Category Archives: Efficiency in government

Incompetent, Dangerously Incompetent, and the Virginia Department of Health

Clark Mercer

By James C. Sherlock

It is very hard to recommend a career in politics these days. Elected officials are at the mercy of the competence of bureaucracies they did not create and over which, under civil service protections, they have little control.

Yet never have we needed dedicated, smart and effective political leaders more than today.

Clark Mercer, Governor Northam’s Chief of Staff, and I don’t vote the same way, but that doesn’t color my view of him. He is very smart and, if you see him on the Governor’s press conferences, he is a breath of fresh air, regularly elevating the discourse like no other person on the stage. He has a bright future.

I have been documenting the failures of the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) in these pages and on the editorial pages of Virginia newspapers for more than a decade. I offer the title of this essay as a useful way to describe the hierarchy of incompetence in Virginia.

Well, VDH just reached up and bit Mr. Mercer.
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Our Gutsy Governor

By Peter Galuszka

On June 24, 2015, Nikki Haley, a Republican who was South Carolina’s first non-white governor, called for the removal of a Confederate flag that had been flying over the state’s capitol grounds for years.

“This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state,” she said. Her action came a few days after an avowed white supremacist walked into an African-American church and opened fire, killing church members attending a service.

I was watching the news on TV when she made her gutsy move. I was deeply impressed.

And now, Ralph Northam, a Democrat who is governor of Virginia, has taken a similarly gutsy move. He has ordered that the state-owned statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee be removed from its stand on Monument Avenue in Richmond. It has been there for about 130 years, erected by white supremacists with deep sentiment for their romantic myths of Southern history.

“I believe in a Virginia that learns lessons from our past and we all know that our country needs that example right now,” Northam said. Continue reading

“The Dog Ate My Homework” Does Not Work for VEC

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

The Virginia Employment Commission has been inundated with unemployment insurance claims. Virginians seeking to file claims have been frustrated at not being able to get through to the agency with their questions and by delays in receiving payments.

All of this was the subject of a meeting and presentation to a Senate Committee on Tuesday as reported by the Daily Press. As has been speculated by Steve Haner in his comments on this blog, the Unemployment Trust Fund is in the hole. According to a presentation by the VEC to the Senate Committee, the trust fund balance has gone from $1.5 billion at the beginning of FY 2020 to a projected -$500 million.

None of that is too surprising. What did intrigue me, however, was an excuse often made by agencies — antiquated technology. A VEC spokeswoman explained that it was put into place in 1985.  As far as the VEC is concerned, that excuse will not suffice.

The 2004 Appropriation Act provided VEC almost $21 million to “upgrade obsolete information technology systems.” Two years later, the 2006 Appropriation Act included language authorizing VEC to utilize $51 million in federal funds “to upgrade obsolete information technology systems.” That identical language was included in every Appropriation Act since then. In a 2020 budget decision package submitted to the Department of Planning and Budget, VEC said that the upgrade “is scheduled to be completed prior to the end of fiscal year ending June 30, 2021” and offered to return $3.2 million of the appropriation.

There may be good reasons why it has taken VEC more than 15 years to upgrade its information technology systems. At the very least, VEC owes the General Assembly an explanation. Going further, JLARC should investigate this delay. Unemployed Virginians deserve better than a shrug and the modern version of “the dog ate my homework.”

What, Exactly, Is VDEM Doing In the COVID-19 Emergency?

by Carol J. Bova

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) is responsible for writing the Commonwealth of Virginia Emergency Operations Plan (COVEP) which “provides the framework for how the state will support impacted local governments, individuals and businesses.”

A Virginia Municipal League (VML) web page provides Virginia localities a Continuity of Operation Plan (COOP) template from VDEM. The page refers to Va Code Sec. 44-146.18 B.6. which encourages but doesn’t require localities to have a COOP.

This Continuity Plan is a recovery plan and functions as a companion plan to the [Locality’s] Disaster Recovery Plan and the Emergency Operations Plan. The Continuity Plan provides a framework designed to minimize potential impact to operations and allow for rapid recovery from an event, which may or may not cause the activation of emergency response or incident action plans.

“While the Code [of Virginia] refers to VDEM as providing guidance to localities,” writes VML, “the worksheet will have to suffice as that guidance for now – VDEM staff are currently working night-and-day on immediate emergency planning and response. Try instead to work with your local emergency coordinator or work together with a neighboring community if you need to develop your own COOP.”

VDEM staff is working night and day? Administrators are too busy to help local governments figure out how to maintain operations during the COVID-19 emergency? What, then, is VDEM doing? Continue reading

It’s a Crisis! Let’s Scam the Government!

Image credit: Daily Texan

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

In a post yesterday, Jim Sherlock cited a report by NPR that the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) is in the process of finalizing contracts with private labs to expand COVID-19 testing. I hope that Jeff Stern, director of the agency, is not being pushed to conclude these contracts too hurriedly.

The last time that happened, with the state facing an oncoming Hurricane Florence, Virginia entered into a no-bid contract for $31 million to set up three emergency shelters. When the hurricane turned and largely missed the state, those shelters ended up being used by about 50 people. To be fair to Dr. Stern, his agency had warned the Governor and the General Assembly the previous year that the state had inadequate emergency sheltering provisions in the case of a major hurricane. On the other hand, a post-hurricane review contended that less expensive options had been available to meet the meets of an evacuation of Hampton Roads. Continue reading

WTJU Podcast: COVID-19 and the Economy

By Peter Galuszka

Here’s is the twice-monthly podcast produced by WTJU, the official radio station of the University of Virginia. With me on this podcast  are Nathan Moore, the station general manager, and Sarah Vogelsong, who covers, labor, energy and environmental issues across the state for the Virginia Mercury, a fairly new and highly regarded non-profit news outlet. Our topic is how Virginia is handling the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Look at Richmond and COVID-19

By Peter Galuszka

Here is a roundup story I wrote for Style Weekly that was published today that explains the effects of COVID-19 on the Richmond area. Hopefully, BR readers will find it of interest.

It was a tough piece to report. The impacts of the deadly virus are very complicated and multi-faceted. An especially hard part was trying to keep with the fast-changing news, notably the number of new cases and deaths. We were updating right up until the story closed Monday afternoon. It was hard to talk to people with social-distancing and closings.

The experience shows the delicate balancing act between taking tough measures to stem the contagion and keeping the economy going. My view is that tough measures are needed because without them, it will all be much worse, particularly more illness and death as the experience in Italy has shown.

Incredibly, our utterly incompetent president, Donald Trump, now wants to focus on the economy more than taking necessary containment steps. It’s far too soon for that. Regrettably, a number of Bacon’s Rebellion commenters are sounding the same irresponsible tune in keeping with their big business and anti-regulation laud of free market capitalism. Continue reading

In Failure, the GOP Has an Opportunity to Reinvent Itself

Todd Gilbert, House Majority Leader and soon-to-be House Minority Leader: GOP must learn to appeal to suburban voters.

by James A. Bacon

So, the Republicans have wrapped up their annual “Advance” — a retreat at the Omni Homestead resort in Bath County. And if reports of the two newspapers that covered the event are to be believed — one from the Washington Post and one from the Roanoke Times — GOP leaders have absolutely no clue how to become competitive statewide.

Attendees do agree that they got shellacked in the November election, and they share a vague sense that they need to increase their appeal in the suburbs. But their only hope at this point resides in the conviction that Democrats will over-reach with Trump Derangement Syndrome in Washington and enact California-style legislation in Richmond. If voters get buyer’s remorse, they might start voting for Republicans again.

But you can’t defeat something with nothing, and there is no indication in either news account that Republicans gave much thought to what they stood for, other than not being insane. Continue reading

Bad News at Richmond’s City Hall

Selena Cuffee-Glenn

Back in 2015, the City of Richmond was a managerial mess. Accusations flew of incompetence, conflicts of interest and revolving chair style management. One big problem was the deeply flawed installation of a financial computer system crucial to keeping the municipality functioning.

Then-Mayor Dwight Jones’s solution was to hire a ringer, Selena Cuffee-Glenn, who had earned a reputation for efficiency and competence as Suffolk’s city manager. She had a pair of degrees from the University of Virginia and a personable manner. When Levar Stoney succeeded Jones as mayor in 2017, he kept Cuffee-Glenn as the city’s chief administrative officer.

Then, reports circulated that relatives of Cuffee-Glenn seemed to be getting prize positions. Her daughter got a job at the city’s human resources department. A niece didn’t even have to formally apply for her $70,000 a year position.

An Inspector General’s report showed that as many as six Cuffee-Glenn relatives were working in some city capacity. On Sept. 18, Stoney fired her.

She says that her hiring policies did not violate any rules. She says she had no role in helping relatives get jobs. Her husband, for example, works for the city Sheriff’s Department, which she does not oversee. On the other hand, one relative got a Public Utilities job at a higher than average hourly rate. Continue reading

Constitutional Officers–The Solutions

As I indicated in an earlier post, I will propose some alternatives to the elected constitutional officer system currently in place in Virginia. Commenters to that post have already suggested the same solutions I will set out, with the exception of one office.

Treasurer and Commissioner of the Revenue—abolished, with each city and county authorized to establish a finance director, whose office would perform functions of both the treasurer and commissioner. This one is the most obvious of all the alternatives.  Each local government should have total control over its finances.  The funding for the new office would come from local coffers.

Circuit court clerk—appointed by the chief judge of the circuit court. This position is the administrator  of the court and it is logical that the judge make the appointment.  This is the same method used to fill the position of district court clerk.  The state would pay all the costs of operating these offices.

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Constitutional Officers–The Problem

Our recent discussion of the primary elections and an incidental comment by Steve Haner were the catalysts to get me to develop a posting that I had been mulling over for awhile. The system of elected administrative officers established in the Virginia Constitution for local governments needs to be abolished.

These officers, called constitutional officers for obvious reasons, and their primary responsibilities, are:

  • Circuit court clerk—responsible for the administration of the circuit courts: preparing trial transcripts, handling jury lists, preparing orders, etc.  The office is also the depository of the locality’s land records (deeds, liens, etc.) and wills.
  • Sheriff—responsible for law enforcement in many localities, administration of the jail, provision of courtroom security, and service of legal processes.
  • Commonwealth’s Attorney—chief criminal prosecutor.
  • Commissioner of the Revenue—property assessor and processor of income tax returns
  • Treasurer—collects tax and other state and local revenue and deposits funds into appropriate accounts; invests funds of local government

All officers are elected for four-year terms, except the clerk, who has an eight-year term. The Constitution requires that each city and county have these officers, although it also provides that localities can share officers and that localities can abolish the offices, if approved by referendum.   Continue reading

Your State Government in Action: Fire Programs Edition

An audit of three public safety agencies — the Virginia State Police, the Department of Emergency Management, and the Department of Fire Programs — has revealed numerous shortcomings in internal control systems, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Today was not a good day for public safety [agencies],” acknowledged Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne, who attended the auditor’s presentation for the findings on the Emergency Management Department. “Obviously, there are some issues the administration needs to deal with.” Writes the newspaper:

The problems included “rampant use of signature stamps” to approve reimbursements with no way to verify who used them; reimbursement of training class tuition without prior approval; reimbursement for use of personal vehicles by employees who have assigned state vehicles; mismanagement of procurement funds; and lack of control over credit cards, travel and capital assets.

The Department of Fire Programs, which was found deficient in 14 areas, was elevated into the high-risk pool for closer scrutiny.

Kamras Feeds a False Narrative

Jason Kamras

In a Sunday op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richmond city school Superintendent Jason Kamras opined on “institutional racism” in Virginia schools. In building his case for the existence of such injustice, he cited the supposed disparity in funding, writing:

According to the National Center on Education Statistics, Virginia’s highest poverty school divisions — which serve large percentages of children of color — receive 8.3 percent less in per pupil funding than the state’s wealthiest districts. Put plainly: the students who should be getting more are actually getting less. If all the children in our poorest school divisions were white, I am certain the commonwealth would have found a way to fix its convoluted and unjust funding policies so that our lower-income communities received more.

Really? Let’s look at the numbers. The following data come from the Superintendent’s Annual Report for Virginia based on FY 2016 budgets:

Per pupil spending
City of Richmond — $13,843
Hanover County — $9,772
Henrico County — $9,644
Chesterfield County — $9,592 Continue reading

Whatever happened to Terry McAuliffe’s GreenTech Automotive venture?

Photo credit: NewsAdvance

Seems like yesterday.  In late 2012 Terry McAuliffe was the only Democrat running for Virginia governor in the upcoming 2013 election.  One of his central campaign themes was that he was an entrepreneur who would bring jobs to Virginia.  He was also an investor and recently resigned Chairman of a venture called GreenTech, a would be manufacturing company that hoped to make energy efficient electric cars in the United States.  Prior to announcing his second campaign for governor Terry had been out trolling for government subsidies in return for bringing GreenTech’s manufacturing plant to some lucky American community.  During McAuliffe’s tenure as chairman, GreenTech had announced that it would locate in Tunica, Mississippi rather than Virginia.  Candidate McAuliffe was asked why he didn’t bring GreenTech to Virginia at a Dec 5, 2012 press conference.  He claimed that Virginia “decided not to bid” on the automobile plant.  The truth was more complicated resulting in a Politifact article citing McAuliffe’s claim as “false”.  It seemed that Virginia lost out on at least 1,500 GreenTech manufacturing jobs.  The relatively small flurry of controversy over GreenTech subsided, McAuliffe became governor and Mississippi gained thousands of jobs.  Or did they …

Virginia smells a rat.  The Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) did hold conversations with GreenTech about locating in Virginia during 2009.  GreenTech was scheduled to tour potential plant sites in Danville, Martinsville and Waverly on Oct 7th and 8th.  But then came GreenTech’s surprise announcement to locate in Mississippi on Oct 6.  Was the VEDP just a day late and a dollar short?  Not quite.  Virginia officials were not at all convinced of the overall GreenTech business model.  In a letter from the executive director of VEDP to Virginia’s Secretary of Commerce and Labor those concerns were spelled out.

Mississippi buys a rat.  Apparently, Mississippi saw no problems with a start-up car company building $15,500 to $18,000 electric mini-cars with a top speed of 45 mph for export to China.  Mississippi inked the deal and GreenTech opened a temporary location in Horn Lake, MS in July, 2012.  Bill Clinton and the governor of Mississippi joined Terry McAuliffe for an opening celebration at the site.  The good people of Tunica County (where 33% live below the poverty line) were well on their way to an economic miracle.  Or were they …

Failure to launch.  Virtually nothing came from the promised GreenTech deal.  GreenTech never ended any year with more than 100 employees.  In early 2017 GreenTech shut down its Mississippi operations.  Later that year Mississippi sued to get its money back.   Last February GreenTech filed for bankruptcy.

Peter the Great Pretty Good.  As GreenTech started to unravel ahead of the 2013 election erstwhile Bacon’s Rebellion columnist Peter Galuszka wrote an opinion piece declaring that Green Tech was a mess but not a scandal.  At the time Galuszka wrote that opinion piece GreenTech was still in business and employed about 80 people.  That would roughly mark the zenith of GreenTech’s operations.  Now that the company is dust in the wind lawsuits have been filed.  As Mr. McAuliffe is rumored to be considering a run for president GreenTech may yet graduate from mess to scandal.  It would be interesting to know how Terry McAuliffe fared from a personal financial perspective with GreenTech.  If he lost his own money maybe GreenTech is still just a mess.  However, if he made money on the failed deal it would be a scandal.

Caveat Virginia.  While VEDP’s BS detector seemed to work brilliantly in the GreenTech matter … that’s not always the case.  Bacon’s Rebellion readers should keep an eye out for an upcoming update to the Tranlin deal in Virginia.  It seems likely that the Tranlin deal is not going to end well for the Commonwealth.

— Don Rippert 

A Model Transfer Program That Should Be Copied

Under prodding from the General Assembly that goes back years, Virginia’s four-year institutions are finally developing an easier path from community college to a bachelor’s degree.  Unfortunately for students, it is spreading slowly.  Unfortunately for anybody obstructing the process, there is one place where the full potential is being realized and proving the concept.

The dual enrollment and transfer relationship between Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University is so seamless the community college students have GMU identification cards and access to GMU recreational facilities.  The Nova Advance program works for 20 degrees with a goal of expanding to 50 possible degrees.  Community college students have access to advising and other forms of support from the start.

Paying community college prices for two years saves $15,000 or more towards a bachelor’s degree.  Also, before this process community college transfers often found they needed more credits than traditional students, adding additional and wasted cost.  With the early guidance toward the right courses and firm agreements to accept the credits the standard 120 credit hours should now do it.

GMU Vice President for Academic Innovation Michelle Marks said getting this ready for launch this term “is the most complicated process I’ve ever worked on.”  Hundreds of faculty members at both schools had a hand in course and program design.  They planned to start with five degrees, but the enthusiasm pushed them way beyond that.  “People wanted to do this,” she said.

There will be some lost revenue for both schools but the presidents of both see this as “right for the families and right for the students.” Marks said.   The first 129 Advance students are in class now, with 189 more lined up to start in the spring.  The long-term growth plan runs to four digits.

This past summer, Virginia Commonwealth University and the two Richmond community colleges announced they are working on a similar program, but on a  smaller scale and limited to arts and humanities degrees.  Previously about 75 students per year have switched from John Tyler or J. Sargeant Reynolds to VCU.

The new program will take three years to implement, with the first year (underway now) spent on evaluation and planning, and is supported by $2.4 million over the period from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  It will be another year from now before students enter the pipeline.

Jeff Kraus of the Virginia Community College System mentioned three other working relationships, involving Virginia Tech, James Madison and the University of Virginia and their neighboring community colleges.

Sharon Morrissey

These examples do make a key point: What is working is a relationship between the four-year school and its neighboring community college or colleges, rather than a statewide, system-wide focus.  “Community college students are not going to travel to the other end of the state to finish a degree,” said Sharon Morrissey, VCCS Vice Chancellor for Academic Services.  The dream remains far more widespread portability of transfer credits from community colleges.

The General Assembly started pressing this forward years ago with the classic carrot, financial aid in the form of a program of scholarships for VCCS transfers to four-year programs.  Those transfer grants have grown to almost $4 million per year, and the 2,500 students using them this term can receive up to $3,000 per year if seeking a science, technology, engineering or math degree at one of the major institutions.

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