While the Clarke County budget buck stops with the County Supervisors, when the Clarke County FY2013 budget is finalized it will be as much of a reflection of state and federal social and economic values as it will be about the local decisions to allocate tax funds to education, regional parks, economic development and the many other much talked about concerns raised over the past several months. But budget cuts made in Washington and Richmond combined with declining local tax revenues will make it particularly difficult this year for local elected officials to please everyone.
The overall impact of local, state and federal spending decisions are often seen the clearest in the impact that they have in the lives of local citizens who go to work every day, pay taxes and then are left wondering how there can be still be so many unfunded needs and so little money – demands for teacher and county employee salary increases, government IT infrastructure needs, new school buses, textbooks, road maintenance, and increased social services demands – the list seems to go on and on.
While the funding needs continue to mount across the Commonwealth, the Clarke County Supervisors publicly and repeatedly voiced concerns that there are no easy answers to the financial challenges facing the area on the immediate horizon. If anything, the financial recovery for Virginia is predicted to be flat and slow. (Read a summary of the financial challenges facing Virginia localities here: Virginia State Funding Outlook 2-9-12 (1) )
As often as the Clarke County Board of Supervisors is criticized for its specific spending decisions and fiscal policies, understanding the broader economic reality behind the decisions takes effort and doesn’t lend itself to easy answers.
According to the Associated Press political writer Bob Lewis, the last General Assembly tax increase was in 2004. Since then, Lewis says, nearly $7 billion in shortfalls caused by the recession has forced Virginia to balance its books using a range of painful methods; finding spending savings, borrowing money, drawing on the state’s “rainy day” reserves, as well as cuts to the general fund which supports core government services such as health care, public schools and public safety. About $1 billion worth of those cuts in Virginia spending – made under Republican Governor Bob McDonnell and his Democratic predecessor Tim Kaine – was in aid to local governments like Clarke County.
Local citizens, especially those at the lower end of the economic ladder, are feeling the pinch here.
Although political party affiliation may play a role in determining how money is spent at a state and federal level, it doesn’t have a nearly as much influence in determining how money is spent in a small county budget like Clarke’s. Thanks to a range of factors including local affluence, conservative fiscal management and lower than average unemployment, Clarke County has managed to outperform neighboring counties in many key categories.
According to the 2011 “Financial Trend Analysis” report, an annual comparison between Clarke and similarly sized counties that includes Amelia, King George, King William, Madison, Rappahannock and Greene, Clarke’s 4.5 percent unemployment rate is 19 percent better than that of the comparison six county group while Clarke’s per capita personal income beats the average by 7 percent.
Clarke’s per capita tax revenue is 24% higher than six county comparison group. (View the Clarke County FY 11 Financial Trend Report )
From a fiscal responsibility viewpoint, the report clearly demonstrates that the Clarke County Board of Supervisors have successfully kept the County clear of financial hardship during one of the most challenging financial periods since the Great Depression.
Even though Clarke taxpayers are better off than the comparable counties mentioned in the comparison report, there is never any guarantee of future fiscal viability. Already higher-than-average local per capita tax revenues combined with declining state funding assistance and local economic impacts of declining real estate values means that most Clarke taxpayers are already paying more than other similar localities and that any decision to raise taxes in order to pay for much needed service improvements, like salary increases for Clarke County teachers and law enforcement employees, purchasing parks or increases for the Department of Social Services, runs the risk pushing families with marginal incomes that much closer to the brink of disaster.
In Clarke County, as in other parts of the country, the current economic challenges and resistance to increased taxation seem to highlight the increasing economic distance between those with discretionary funds and those struggling to survive. Regardless of the final budget allocations, Clarke County’s FY2013 budget will make a significant statement about how residents view the economic division between the County’s well-to-do population and the people who serve them, particularly teachers, administrators, and law enforcement officers.
Overall, while measures of Clarke County’s affluence rank higher than the average, spending decisions in key areas shows a mixed bag. According to the six county comparison report, parks, recreation and cultural funding for FY 2011 was 92 percent higher than the six county average – and has been significantly higher since at least 2005. At the same time, education spending was only 2 percent lower than the six-county average. However, public safety spending in Clarke was 24% below the average and has been lower than average for many years.
The personal impact of spending priorities isn’t lost on County teachers and police officers.
“It is a known fact that everyone who is a worker in any field is hurting for multiple reasons in this economy,” said a CCPS teacher interviewed for this article. “If teachers – as well as others – continue to wait for a pay increase until the general economy improves, then we may never see that raise! One would also think that if pay increases were given, the general economy would also see a boost, due to more money being pumped back in it.”
A County law enforcement official sees the issue from a different perspective.
“Clarke County law enforcement is usually called when a citizen is in their darkest hour,” said the law enforcement official. “In the last thirty days I’ve handled four missing person reports, several drunk drivers, credit card rip-offs and an assault. People call the police when they really need help. But when the people who deliver the help need assistance, it seems as though no one in Clarke County is really there for them.”
The Clarke County officer cited a 2008 report known as the Springstead Study which the officer says provides the County with recommended wage rates for various county positions.
“For example, the Springstead study recommended that a patrol sergeant be paid between $44,500 and $71,000. A patrol sergeant in Clarke County in 2012 only makes about $41,000,” the officer said. “The liability for law enforcement officers is tremendous because the officer has to do his job responsibly, correctly and within the confines of the law. For the County not to honor the salary recommendations of its own study is unacceptable to me and to my family.”
Some County teachers and law enforcement employees say that they are required to work multiple jobs in order to just make ends meet.
“The lack of a salary increase has impacted me personally on many levels,” said one teacher. “First, I need to work a part time job four days a week to maintain my current living expenses. Second, due to that part time job many of my obligations – developing lesson plans, writing reports – that would be completed after school are completed late at night, early in the morning, or on the weekend.”
A Clarke County Sheriff’s Department official said that stagnant wages and low pay causes similar challenges for new deputies and poses different challenges for senior staff members.
“We have at least three deputies working multiple jobs so that they can provide their families with a reasonable lifestyle,” said a Sheriff’s Department official. “One deputy has two part-time jobs, another is working a separate full-time job and one deputy has another full-time job and a part-time job. Given the demands of law enforcement it just makes more sense to compensate people appropriately for their service rather than to force them to stretch to earn a living.”
On the high end of the seniority scale, compensation issues are reportedly also a problem for Clarke County law enforcements officials who are well past the retirement age. One County law enforcement official said that three of the County’s senior officers, each with over thirty years of service, are unable to retire because their pay would not cover the cost of the retiree-paid portion of the health insurance premiums alone.
“In some ways, not having a competitive salary now isn’t even the biggest issue,” the officer said. “It’s putting yourself at risk for twenty years to earn a retirement then not having enough help to be able to use it.”
As the debate over salary competition in Clarke County has continues, some proponents of forgoing County employee raises until the economy recovers have pointed out that salary is not necessarily the only compensation issue that is important. Job satisfaction, location and professionalism all play a role in the decision to remain in Clarke County or not.
Teachers and law enforcement acknowledge that dedication and professionalism are important but ultimately must be matched by compensation if Clarke County hopes to retain experienced workers.
“Honestly, I love what I do and I start each day off with a positive attitude, thankful to have the opportunity to be in the lives of my students,” said a CCPS teacher. “But the wage issue has an effect because many great teachers have left Clarke County in order to have a higher salary. We can’t expect to retain qualified and passionate teachers when we aren’t at least competitive with other counties.”
While the same positive attitude is shared by many Clarke County deputies, similar staff losses over compensation are occurring in the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department.
A senior patrol supervisor and a deputy are both departing Clarke County in March for better paying positions in other jurisdictions taking with them many years of Clarke County law enforcement experience.
“I’d do this job for free if it were just me,” a departing deputy said. “But I’ve got a family to provide for and we haven’t seen a raise in a long time.
“The value of having seasoned police officers on the force is really about their knowledge of the community,” one senior law enforcement officer. “The more that the police understand about the community and its crime areas, the better it is for citizens. That’s what makes Clarke County different than Frederick County or Loudoun County – the police here have a close relationship with the community and that’s one of the things that the people who live here love about Clarke County. So when an officer leaves, you’re really losing a lot.”
Both teachers and law enforcement officials interviewed for this article agreed that while fair compensation is an important symbol of the community’s appreciation of their efforts, public acknowledgment of their efforts is important, especially in difficult financial times.
“Gratitude goes a long way, saying ‘Thank you’ and ‘I appreciate what you do’ are words that are not heard often enough,” a CCPS employee said. “Even simple things like a note or email message saying that the work we do is noticed would have a positive impact. And chocolate, chocolate is always good.”
“The Sheriff’s Office has made a lot of progress under Sheriff Roper,” one officer said. “He demands professionalism and lets the department’s employees know that he appreciates their efforts, which means a lot. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are expected to act like professionals, but we aren’t paid like professionals.”
One elected official recently took both a political and personal step forward to express his appreciation for the work of Clarke County’s teaching staff. During discussions at a recent School Board meeting over a proposed pay increase for school employees, School Board member Jim Brinkmeier (Berryville) stopped during the deliberations and turned his gaze toward several CCPS teachers and administrators seated in the audience for the meeting.
“I just want you to know that I am very appreciative for everything that you do and I am very proud of our school division,” Brinkmeier said. “I truly want you to know how much we appreciate what you do day in and day out.”
Brinkmeier later voted in favor of a two percent pay raise saying that he wished the raise could be more. The recommended teacher wage increase will be part of a budget presentation to the Clarke County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday, March 7th at 7:00pm.
“I am fully aware that in today’s economy I am fortunate to have a job, and for the most part job security,” said one Clarke County teacher. “I chose to work in Clarke County because of its outstanding reputation for how they treated their staff, and for the excellence in education that they produced. I am also aware that everyone is hurting in this economy. However, to ask teachers to continue to ‘do more’ with less and less each year is no longer a feasible option. I feel like what is expected of teachers, is far beyond what is expected in many other professions- and yet the pay is substandard.”