by S.E. Warwick
The fiscal perils of Petersburg are not unique. Five years ago Goochland County was in similar disarray. Then ten citizens, serving on a newly elected board of supervisors and school board, stepped forward to transform the county government from a dysfunctional mess into a model for the region. The turn-around, a great untold story, shows what everyday people can accomplish when they put their minds to it.
In late 2008 irregularities appeared in the Goochland Department of Public Utilities. Checks found stuffed in drawers and a safe, rather than deposited in the proper accounts, raised the first red flag. Utility billing was erratic at best. In a public utility system with fewer than 3,000 customers, water meter records were unreliable. Forensic accountants called in to audit departmental records found widespread irregularities but no behavior that rose to the level of criminal. The director of public utilities departed.
The county administrator “retired” suddenly following a ham-fisted attempt to gag county employees. An interim county administrator recommended that a new auditor be retained to complete the FY 2009 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which uncovered 40 material restatements. The accounting firm used by Goochland for more than a decade was found to have closed the county books then audited its own work. Internal accounting controls were few and not well observed. The actual general fund balance turned out to be half of its assumed value.
The school board refused to present budgets based on available revenue and demanded that the supervisors raise taxes.
Then the county treasurer was caught embezzling public funds, which brought more official scrutiny of Goochland’s fiscal matters.
Citizens were increasingly outraged as good old boys, in power for decades, used the “whistle past the graveyard” approach to the growing problems faced by the county.
In November, 2011, voters elected an entirely new school board and four new supervisors. They campaigned together listening to the concerns and complaints of the citizens, and had common goals—make Goochland government work for its people and restore public trust.
Even before taking office, the “new broom” as many called the new team, crafted strategies to reverse years of lackadaisical government. Relations between the supervisors and school board became collaborative instead of contentious. Budgets were trimmed with surgical precision to address falling tax revenues and cut out dead wood. Some functions were consolidated, others eliminated. The tax rate held steady at 53 cents per $100 of valuation because the supervisors believed that government must live within its means, and higher taxes would discourage badly needed economic development.
The world did not end.
Core services got priority. The budget process added a look-ahead provision to anticipate and plan for extraordinary costs. Public meetings were live-streamed using a free service.
Massive debt was restructured to a manageable level. A policy to limit debt service to a small percentage of the annual budget was adopted. Financial professionals were added to the county staff. Goochland County earned a AAA Standard & Poor’s Bond Rating in 2015 and now regularly receives accolades for its budgets. Schools rank at or near the top in the area. Economic development, which was dead in the water under the old guard, is, thanks to a new attitude and streamlined procedures, picking up.
A skilled county administrator, working in concert with the supervisors, transformed local government from a collection of fiefdoms that often worked at cross purposes, into a team whose primary goal is to provide excellent and efficient service to citizens. Citizens are encouraged to “grade” interactions with county government.
Why did the “new broom” team do it? Certainly not for the modest salary, nor for personal gain. They could easily have turned a deaf ear to the county’s problems and enjoyed their lives. In the best traditions of citizen leaders, Goochland’s supervisors and school board pledged their time and talents to reform local government. They rolled up their sleeves to ask hard questions and seek remedies for insoluble situations. They have high personal standards and understand that they answer to the citizens and are accountable for their actions.
In Goochland, the right people stepped forward when voters were looking for people to fix a badly broken organization. These citizen leaders spent untold hours looking for ways to do things smarter, better, cheaper. Good government, they contend, is common sense in action. They have been in office for five years and are not done yet. No magic bullets here, just hard work and commitment to the citizens who put them in office.
S.E. Warwick, a Goochland resident, publishes the “Goochland on My Mind” blog. For years, she has been the only journalist regularly covering Goochland board of supervisor meetings.There are currently no comments highlighted.