A Crisis of Trust

July 24, 2013

Any parent who has taken their child out trick-or-treating has seen it before.  The lone bowl of candy left on the front porch of a house with a little sign that says “please take one”.  Children fight the urge to grab a handful and fill up their bags.  These are the opportunities we take as parents to teach our kids about restraint, trust, and honesty.

These lessons not only apply to the choices made on Halloween, but can be applied across our lives.  Our government (county, state, and federal) should only take from the citizens through taxes what it needs to run the core services of government, but not a penny more.  We see all too often politicians who grab more and more money without any thought about the sacrifices families have made to pay their taxes.

Since becoming Supervisor, I have learned one truth over and over again – trust in our elected officials and those running our County government is absolutely critical.  Without trust in those who manage our government and spend our tax money, the system weakens and fails to truly represent the will of the people.

Unfortunately, I have heard from many constituents that there is a real crisis of trust that has developed about our county government.  This is a real shame.  The vast majority of county employees and elected officials within Prince William County are honorable, hard-working men and women who take pride in the work they perform.

A few weeks ago, we learned that there had been a $25 million dollar budgeting mistake made in the FY 2013 budget, resulting in an immediate $5 million shortfall in the FY 2014 budget which multiplies itself over the next five years.  This mistake was simply human error and we are working as a Board to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

This past week, Chairman Stewart proposed a plan on how we can bridge the budget mistake.  While I agree with his plan and appreciate his efforts to correct the budget error without cutting government services or capital projects, a troubling practice came to light that raised several red flags.

In Chairman Stewart’s proposal, we will draw on almost $2.1 million from our Revenue Stabilization Fund.  Prince William County has several very large contingency funds – each of which allows us to cover emergencies and helps us maintain our AAA Bond Rating.  Certain levels of contingency funds are desired by rating agencies and I fully support properly funding these reserves.

What surprised me, however, was the size of the Revenue Stabilization Fund.  During the two budget reviews I have participated in, I directly and repeatedly asked the County staff if the funding levels for the Revenue Stabilization Fund were beyond the minimum levels required to maintain our AAA Bond Ratings.

The answer was always that the funding levels were absolutely needed to maintain that important AAA Bond Rating.  What we found out at the July 16 Board Meeting tends to contradict that information.  Our county staff revealed that we have been saving well beyond what was required.  In fact, the funding levels for the Revenue Stabilization Fund are at least $25 million higher than the levels required to maintain the AAA Bond Rating.

That disclosure was troubling in that it appears that we are overtaxing citizens beyond what the county government absolutely needs.  Remember, we have several contingency funds which allow us to cover any emergency and maintain our AAA Bond Rating – this money, however, is above and beyond what is needed.

During the FY 2014 budget review, the Board debated at length on important spending priorities, and the question of funding County services for programs like the $600,000 drug rehabilitation program in the County Jail, $30,000 for the Blue Bird Bus Tour Program, and adequately funding a new Fire & Rescue team to protect public safety, were all examples of tough decisions made by the Board on the false premise that the revenue from the proposed tax rate had no flexibility in it.

What we were not told is that the FY 2014 budget had a padded Revenue Stabilization Fund with an extra $25,000,000 tucked away.  In effect, another discretionary fund that has been hidden from the taxpayers.  Our government must be more transparent with our money.

I will continue to fight for taxpayers being protected from unnecessary and wasteful spending in County government.  I will strongly support a fiscally responsible budget plan, including contingency funds that maintain the funding levels to achieve legitimate budget objectives, so that government remains good stewards of taxpayer funds.