Prince William officials, still simmering over comments from Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) that the county would almost assuredly receive less state money next year, lashed back last week, saying Virginia should not pass along the burden of its failed economic policies to localities.
"This is what happens when you come up with your spending plans first and then decide how you're going to fund them," said Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large). "The state has gotten itself in a complete bind in how it has conducted its financial affairs."
In remarks made at a Virginia Association of Counties meeting last week, Warner said local governments would have to reconsider funding for mental health services, libraries and the elderly, among other programs. Warner also did not rule out lowering aid for schools and public safety.
County supervisors responded by launching a public relations campaign against state lawmakers, charging them with an unwillingness to solve their own problems and instead simply passing them on to localities.
Nevertheless, Prince William officials will likely be left with the option of assuming the state's share of many services or allowing them to atrophy. Local officials, while generally sympathetic to most programs, have made it their policy not to cover state shortfalls for fear that if they do it once, the state will never reclaim its responsibility.
"I'm not willing to go to the well to tip into taxpayer pockets" to fund such programs, said Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville). "I don't think that's right."
Wilbourn noted that Prince William will have another budget surplus this year, which county officials estimate at $15 million to $18 million, that may be consumed by covering what the state can't.
"The surplus that we will have at the end of the year, instead of being able to lower real estate taxes, may be used up in offsetting shortfalls," Wilbourn said.
Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) said she is determined to keep cutting local taxes. "I don't think we'll be able to fund all of Richmond's cuts," she said. "We're still committed to reducing the tax rate."
Some local policymakers said the tight economic times were an opportunity to pare programs that didn't deserve funding, as Warner suggested.
"It's a time where we're all being forced to look seriously at every department and every program and scrutinize every program," Warner said.
Warner's remarks added to a growing frustration among local lawmakers, who were already upset after it was revealed last month that he planned to withhold a percentage of rental car taxes from localities to balance the state budget.
Still, local officials did not place the blame entirely on Warner. They held his predecessor, former governor James S. Gilmore III (R), and a complicitous General Assembly responsible for lowering taxes and increasing services without planning how to square the two over the long term. They also said that state revenue estimates during the Gilmore years were wildly unrealistic.
"While Prince William was assuming, due to the recession, about a 2.5 percent revenue increase per year, the state was assuming 9 percent looking at the same economic forecast," Connaughton said.
"What we essentially have is a dysfunctional family where the kids are doing better than the parents and the parents are now becoming a drain on the kids and hurting their children's future," Connaughton said.