The recession has finally reached Albemarle government, about a year and half after the private sector stalled and plunged in 2008. Our area is relatively insulated from economic tides because of its larger percentage of public jobs, thanks mainly to the University of Virginia.
The economy is so weak the government is collecting less in every category of revenue. And although the recession is less acute here than in other parts of the state or the country, there is a higher degree of financial distress in western Albemarle than many people are perhaps aware of. The White Hall Ruritan’s Christmas party did not have record turnout, 70 kids, solely because it’s such a swell event.
Faced with election results that prove citizens want local government to get in synch with voters’ hard-pressed fiscal reality, county leaders have proposed a budget that prides itself on saving the average taxpayer $90.25 in 2010, assuming Supervisors hold the tax rate at 74.2 cents per $100 of assessed value. The average Albemarle home was worth $308,000 in January 2009, according to the government’s assessment, and over the past year lost 3.96 percent of its value to start this year at $295,800. Really?
Most realtors will tell you house values are down 15 to 20 percent, depending on the neighborhood, since the recession set in. And that says nothing about wealth lost in retirement accounts or other investments.
The fact is most everybody is worth a lot less today than two years ago and the loss is not imaginary or inconsequential, regardless of whether government tells you that four percent is an accurate adjustment to your balance sheet facts. The government needs to tighten up, too, and to be realistic, probably more than it is willing to think about without even more citizen pressure.
Meanwhile leaders of public agencies mobilize the scare tactics associated with justifying a tax increase. Libraries will be closed, teachers laid off and a perfectly good academic culture in the high schools will be dismantled. If they owned an Interstate rest stop they’d threaten to close it, too. They happily rode the real estate bubble up, but, no, they don’t mean to sit for the ride down. The fact is you can find 5.3 percent worth of savings in county spending, the amount of the revenue decline, without truly compromising any essential service.
Paid consultants should be a thing of the past and much training and technology expense is a waste. A fair solution, should they not be ready to give up enough things we don’t need—particularly in the school budget, would be a uniform, across-the-board reduction in pay. A two or three percent contraction in the county’s total payroll should be enough to balance the budget without layoffs. We’ll make it up when the economy can get back up off one knee. The top echelon of administrators should show the way by returning, say, 20 percent of their salaries to the public treasury. Government exists to serve the people, not to add to their burdens. In fairness to the common man and his family, the supervisors should stick with the current tax rate.