Counties Lay Out Budget Contingency Plans

Virginia Railway Express had been counting on $15 million from the state to purchase additional rail cars.
Virginia Railway Express had been counting on $15 million from the state to purchase additional rail cars. (By Hyosub Shin For The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Even as Virginia lawmakers said they are making progress on finishing the state budget, local government officials in Northern Virginia are beginning to plan for the impact of a government shutdown on a variety of city and county services, including courts, sheriff's offices, health clinics and schools.

Few officials have given up hope that General Assembly budget writers will reach a last-minute agreement to enact a state spending plan by July 1 or that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) will invoke executive powers to keep government running even without a budget in place.

But some local officials are leaving nothing to chance as the start of the new fiscal year looms. The state sends hundreds of millions of dollars to local governments each year for education, law enforcement, mental health care and other programs. Virginia also spends hundreds of millions more on locally administered state programs such as juvenile court, probation services and immunization clinics.

If a shutdown occurs, funding for these services could temporarily dry up. That, in turn, would force local governments to choose to halt services or keep them running with local money until state dollars flow again.

In Loudoun County, Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (I) wrote Kaine and the General Assembly last week urging quick approval of a budget to avoid such a scenario. Loudoun budget officials are laying out plans to use local dollars to pay for state obligations for about two months, after which officials would take out loans to cover the shortfall.

Loudoun budget analyst Ben Mays said that the county keeps about $90 million in cash reserves, adding that after about two months, things would get worse quickly. "Everybody in the state within the first couple of months has to then reassess their budgets."

Northern Virginia's local governments are among the wealthiest in the state, so the potential impact of a shutdown would be less severe there than in smaller, poorer jurisdictions that rely on the state for a larger portion of their budget. Fairfax County officials last week downplayed the implications of the budget impasse in Richmond because they rely on the state to cover only 2.8 percent of county government spending and 12 percent of the Fairfax schools budget.

"There's sort of a ho-hum about it this time," said County Executive Anthony H. Griffin, who said the state prepared for a shutdown two years ago that never materialized. "Now that the General Assembly has started to make this routine, we assume that at some point they'll do the right thing. We're not as panicked as we've been before."

Fairfax Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock) said the state budget has created problems for Virginia Railway Express's ambitious capital program. VRE was counting on $15 million from the state for a $92 million purchase of 50 rail cars. Because of a contractual deadline, VRE is going ahead with the purchase, taking money that was supposed to be spent on other needs.

"We're cobbling together funding from other sources we've already planned to use for other things," Bulova said.

At Northern Virginia Community College, where more than 21,000 students are now taking summer classes, President Robert Templin said college administrators have taken Kaine's public pronouncements to mean state funding will continue to flow and have made no contingency plans.

He said, however, that without a new budget, the school can't count on the additional funds necessary to increase student enrollment for the fall. On Aug. 15, he said, administrators must decide whether to hire new professors and accept new students.

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