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.
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
Can someone from Northern Virginia please tell me what is going on when almost a million dollars is being raised in each of two primary contests for Commonwealth’s Attorney? I can understand the money being raised, as reported by VPAP, in the primary for chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. That is a political position and there are four candidates. But, the money being raised for Commonwealth’s Attorney, a supposedly nonpolitical position, with only two candidates in each election, is astounding.
Over the past decade or so, as I traveled with my family to Sandbridge Beach, I watched in amazement, and a touch of disbelief, as large, upscale houses sprouted from the landscape that was once flat, treeless farmland.
The development was Asheville Park. It was approved in 2004 for 499 homes on 474 acres. The construction slowed noticeably during the 2008-2010 downturn, but then picked up.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew hit, deluging the area with rain. Asheville Park became impassable for days and homes and cars flooded. Incredibly, “All of this area was approved for rezonings without looking at stormwater,” according to Barbara Henley, a member of city council. (She was not on the council when the development was approved.) Of the 35 proffers associated with the approval, there was no mention of stormwater and how to control it. Hurricane Matthew demonstrated that the pipes and outfalls were too small and a retention lake was shallower than planned, leading to flooding.
The residents of the development have been up in arms, demanding that the city take action. After all, these were homes for which they had paid several hundred thousand dollars and being flooded was not supposed to be part of the deal. The city has come up with a long-term plan to alleviate flooding, estimated to cost $35 million. The immediate fixes will cost $11 million. The city has reached an agreement with the developer in which the approved number of houses will be reduced by 44 and the developer will donate land for the construction of a retention pond by the city. In addition to a retention pond, the work will include the construction of a gated weir and a pump station. Finally, new building permits will not be issued for the next phase of the development until specific parts of the drainage system are fixed.
There is not much else the city can do about Asheville Park. The developer still has the right to construct more than double the number of houses currently there. However, the city has obviously learned from this experience and is taking steps to take sea level rise into consideration when evaluating future developments. Continue reading
In the recent past, the website of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) featured a prominent dashboard or scoreboard showing the cumulative number of jobs “created” since the beginning of the current administration. Governors used these numbers when touting their economic development programs. It did not matter that these were jobs projected, not necessarily available or filled, or that some of those jobs would never materialize.
I was reminded of this scoreboard by a story in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch about a printing company in Henrico closing, with a resultant loss of 240 jobs. My counterpart at DPB who handled VEDP’s budget and I used to have a standing joke about the VEDP jobs scoreboard. Whenever I would point out a company closing or downsizing, especially at the beginning of the Great Recession, or a corporation moving out of Virginia and ask whether VEDP was including those job losses in its calculations, he would laugh and reply, “Oh no, Dick, we don’t include the negative numbers!”
It is a welcome sign that the “new” VEDP does not engage in this misleading boosterism.
I am following up on an earlier post discussing the capital budget recommendations of the Governor and the Commonwealth’s debt capacity. Jim Bacon’s recent post discussing Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne’s worries about increasing debt also dealt with this general issue.
Guided by Secretary Layne, the Governor’s introduced budget was relatively conservative in its capital provisions and the authorization of $568.4 million in additional tax-supported debt. As predicted in the earlier post, the General Assembly came under a lot of pressure to add to the package and responded accordingly. The final budget bill, signed by the Governor in early May, authorized the issuance of an additional $1.1 billion in state-supported debt.
The major projects added by the legislature were the replacement of Central State Hospital ($315 million), a top priority of the Governor; “renewal” of Alderman Library at UVa ($132.5 million); and demolition and replacement of Daniel Gym at Virginia State University ($82.9 million). Also included in the introduced and final total packages was $248 million, primarily for Virginia Tech, which was tied to the Amazon deal. Including the authorizations provided by the 2018 General Assembly, the 2018-2020 Appropriation Act authorized the issuance of an additional $2.1 billion in tax-supported debt. Continue reading
According to a story in Saturday’s Virginian Pilot, Virginia Beach is slated for more beach widening this summer. The total cost of the project is $22.6 million, with the federal government providing $14.7 million (65 percent) and the city of Virginia Beach paying the remaining $7.9 million.
The newspaper article says that this project is a “part of a long-term plan to protect the commonwealth’s shoreline from storms.” That sounds like a worthy idea, especially in this era of sea-level rise. But, let’s not kid ourselves. This project is not about protecting the shoreline or about resiliency, the buzzword of the day. After all, if one is going to protect the shoreline and make it more resilient to stronger storms, one would not try to do so by putting down a substance that will start washing away the day after it is put down. The owner of one of the ocean front hotels stated quite plainly the real purpose of the project: “…having a wide beach is important, not only for safety, but for what we’re selling to our guests.”
I do not have an objection to spending public funds to enhance a tourist attraction of the Commonwealth. After all, tourism is one of the state’s largest industries. The Virginia Tourism Corporation reported that, in 2017, tourism accounted for $25 billion in domestic visitor spending, supported 232,000 jobs, and brought in $1.7 billion in state and local tax revenue.
I do have an objection to who is providing the funding for the beach widening. Continue reading
A recent article in the Washington Post highlights an issue I alluded to in my recent post on government outsourcing functions. To summarize: The Alexandria school superintendent’s budget proposal called for eliminating 30 custodian positions and outsourcing the jobs to a private company. (The system already contracts with private companies for custodial services in many schools. This proposal would have completed the outsourcing.) The reason for the proposal was budget savings. After a lot of blowback, the superintendent relented some, proposing that custodians who had worked for the school system for at least five years could keep their positions during the next school year. That left 10 custodians facing the loss of their jobs.
This sort of outsourcing is common at all levels of government. In Richmond, the custodians for state buildings are not state employees, but work for a company that has contracted with the state to clean the offices. The same is true for security guards at the entrances to state buildings, with the exception of the Capitol Police. Continue reading
The Richmond Times-Dispatch has a front-page article today that raises many questions. It reports that the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) has entered into a two-year, $7 million contract with a private company to transport persons, who have been temporarily detained, to hospitals or mental health facilities for evaluation of being involuntarily committed.
Traditionally, sheriffs’ deputies or police officers transported these individuals, usually in marked police cars and sometimes in handcuffs. The rationale for contracting out this service is that it will be less traumatic for the involuntarily committed person and it will free up law enforcement officers, who spend thousands of hours on these transportation runs, for other public safety functions.
I sympathize with the motives for the change. Putting mentally ill people in police cars, sometimes in handcuffs, undoubtedly increases their trauma and reinforces the stigma accompanying mental illness. Law enforcement officers often have to drive many miles, sometimes across the state, to transport these patients, wait until the mental health facility accepts them as patients, and turn around and drive back to their home locality. That is a lot of time that the officers could have been on patrol duty, enforcing traffic laws or responding to calls for law enforcement support.
Nevertheless, contracting out this function to a private company is not necessarily a good idea. Continue reading
A fascinating article in Sunday’s New York Times deals with one of the subjects that is a frequent topic on this blog—housing patterns. Using demographic data from the Census Bureau and home lending data published as part of the federal Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, the reporters “identified every census tract in the country that has grown notably more racially diverse since 2000.”
They found a consistent nationwide trend of increased diversity. Affluent whites are moving into central city areas that have been populated by blacks for many generations and middle-class non-whites are moving into suburbs long the domain of white families. The authors posit that the movement of whites into the central cities is a result of several factors. The major factor they cite is historical disinvestment by society in those areas, which has made them ripe for reinvestment. Another factor is old housing stock that was approaching the end of its life.
This increased diversity is altering the nature of the communities affected. The primary finding highlighted in the story is that the non-whites moving into the suburbs blend into, or integrate, their new communities relatively seamlessly. However, that is not true for whites moving into the central cities. The reason is not racial tension, but economics. While the non-whites moving into the suburbs have incomes similar to the families already living there, the average incomes of the whites moving into the central city neighborhoods are significantly higher than those who have lived there for many years. It turns out people feel more comfortable associating with those on their same income level. (This is not really a surprise.) Continue reading
Following up on Jim’s recent post about the WMATA pension problems, I decided to check on the recent performance of the Virginia Retirement System. Now that I get a monthly check from these folks, my interest is more active than in the past.
Analysis of pension plans is out of my league, but there is a recent report that does create some concern and even I understand it. VRS is required by statute to conduct periodic stress tests. The latest one was released in December. For those who are interested in digging into the weeds, here it is . Toward the end of the report, the authors point out that VRS lost about 25% of its value in the first couple of years of the Great Recession. They warn that, if there is another great shock or even a period of a few years of returns lower than needed, the plan would be in a worse position to absorb the shock than it was in 2009. The Free Lance-Star had a good summary of the issue in this editorial.
In summary, to keep VRS able to meet its pension obligations, the General Assembly needs to continue its recent practice of paying down the plan’s unfunded obligations.
One of the most pleasant surprises that I discovered upon becoming a frequent follower of this blog was the whole world of energy regulation. RGGI, and, now, TCI, were new terms for me. I became aware of the cap- and-trade concept in its first widespread use in dealing with sulfur dioxide emissions, but was not aware of its current use for carbon dioxide.
Steve Haner’s recent post on TCI referred to RGGI and TCI as interstate compacts. That caught my attention. Long ago, in my political science courses, I learned about interstate compacts (my professor wrote what was then the definitive study on interstate compacts). The U.S. Constitution provides, “No state shall, without the consent of Congress…enter into any agreement or compact with another state….” (Article I, Section 10) Virginia has entered into a number of agreements with other states that fall under the ambit of this provision. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which sets limits on the catches of certain fish species, is one example. Another, more familiar, example is the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. But RGGI and TCI have not been approved by Congress, which puzzled me.
It turns out that not all agreements among states constitute an “interstate compact” in the Constitutional sense. The Supreme Court in its first case dealing with interstate compacts (Tennessee v. Virginia, 1895), and confirmed in 1985 in its most recent case on this subject, declared that an agreement among states does not require the consent of Congress if it does not infringe on, or encroach upon, federal supremacy. Continue reading