by James A. Bacon
Elected to the Appomattox County Board of Supervisors in 2013, Sara Carter enjoyed an edge over other newby supervisors when it came to learning the intricacies of local government — she also was serving as planning director for Cumberland County not far away. An “exemplary” certification program provided by the Virginia Association of Counties (VACO) on open government and other legal aspects of the job was helpful. But when it came to deciphering government finances, she was largely on her own.
Carter and I chatted early this morning at a Sugar Shack (obscenely delicious doughnuts guaranteed to cut short your life expectancy) while she was in Chesterfield County for a VACO conference. She reached into a tote bag and pulled out two hefty documents, one a line-item budget, the other a copy of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. No one offers certifications for reading documents such as these that would make even a CPA’s eyes glaze over.
Our discussion was prompted by the travails of Petersburg City Council, which got blindsided by a massive backlog of unpaid bills and a budget deficit equivalent to roughly 20% of the budget. While steering clear of comment upon Petersburg’s woes or the performance of its council members, Carter emphasized the challenges of councilmen and supervisors of small towns and rural jurisdictions in Virginia.
For starters, the subject matter is forbiddingly complex, encompassing a wide array of disciplines — even for a College of William & Mary grad like Carter. It can take years for a novice to master the nuances of everything from school funding, public works, water & sewer, public safety, and transportation, land use and community development.
VACO’s programs focus mainly on public policy issues and on keeping newbies from violating open-government laws, such as unwittingly discussing in private communications or chance encounters subjects that should be limited to a public forum. Those topics are important, Carter says, but newcomers need help on other subjects, too.
Second, part-time public officials have a limited amount of time to dedicate to understanding the numbers. Most members of the Appomattox board work for a living. She, too, has a full-time job, not to mention a marriage, three children and a small pig farm to occupy her attention. And when she is on the job, her time is often consumed by “micro” issues that get people stoked up but have minimal budgetary impact. “I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent on the animal shelter,” she says. “Animal people are crazy!”
To understand local finances, elected officials typically rely upon presentations by city or county staff. The quality of staff varies widely in smaller localities. (She’s quick to sing the praises of Appomattox’s county manager.) Competent, ambitious managers often move to larger jurisdictions that pay better. “You have board members who don’t understand finance. They listen to staff – and the staff is often overwhelmed, too.”
Another source of advice comes from outside financial advisers such as Davenport & Co., a Richmond-based investment banking firm. While Davenport’s representatives are professional – she does not question their integrity – they do have a subtle bias. They make money by selling bonds, Carter observes. They don’t make policy recommendations on whether or not to sell bonds. But, she adds, “their job is to sell a product.”
When she joined the Appomattox board, the county enjoyed sound finances and low indebtedness, and it had the capacity to issue new bonds, Carter says. What the books did not say, she adds, is that important public buildings suffered from a major maintenance backlog. The balance sheet did not necessarily reflect the true condition of the county’s assets – a level of detail that investment bankers from Richmond might not be familiar with.
A third challenge is citizen indifference. Only one issue is guaranteed to pack the supervisor chambers – a proposed tax increase. Many are the meetings where no more than one or two citizens show up. Supervisors get punished for taking a highly visible action like raising the property tax, but no one notices if they take budgetary short-cuts that undermine the county’s fiscal health.
Most people don’t pay attention to the nitty gritty issues of local government until things fall apart, Carter says. “Then they want to know, what went wrong?”