Proposed county budget sharply criticized during five-hour hearing
|Dozens of citizens waited outside and listened to the Middlesex Board of Superviosrs’ FY17 budget public hearing that was played through loud speakers. The hearing was held in the boardroom of the historic Middlesex Courthouse in Saluda, which held just 120, and the board declined to move the meeting to a larger venue. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)|
by Larry Chowning
During an April 21 public hearing on the proposed FY17 Middlesex County budget, which lasted over five hours from 7:40 p.m. to 12:45 a.m., 89 people addressed the county board of supervisors on either one or more budget items.
Eighty spoke in favor of fully funding the Middlesex school budget as proposed by the school board; 14 spoke in favor of fully funding the $47,500 sought by the Middlesex YMCA; and four spoke in support of cutting the boat tax.
No one spoke in support of the supervisors’ proposed budget, which includes a cut in YMCA funding; a $733,000 cut in local funds to the schools; and leaving the personal property tax on boats at its current level of 98 cents per $100 of value.
Throughout the night and into the morning speakers of all ages showed frustration, anger, tears and other emotions over the proposed budget.
The atmosphere at the public hearing was tense in that about 260 people showed up, but the fire code allowed only 120 in the upstairs boardroom of the 1858 historic courthouse. Some of the remaining 140 citizens had to listen outside in the courtyard as the hearing was broadcast over loud speakers. Others simply left.
As people vacated the upstairs boardroom during the hearing, their seats were taken by people listening outside, so the boardroom was always filled to capacity.
As reasons for not moving the public hearing to a larger building, Jack Miller, chair of the board of supervisors, explained that the board wanted to tape record all speaker comments. Miller noted the tape recording system was already in place in the boardroom, and also added that Middlesex County Sheriff David Bushey deemed the courthouse “safer” than other possible sites.
The atmosphere was further energized when Hartfield District supervisor Bob LeBoeuf explained his goals as chair of the county budget committee. He noted the county needs to become more “proactive” rather than “reactive” during its budget process, meaning county departments must accurately prioritize their needs and goals.
LeBoeuf accused county school officials of using a technique called “goldwatching,” which he explained is an age-old technique used by departments to get all the funding they have requested. “Goldwatching is when departments cut what people won’t stand to lose, and threaten the community to cut it,” he said.
When LeBoeuf suggested that school officials were using the threat of cutting the county’s special education program as a goldwatching technique, the stage was set for an eventful night.
“When they (school officials) say they will not fund a special education teacher if funds are cut, the message I get is that special education is the least important thing in the budget to them,” said LeBoeuf.
Over the next five hours, many teachers, students, parents and school officials went to the podium agitated over that remark.
The outpouring of support for the school budget was sparked by a proposal in the supervisors’ proposed FY17 budget “to retract” $733,000 in local funds to the county school system.
Due to a reduction in the State Composite Index (SCI) for Middlesex County, along with an increase in “statewide incentives for public education,” the schools are eligible to receive about $1,046,000 in additional state aid in the FY17 school budget. In response to this additional funding, supervisors have proposed the $733,000 cut in local funds, so the net increase the school system will receive for operations is about $300,000.
It was apparent that the proposal by supervisors to cut local school funds because of the increase in state school funds contributed in part to the large turnout at the public hearing.