County to legislature: ‘Don’t hurt us’
By Tom Lappas, Citizen Editor 01/24/12
"Don't hurt us."
That's the clear and simple message being delivered by Henrico County's elected officials, administrators and lobbyists to the General Assembly, which convened in Richmond for a 60-day session last week.
The missive represents a change from years past, during which county officials annually presented "wish lists" of top priorities to the county's General Assembly delegation. Six years ago, that list contained 14 items. This year, it's down to just one: Do no harm.
By placing their sole focus on those three words, local officials hope to make a salient point to lawmakers: localities – Henrico included – are struggling to deal with their own financial problems and cannot afford additional funding cuts from the state.
County lobbyists have, for the most part, kept their mouths shut in recent years as state funding to localities have declined annually. Though other jurisdictions in the state had to lay off employees, raise tax rates or trim services – or all three – Henrico has not.
County officials are adamant that no layoffs, service cuts or tax increases will occur in the coming fiscal year either, but by sounding the warning bell to legislators, they hope to illustrate how dire times have gotten statewide.
During the past several years, as state funding to localities fell during the recession, Henrico was able to make up those lost funds in its annual budgets thanks to years of conservative financial planning, Deputy County Manager and Finance Director John Vithoulkas said. (The county annually has capped its growth at 5 percent – during strong and lean economic years – which helped buffer it from the recession.)
But now, the state's failure to meet its funding obligations is having a real impact even on Henrico, which begins its 2012-13 budget process facing a $70.8 million budget shortfall before the process even begins. That's a significant hurdle even for one of the most fiscally sound counties in the nation (Henrico was the first county to have its triple AAA bond rating reaffirmed last summer after the U.S. government's rating was downgraded by Standard and Poor's.)
The shortfall is the result of a combination of factors:
• an estimated $10.8-million decline in tax revenues;
• a projected increase of $32.5 million in the county's required payments to the Virginia Retirement System;
• $6.1 million in additional debt service payments;
• $10.2 million in operating costs for new projects constructed through bond sales;
• $4.2 million in additional healthcare costs;
• $1.5 million in additional diesel fuel for school buses and vehicles;
• $5.5 million in other costs.
"In the Fiscal Year '13 budget, the VRS cost increase is the single largest budget driver that we have, both for general government and for schools," Vithoulkas said.
The VRS provides retirement payments for eligible state employees and teachers and is funded by the state and localities, all of whom make payments into one fund, from which it is then distributed.
But while localities – including Henrico – have been required annually to fully fund the VRS rates established by the VRS Board, the state has not fully funded its share in any of the past four-plus years.
For example, in Fiscal Year 10-11, the VRS board set the rate of payment into the system for teachers at 12.91 percent; Henrico and other localities paid that percentage in full, but the state paid only 3.93 percent – less than one-third of the amount it owed.
Part of the problem was that the VRS investment fund took a significant hit during the recession, losing 28 percent of its value between 2007 and 2009. The fund rebounded to gain 20 percent last year; Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's budget assumes that the fund will show 8-percent growth in the coming fiscal year.
McDonnell has proposed funding the VRS with $2.21 billion in new money in the coming fiscal year – including $876 million in state general fund dollars – as a way to begin addressing what he termed the "woefully underfunded" system. McDonnell also is proposing that public employees pay 1 percent of their salaries toward the fund, which would raise another $5.1 billion.
Critics of his proposals argue that the bulk of that new money will come from the very localities who have been paying their shares all along and from employees, for whom the money is intended.
A number of bills related to VRS funding are under consideration in the Assembly, but each would require concessions in other areas to fund VRS.
"There are only so many resources," said Henrico's legislative liaison Mike Schnurmann. "If you squeeze in over here, it's going to pop out somewhere."
Positives and negatives
The county has seen some key economic indicators pointing in a positive direction during the past year:
• residential foreclosures in 2011, through October, were lower than during the same months in 2010 with just two exceptions (May, which witnessed one more and October, which was equal to the previous year);
• the county's unemployment rate dropped from 7.5 percent in February 2010 to 5.9 percent in April 2011, before rising slightly to 6.5 percent in September – a figure that still was 0.8 percent lower than the same rate for Metro Richmond;
• the county's sales tax receipts were up $2.5 million from Fiscal Year 2009-10 to FY 2010-11 (to $57.2 million) and up 2.9 percent during the first quarter of FY 11-12.
But, there are negatives too.
County officials are estimating that Henrico's taxable real estate base will drop from $31.7 billion last year to $30.05 billion this year – a decrease of 5.19 percent. Since 2009, the taxable base has dropped by $4.7 billion (or 13.5 percent).
Other local sources of revenue – chiefly personal and business property taxes – are projected to remain flat in the coming fiscal year.
Also during this year's Assembly session, legislators will consider a number of proposals to restructure the way road maintenance is handled throughout the state. Henrico – one of just two localities that already maintain their own secondary road systems with money provided by the state – will watch the issue carefully, said Schnurmann.
Henrico – which for years lobbied to have its road maintenance allocation rate increased to bring it more in line with that of Arlington County – may now be content to live with its current rate, given that all but one of the new proposals likely would reduce that rate even further, according to Schnurmann.
County officials don't expect any of the proposals to pass the General Assembly this year, but they caution that anything is possible.
George Washington is recognized as the father of our country, but with a bill signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Washington also will be recognized under another title – distiller of Virginia’s official liquor.
SB 1261, sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, adds a “state spirit” to the list of the commonwealth’s official emblems and designations and crowns George Washington’s rye whiskey with the title.
The bill, which McAuliffe signed last week, highlights George Washington’s contributions to the culture of Virginia as “a native son of Virginia born on February 22, 1732, in Pope’s Creek”; “the first American president, commander of the Continental Army, and president of the Constitutional Convention”; and “a model statesman ... universally acknowledged as the father of our nation.” > Read more.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday vetoed six bills, including three Republicans said would help prevent voter fraud but the Democratic governor said would create barriers to voting.
McAuliffe has now vetoed 37 bills from the General Assembly’s 2017 session – and 108 during his four-year term as governor, surpassing any of his predecessors.
Republican legislative leaders say McAuliffe has broken his promise to be bipartisan, calling his office “the most disengaged administration we have ever worked with.” > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 03/27/2017 Government
Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District will hold its annual tree seedling giveaway March 30 at Dorey Park Shelter 1 from 2:30 to 6 p.m., and March 31 at Hermitage High School from 8:30 a.m. to noon.
Studies show that mature trees increase property value, decrease summertime cooling costs by providing shade, slow erosion and reduce flooding. They also provide homes for birds, food for countless creatures, and playgrounds for children. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 03/27/2017 Public Safety
MAR. 27, 11 A.M. – No one was injured by a townhouse fire that occurred early Monday morning in the 200 block of Knightsmanor Court, near the intersection of Azalea Avenue and Richmond-Henrico Turnpike.
The first Henrico Fire officials were on scene in less than four minutes and found heavy smoke and flames coming from the two-story townhouse. Firefighters from the first-arriving fire engine and ladder truck made their way to the townhome involved in fire and searched for victims through high heat and reduced visibility. > Read more.
Citizen Staff Reports 03/27/2017 Government
In observance of National Crime Victims' Rights Week (April 2-8), and to honor victims of crime in Henrico County and raise awareness about crime victims' rights and issues, Henrico County Victim/Witness will hold a commemorative ceremony and informative walk April 5. > Read more.
St. Joseph's Villa’s Flagler Housing & Homeless Services was one of three entities to earn the National Alliance to End Homelessness' Champion of Change Award. The awards were presented Nov. 17 during a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
NAEH annually recognizes proven programs and significant achievements in ending child and family homelessness.
Flagler completed its transition from an on-campus shelter to the community-based model of rapid rehousing in 2013, and it was one of the nation's first rapid re-housing service providers to be certified by NAEH. > Read more.
Richmond International Raceway's 13th annual Community Christmas tree lighting has been rescheduled from Dec. 6 to Monday, Dec. 12, at 6:30 p.m., due to inclement weather expected on the original date.
Entertainment Dec. 12 will be provided by the Laburnum Elementary School choir and the Henrico High School Mighty Marching Warriors band. Tree decorations crafted by students from Laburnum Elementary School and L. Douglas Wilder Middle School will be on display. Hot chocolate and cookies will be supplied by the Henrico High School football boosters. > Read more.
Metro Diner, a comfort food concept, will open its second Henrico location next month. The company is accepting job applications for its Libbie Place location at 5626 West Broad Street. The diner concept, known for its fried chicken and waffles, meatloaf, and shrimp and grits, will bring 100 new jobs to the region as it plans to open its doors in April.
The 3,500-square-foot diner located in the Libbie Place Shopping Center will seat more than 100 and serve classic comfort food staples with a twist, such as fried chicken and waffles topped with strawberry butter and a stuffed challah bread French toast with strawberry and blueberry compote. > Read more.
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CalendarWalkerton Tavern will present “Irish Eyes in Henrico” from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. The potato famine in Ireland spurred many Irish to immigrate to America, including Henrico, during the 19th century. Hear some of their stories and learn about trotters, soda bread and other traditional Irish foods. Listen to Irish songs and make an Irish craft too. Admission is free. All ages. For details, call 652-1416 or visit http://www.henrico.us/rec. Full text