How should the public look at a government budget proposal, especially at the local level?
As a purely “tax and spend” plan? That’s rather shortsighted, we would argue. It also continues the old trope that government exists simply to extract money from a private individual or business and give it to some other entity. That encourages animosity toward government, and we’ve seen on the national level where that gets us: Up the proverbial creek with no paddle.
How about as an investment guide? That, we contend, is the approach forward-thinking communities should use to view their local government budget: investing in human resources, infrastructure, economic development and the basic amenities of life we share in a community.
Lynchburg City Council is deep into studying City Manager Bonnie Svrcek’s proposed $408 million budget, and residents are making their own opinions known to council about the resources they believe the city should nurture for the future: public education, competitive pay for key public employees (teachers, police and fire and EMS), economic development efforts and addressing pressing infrastructure needs.
Svrcek’s proposed budget is $30.1 million higher than the current city budget, an 8 percent increase. Much of that increase, however, comes from the city endeavoring to meet several immediate capital needs, including a new police department headquarters to replace the two, almost-100-year-old buildings the department currently uses and dealing with the looming environmental disaster of College Lake and a replacement bridge on Lakeside Drive.
Amazingly, the budget proposal includes no tax rate increases — especially notable for the real estate and personal property tax rates — and no increases in water and sewer rates. It should be noted, however, that real estate values increased in the regular reassessment, and if council maintains the current rate of $1.11 per $100 of assessed value rather than equalizing the rate to keep the revenue stream flat, more dollars would be generated. (The equalized rate of $1.05 per $100 of assessed value would result in a drop of more than $3.4 million.)
During the current budget year, Svrcek instructed city departments to tighten their belts and plan for a 5-percent reduction in available dollars. Between that belt-tightening and a more robust economy that generated more revenue than anticipated, the city is likely to wind up the current budget year $5.5 million in the black.
That unexpected bonus has given the city the ability to propose almost $700,000 to keep a fire station open, restore nearly $1 million to the Lynchburg Police Department for such operations as its Community Action Team and reallocate almost $85,000 to the Parks and Recreation Department for the operation of the city’s community centers.
Driving the city’s budget planning is the knowledge there are more than a few major capital improvement projects looming in the near future. Indeed, from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2024, the city is grappling with a capital improvements budget of more than $306 million. There’s the $39.2 million renovation of the old Greater Lynchburg Transit Co. facility on Kemper Street to house the new headquarters of the LPD, currently operating out of a century-old church building on Court Street. Then there’s the multi-year, almost $49 million project to deal with College Lake and the earthen dam over which Lakeside Drive, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, travels.
Not to be forgotten is the fact that these and a handful of other high-profile capital projects are part of a plan that includes maintaining and modernizing a host of other public buildings with such needs as new roofs for schools and replacement of decades-old and out-of-date school facilities.
Svrcek and council are also trying to increase the pay for key sectors of the public workforce, including police and fire and EMS. Both of these sectors (including teachers, who are employees of the Lynchburg School Board) experience chronic staffing shortages for one simple fact: Their pay simply isn’t competitive with other localities or private businesses in the state. Lynchburg taxpayers, for example, pay for the training and initial year or so of on-the-job training of police officers, some of whom then take jobs with larger cities, the Virginia State Police or private industry security forces. In the process, Lynchburg and its residents lose.
Lynchburg is a growing, vibrant city. Keeping it on that track will require wise long-range planning, wise budgeting and wise investment. That’s what this budget proposal before City Council epitomizes.