Lots of attention this week to the annual, and often painful, budget process for Floyd County with the usual tug-of-war over what is considered most important and of the highest priority for approval by local government.
On one side of the tense and passionate public debate is the local school system, which accounts for two-thirds of the county’s $30 million plus annual budget and one which generates understandable passion within the ranks.
As the county’s largest employer and one that affects 2,000 students, school officials feel their budget should — and must — top the list of priorities in a cash-strapped county where attempts to balance everything often boils down to transfers and re-allocations of relatively small amounts.
But in a locality where crime is on an alarming rise, the manufacture, distribution and use of highly-addictive crystal methamphetamine is considered “an epidemic” and both use and sale of heroin is increasing, the argument can be made that law enforcement is also a high priority.
Floyd County’s school system asked for an additional $2.2 million in its budget request for the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1. The current budget set for approval by the Board of Supervisors gives the system $173,000 of that request.
A majority of speakers who appeared before supervisors on Tuesday supported a hike in taxes and said any budget allocation of less than most of what the schools wanted would be disastrous and, in effect, the beginning of the end for the county education system.
Such hyperbolic claims are not unusual in passionate debates. While the school system will have to face some budget cuts, modification of existing programs and reallocation of funds, few expect the dire threats of closed schools in places like Indian Valley, massive layoffs of teachers or an end to extra-curricular activities like football to occur.
Still, the schools face difficult times ahead. Many of the system’s buses are worn out, some with more than 200,000 miles on them. The newest school in Floyd County is a half-century old and all buildings face mounting costs for repair.
But the schools are not alone. Many sheriff’s department cruisers have more than 150,000 miles and face high maintenance costs each year, both the county fire department and rescue squad need replacement vehicles and updates equipment and other departments have serious needs as well.
Some speakers in the more than 90 minutes of public comments before the supervisors this week suggested the county implement a meals tax that exists in the town and other communities. While such a tax would generate some extra revenue, it would not provide anywhere near the total amount of extra funds necessary to meet upcoming budget needs. The brunt of the cost will lies where it usually rests: Property taxes.
The school system did not get all that it wanted. Neither did other county departments. Budget requests are often wish lists.
Supervisors also remember that, at the ballot box, the last two within their ranks to lose re-election bids went down to defeat by voters after voting for tax increases.
Counties like Floyd also face an increasing demand from the Virginia General Assembly to implement costly programs without any help to pay for them by the state. These requirements, called unfunded mandates, come annually along with threats of fines and other punishments.
Floyd County faces an almost-certain tax hike next year — one that will come right on the heels of property reassessments. The school system, sooner or later, will have to close one of the county’s four elementary schools and move students to one of the three remaining buildings. That is inevitable and will come with a lot of pubic outcry and threats of retaliation.
Some remember the painful debates more than a half-century ago when the county combined its existing three high schools into one.
As the old song goes, “the times, they are a-changing” and that change will not come easy or without cost.
But it will come.