Public Funds Spent at Officials' Whim

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It's a little-known tradition of Prince William County politics: Members of the Board of County Supervisors get $47,500 a year in public money to put into individual "discretionary funds."

The eight board members can spend the money on anything from furnishing their offices to hiring part-time workers to donating to charities and nonprofit groups.

But the supervisors rarely spend all the money during the first three years of their terms. Instead, records show, supervisors roll over much of the money until they are nearing their reelection campaigns. Many of them then write checks to favorite charities or pet projects, a 14-year-old practice that critics say could be seen as an attempt to influence votes.

The current board has amassed nearly $800,000 to spend between now and next year's elections. There are few restrictions on how a supervisor can spend the money; the board has never rejected a colleague's donation request. Unspent money does not have to be returned at the end of the year.

The supervisors with the most money in their discretionary funds are W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville), who is sitting on more than $146,000, and Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles), who has carried over more than $131,000. The money is in addition to their $39,737 annual part-time salaries.

Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties do not have similar accounts for their board members. Across the region, school groups and booster clubs can apply for money from their local governments, but elected officials decide on those requests as a group, not as individuals.

Critics question how much discretion elected officials should have with public money that is put into an unregulated fund for personal use.

"The taxpayers are more than capable themselves of giving to charities. They don't elect us to give to charities," said Edgar S. Wilbourn III, a former independent supervisor from Gainesville who lost a reelection bid in 2003. "A lot of times, the public views giving to charities as pandering for votes. I don't disagree with that."

Longtime supervisors Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) and John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) are the most generous to nonprofits and charities, having doled out $14,050 and $15,900, respectively, from January 2004 through early this month, county records show. That accounted for more than half of the $55,048 that the seven district supervisors gave to charities during that period.

Among the nonprofits that have received donations from Jenkins and other supervisors is Project Mend-a-House, whose board of directors includes Jenkins's wife. The Manassas-based organization repairs homes for the elderly and disabled.

"These are nonprofit organizations. The law is very clear on that. I get no personal gain out of this," Jenkins said.

Jenkins and four other supervisors are board members of the Boys and Girls Club, which also gets generous donations from the supervisors' funds on top of the $617,000 it has received since 2004 from the county's general fund. Jenkins said he is one of the most benevolent board members when it comes to nonprofits because he sees them as a deterrent to social ills.

"I'd rather keep these kids out of jail and in Little League and the Boys and Girls Clubs than paying for jail later," he said. "If the program makes a significant contribution to our community, I like to help people."

Barg said she, too, likes to support social causes. "That, to me, is prevention money," she said of her donations to nonprofits. "You are teaching them character, how to be taxpayers, not a tax burden."

Board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R) receives $27,500 in discretionary funds, a lower amount because he does not represent one district. He said he does not give to nonprofits because he believes the law covering his office prohibits it.

Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville) said he opposes giving county money to nonprofits unless a group reaches a large number of constituents.

"I have a pretty high threshold on how to spend taxpayer dollars," he said, adding with laughter that he has softened in recent weeks. He gave $500 to a high school for a robotics program and $100 to the Prince William Clean Community Council. Stirrup said he also has used his fund to hire staff to help with phone calls he receives about growth issues.

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