Richmond Mandates New Benefit Package but Clarke County Pays the Bill

Clarke County’s Joint Administrative Services committee delivered tangible proof yesterday of its willingness  to support competitive salaries for future teachers and other new employees in the face of continuing budget erosion from Richmond. The decision helps Clarke County’s employee benefit package remain competitive as jurisdictions across Virginia react to state budget reductions for employee benefits and retirement. Given the opportunity to pass the buck to Richmond on budget shortfalls, Supervisor Chairman Michael Hobert (Berryville) and School Board Chairman Robina Bouffault (White Post) instead opted to take contol of the issue by  filling the employee benefit funding gap for future Clarke County teachers and staff with local dollars.VaRetirementSystem

Using legislative tactics designed to shift public ire from Richmond to local governments, the 2010 General Assembly decided to withdraw its contribution to the Virginia Retirement Service (VRS) accounts for employees hired after July 1st, 2010. The 5% contribution reduction, along with increased service requirements necessary for retirement, are designed to strengthen the VRS system after a 2009 stock market collapse that sent many pension funds and Virginia’s tax revenues tumbling.

Under the  revised program Richmond will withdraw its monetary contribution for new employees  while delegating  the option to local governments to make up the difference  using local money. Current employee retirement benefits will not be affected by the changes.

While many state governments are struggling to restore pension funds to financial stability, fiscal changes to the Virginia Retirement System were considered too politically sensitive to address as general elections approached last spring. Instead of providing legislative leadership  by fixing the VRS issue on a state-wide basis, the General Assembly opted instead to push the fiscal problem out to local governments. The move creates a new fiscal landscape where employee benefit contributions will vary between jurisdictions.

School Board Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy characterized the new approach as an attempt by the state to force localities to decide how employees should be compensated. “The worst part of this mess is that the state has gouged the VRS. The General Assembly, to a great degree, has balanced the budget with its retirement plan.”

Murphy’s inclination appears to be supported by the practical results of the General Assembly’s decision. According to a current poll being conducted by the Virginia School Board Association, 68 out of 80 Virginia school districts say that they do not intend to pass the prior State-funded cost of VRS along to employees in the coming year.

Supervisor Hobert probed the fiscal impacts, both on employees and County finances, of the State’s benefit contribution reduction throughout  yesterday’s two-hour  meeting. In response to Hobert’s questioning, Joint Administrative Services Director Tom Judge said that ultimately the decision to make up the benefit contribution using local budget money is driven by what other local jurisdictions are offering. “The General Assembly has created  local competition for new employees where it may come down to benefits versus salary.”

School Board Chairman Bouffault endorsed Judge’s observation saying that competitive factors in recruiting quality teaching staff are intense despite weaknesses in some sectors of the labor market. “The school division is seeing huge competition for professional staff” Bouffault said. “I think that the best idea is to keep paying the VRS premium as we have been and keep base salaries the same. My recommendation is to continue the five percent VRS contribution.”

After full consideration the committee recommended that the County’s respective boards and employers extend the five percent retirement benefit to new employees despite reductions in financial support from Richmond.

The Clarke County Joint Administrative Services division provides finance, purchasing and risk management services to Clarke County General Government and Clarke County Public Schools.

Comments

  1. Andy Kiser, CCEA President says:

    Thank you, Supervisor Hobert, School Board Chair Bouffault, and Dr. Murphy for this forward-thinking decision. While everyone acknowledges that it is a tough time, it is encouraging that new school employees will enjoy the same benefit afforded current employees, and the staff of the constitutional officers. After several years of no salary increases, this is one of the few remaining benefits left for the teachers, bus drivers, instructinal assistants, and other education professionals who work with Clarke’s children every day. This will also position CCPS to recruit strong education professionals to maintain CCPS’ strong academic programs. This decision is appreciated.

    • By Stander says:

      Well Andy it seems that almost every locality in Northern Virginia is doing the same thing. Maybe you should also thank the perspective Chairs for allowing programs to be cut and salaries to be frozen while accumulating over $900,000 in unspent carryover operating funds in FY09. Chairman Hobart voted to apply $500,000 of that money to school debt to make Pete “feel better” rather than to assist in school operations. You are a good man Andy and an asset to Clarke County but these two are cut from the same cloth and are no friends to education.

      • Right Winger says:

        Pete who? Dunning?

      • Jim Gibson says:

        I would disagree, By Stander. Supervisor Hobert has long been a supporter of the public schools.

        I, too, cannot fathom how $900K can be found as carryover, when there are so many critical needs in the school division: outdated textbooks, staff salaries that have been frozen for 3 years, inadequate resources, etc. I, too, was frustrated that the Supervisors, as a caveat to their approving the “gift” of the carryover back to the schools (money that was initially appropriated to the schools), insisted that over half of it be set aside for construction costs.

        What folks forget is that a community needs to invest in its schools, and other services, if it wants the best. Getting things on the cheap is penny wise but pound foolish. That said, I am grateful that the JAS is going to recommend this to their respective boards, and that they put their money where their intents are. This decision is a progressive one, and that’s a good thing.

  2. Debacle Watcher says:

    This is the popular and right thing to do. But, it will not create any more dollars for the school budget. The cost of doing this “right thing” will come at the expense of cutting another “right thing”. Until our Supervisors have the will to fund our schools adequately, we will continue to cut, or not implement, many important educational initiatives at the expense of our kids.

    • Not a criticism of your post, but let’s be sure to maintain the basic fact that ultimately it is the responsibility of the general population to fund schools and other services via their tax dollars. Perhaps the best way to ensure adequate funding for our schools is to start a movement to convince our neighbors of the value of paying a few more dollars a year? Clearly a bunch of us operate in circles where we would gladly increase our tax burden. However, it’s equally as clear that there is a larger portion of the population who is unwilling to do so, or has not been adequately educated as to the value of doing so.

      Elected representatives are easy targets, but sometimes it’s the residents who deserve the blame.

      • Fact Checker says:

        I agree that dollars spent on education bring back multiple dollars in return over the long haul. Unfortunately, we are dealing with a Richmond administration that only looks to the next budget cycle. It is true that Gov. McDonald has held to his promise not to raise taxes. Also, Mr. McDonnell promised to bring in $500 million for the sale of the VA State Stores and the results so far are ??? However, kicking the can to the local governments for education overheads does not quite cut it. Perhaps voters should look at their checkbook balance before pushing the “R” button the next time.

      • Jim Gibson says:

        Well said, Bill.

        A community’s schools, indeed all of its services, reflect on that community and how it values those investments. Some in this community like to regularly crow about how we “do so well with so little.” Wow…imagine what could happen if the schools had the resources to relly go at full speed.

        This decision shows a clear intent to recommend that the respective boards maintain one of the few perks left for the employees. It’s now up to the respective boards to make sure there is money there to meet that commitment and not cut any more.

      • Debacle Watcher says:

        Agreed. So how will we get people to volunteer to pay more taxes for the schools? The Supervisors set the tax rates and then allocate whatever share of that revenue they choose to the schools. They have the power over both factors that underfund education in the county.

        • Lonnie Bishop says:

          I would think that it will require folks outside of the Town of Berryville to put the pressure on those 4 supervisors. Over the years, that combination has been the most vocal against funding the schools adequately; rural legend has at least one of them, at a social gathering, declaring that he didn’t want good schools in this county so that (A) farm workers would stay ignorant and (B) folks wouldn’t move here. The past couple of years has seen them become more agreeable, to a point.

          Yet…everything is so interconnected. Pressure is on the property owners, because there’s not a lot of economic diversity in the county. Utility infrastructure is relegated to 3 points – Berryville area, Boyce/Millwood/Waterloo, and Double Tollgate. A good chunk of the county is locked away in conservation easements. So…it’s not just a simple matter of focusing on one thing. It’s a complex, across-the-board reassessment of things. So much is often set up as mutually exclusive or bound for “turf war” status in this community: the “save-the-open-space” supporters vs. the “bring-in-more-commercial-interests”, for ex. What is lost in all of it is that there is a communal obligation to provide an educational system and other services that are the best that we can provide.

          Until folks with the power, whether elected or otherwise, set aside petty bickerings and such, the larger issues cannot be addressed.

    • Lonnie Bishop says:

      Sad, but you’re probably right, DW. Let’s see if the BoS and the SB – and the community that chooses to elect them – really do plan to put dollars behind their commitment.

  3. Request a referendum perhaps?

    While the BoS sets the final tax rates, it’s ultimately the feedback they receive (or perceive they will receive) from their constituents that drives that decision. Case in point would be how quickly the proposed bond amount for school construction was poo-poo’d several years back.

    The other alternative would be to vote in a few more advocates of the school system.

    • Lonnie Bishop says:

      That’s true. What I find real interesting is that, 6 years ago, Doug Westmoreland (of Moseley Architects) presented a plan for a new high school that – when added to the potential purchase costs of land to put it on – came to around $37-$39 million. That plan was roundly derided as too costly by most of the current BoS, and the current SB chair. Now…thanks to the current SB chair’s guidance…we are looking to build a new high school for…wait for it…$37-$39 million, which includes the land purchase costs. Funny, that, especially since the BoS now seems so willing to provide the additional money to get us up to that threshhold. (Of course, thanks to the town’s recalcitrance, the schools have to build a road extension that’s not needed at considerable cost, but that’s a seperate dead horse’s carcass.)

  4. Tony Parrott says:

    Funny how that works Lonnie, “It’s only a good idea when its mine”. Unfortunately that’s most politicians.
    I agree with just about everyone on this post (remarkable). My feeling is people want to see a candidate that actually has a plan. Tax revenues that fund the services that are needed or mandated can’t solely rest on the backs of home/land owners. We must have business tax revenue to help balance out our revenue stream. Most people love the environment that we live in but realize we can’t fund it on our own. I think we also see that robbing our county services (education and other) to keep taxes low isn’t the answer either. I’m all for being fiscally responsible but we need a plan for smart business in our county that doesn’t poison our way of life. Show me that person and they will have my vote.

    • Jennifer says:

      Yea Tony, “smart business”, that is complicated though. If you don’t believe me, read the posts on the Christian bookstore/coffee shop.

      I will give you my definition though, in case you are interested. Slow food and independently owned businesses, and no “box stores”. Competition is fine but we should try and keep the playing field even and box stores come with too much light, noise, and eventually crime.

      Why on earth anyone would take issue with a retreat center in a country/agricultural county I have no idea. Also, if Joe Mechanic wants to repair cars in his garage and has the appropriate space and business license, and he keeps it clean and neat for his neighbors, he should be able to.

      My 2 cents, fwiw

      • Lonnie Bishop says:

        “…box stores come with too much light, noise, and eventually crime.” Really? Wow…THAT was a pretty broad and rash generalization.

        Zoning ordinances, proffer agreements, and other tools exist so that the developer can be required to incorporate specific design elements – downthrow lighting, certain facade materials, certain roofline profiles, etc. Williamsburg, VA, was one of the first localities that stood up to Wal*Mart and demanded that its gray/blue/red cement-block exterior scheme be modified to fit the “Colonial” aesthetic; it was a nasty fight, but eventually the city prevailed. Now…look at the new Walmart out on Rt.50 – looks more like a series of buildings, and uses warmer earth tones of tan/brown/forest green.

        There already exists wording that limits the size of a business to a predetermined square footage; some argue it’s too low, others argue it’s not restrictive enough.

        Clarke’s geography and major-road system is limited. But…there is a way to maintain the buclic aesthetic that is Clarke and still bring in the enhancements that would take some burden off the small landowners. The schools, and other services, will never fully become all that they can be if that doesn’t happen.

  5. Jennifer, I’m not sure which retreat center proposal you are referring to, but if it is/was the effort by Georgetown University to develop such a site on Blue Ridge Mountain Rd. perhaps I can offer some perspective.

    The developer proposed to demolish a historic structure onsite, and only as a last ditch effort to save their proposal did they back away from doing so. Access and additional traffic on a road ill-suited for such was the primary deal breaker in my opinion.

    Lonnie’s points re: ordinances address your other comment about Joe Mechanic. Except under extreme circumstances, commercial development of almost any type should be centered around population centers. Otherwise, you end up with a modified version of “sprawl”.

    But enough planning and zoning talk… the current system of decision making needs some kind of fix. If you don’t raise revenue via commercial development (which carries a lower infrastructure impact than residential), then you have no choice but to raise it via residential property tax. Right now, everyone seems to be against both options.

    BTW – wish this site would have had some coverage on it, but there has been an encouraging recent commerical/industril deal struck for the solar power generating facility in Double Toll Gate. A nice catch for Clarke County.