business as usual is expensive for county taxpayers.  Every new subdivision rezoning approved by the county creates new stormwater ponds that the county has agreed to maintain in perpetuity – and at the moment, there are no proffers for stormwater pond maintenance.

While politicians blather about bringing jobs to Prince William, they propose new transportation projects to export commuters to Fairfax/DC.  If built, roads-and-transit-to-elsewhere will keep Prince William as a bedroom suburb, while other jurisdictions get property taxes from commercial real estate filled with workers exported from Prince William.

If you think PW County can get the Federal government, state government, or someone else to pay 100% of the costs of operating as well as building a new ferry system, extending VRE/Metrorail, or adding 700 lanemiles of new highways… just what are you smoking?  We are subsidizing developers to bring new residents to Prince William, and then we’re subsidizing employers in other jurisdictions so our residents can commute to jobs outside of the county.

Business as usual extends to the Park Authority as well.  It is operating golf courses at a deficit, but still planning to build a massive soccer complex on the Wiita property off Glenkirk Road.  The fees for use of the fields will not cover the costs; taxpayers will be paying for operations and maintenance for years and years and years. Active recreation deserves county support – but the Park Authority has an “edifice complex,” and is not distinguishing between the necessities and the niceties of recreation.

If we perpetuate business as usual, scattering growth (while we blather about transit-oriented development) and building new active recreational facilities far away from where people live, then we guarantee increases in traffic congestion.  If we keep subsidizing the commute out of the county, we’ll minimize the opportunity to generate jobs within the county.

Most supervisors appoint budget committees, inviting a few citizens to advise on opportunities to alter the proposed budget.   While it’s always good to pore over the details and identify minor revisions, it’s time for those budget committees to look at the big picture as well.


2 comments so far

  1. Just a thought... on

    Have you considered contacting yor Supervisor and asking to be on his budget committee? They are looking for people who care. You obviously do. As we both know, most people don’t.

    In any case, committee meetings are generally open to the public. I was on a task force last year. We probably met about a dozen times. The meeting schedule was advertized and available to the public. Not one citizen showed up for any of those meetings.

  2. Just a thought... on

    In fact, after pondering the issue, why don’t you try and get a like minded PWC citizen on the Supervisor’s budget committee in all of the Districts. Probably asking to be on the committee will get these folks “the job”.

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