Local Governance In A Pandemic

At a public hearing last week on Buena Vista’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021, no one objected to an advertised real estate tax increase of 12 cents that, if enacted, would take the rate to $1.33 per $100 assessed value. There were no citizen comments at all, actually. Who knows if the silence stemmed from acquiescence to the proposed tax increase or to a reluctance to speak at a virtual Zoom meeting being held during the pandemic?

These are strange times for everyone, including those responsible for local governance. The pandemic is causing local government officials to prepare for dramatically declining tax revenues in the year ahead. Lexington City Council last week was grappling with how to close what is feared could be a $2 million shortfall in projected revenues in fiscal year 2021.

Lexington’s recycling program is likely to be scrapped. Discretionary contributions to non-profit agencies are in jeopardy. Pay raises for city employees and public school teachers aren’t going to happen. Planned capital expenditures are being postponed. A permanent police chief won’t be hired for another year.

In fact, efforts to fill top-level administrative positions in local governments everywhere seem to be on hold. It’s just not practical to interview prospective candidates for these important positions when all interaction must be done virtually, rather than inperson.

Buena Vista Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Keeler was persuaded to postpone his plans to retire this year because searching for a successor in the middle of a pandemic was proving problematic. Buena Vista City Council is having difficulty with its search for a new city manager and would be well advised to suspend the search, especially given the fact that the person who holds the job now, Jay Scudder, is doing an admirable job under trying circumstances.

Through no fault of the city manager, Buena Vista was in dire financial condition long before the pandemic. City Council would be wise not to change leadership in the middle of the current crisis. Having not filled three key administrative positions, Scudder is soldiering on with the personnel he has, saving the city a considerable amount of money in the process.

Buena Vista City Council has other difficult decisions to make. Dueling recommendations emerged from a recent finance committee meeting. One proposal is for Council to raise taxes by 10 cents and provide level funding for the schools. Alternatively, Council could raise taxes by 8 cents and cut funding to the schools by $70,000. This decision, or some variation of it, is to be made next Thursday, May 14, when Council adopts a budget.

The Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors, meanwhile, held a public hearing on its proposed budget Monday that calls for a 1-cent increase to the real estate tax rate, from 73 to 74 cents, a hike to the meals tax from 4 to 6 percent and a rise in the personal property tax from $4.25 to $4.50. These modest increases don’t have to be higher because the county has a healthy fund balance. To help balance next year’s budget, a transfer of $419,699 from unassigned reserves is planned.

Of the three local jurisdictions, only Lexington is not planning a tax increase in the upcoming fiscal year. Tax hikes proposed in Buena Vista and the county are warranted but will add to the economic strife local residents are experiencing due to COVID-19.

These are indeed difficult days for local governance. Like their counterparts at the national and state level, local government officials are feeling pressure to return to business as usual. When to “reopen” county government is to be an agenda item at the next Board of Supervisors meeting. We urge the supervisors, and all other government officials, to continue following the advice of infectious disease experts in determining when to reopen county facilities and relax social distancing measures.

Reopening prematurely would put all of us at greater risk – especially those of us who are older and/or have health issues – and would do more harm to the local economy in the long run. Being a local government official carries with it more responsibility than it ever has.

The News-Gazette

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