In Prince William County, the Board of Supervisors has access to a fund that no other Northern Virginia jurisdiction offers its governing body: a “discretionary fund,” which is really just the money left over after the expenses of running the district office are spent.

Prince William County Supervisor Wally Covington, whose attempt to donate $100,000 in county funds to an equestrian center run by his wife. (Whitney Shefte/WASHINGTON POST)

The payments from these funds must be approved by the rest of the board, and Covington promptly withdrew his donation when another board member questioned it. But civic activists and bloggers in Prince William have resumed the debate over whether or not the supervisors should have such “discretionary funds,” and the non-partisan Prince William Committee of 100 has scheduled a meeting for February to discuss whether the concept is a good idea.

“We let the topics bubble up from the community,” said Martha Hendley, president of the Committee of 100, “and that’s a topic that had a lot of interest.”

The most recent budget numbers from Prince William suggest these funds aren’t small potatoes. As of July, Covington had over $357,000 in his. Coles District Supervisor Martin Nohe had more than $267,000. The other supervisors had at least $60,000 in their accounts except for Chairman Corey Stewart ($9,855), whose office budget is half of the other supervisors because he serves at-large; and Occoquan District Supervisor Michael May ($17,905). The total accumulated by county supervisors over the years is now more than $950,000, according to the most recent carryover budget.

Now there are some restrictions on how the money can be spent, Stewart said. It must go to either a governmental or government-related entity (schools, social services) or to a certified non-profit group, Stewart said. The groups can apply to a supervisor for money, and the supervisor who agrees to transfer funds from his office account must put a formal motion on the board agenda and get approval from the rest of the board.

The supervisors get an annual office operating budget of $335,000, county spokesman Jason Grant said. Whatever they don’t spend on staff salaries or staplers can be used as “discretionary funds,” or rolled over into the following year’s account.

Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart, who says he does not use discretionary funds because of the potential for controversy. (TRACY A WOODWARD/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The supervisors also are sworn to serve their districts, and can use their discretion to distribute money that will do that, Grant said. Most distributions are for $1,000 or less, he said, but can also be used for mid-year emergencies, such as this summer’s Hurricane Irene, when each supervisor contributed $5,000 to create a fund for flood victims.

Each proposed donation appears on the board’s weekly agenda, posted on the county website, and must be approved by a majority vote of the board. “You see it, it’s clear,” said Covington. “It’s pulled out of the budget process, it’s waved right at you.” Typical recent donations have included $500 to a sexual assault victims program, and $1,000 to a food pantry.

But on the Nov. 29 agenda, Covington proposed giving $100,000 to the Rainbow Therapeutic Riding Center in Haymarket, to pave the parking lot in order to allow wheelchairs to cross it more easily. The dollar amount caught people’s eyes. And when it was pointed out that Covington’s wife is the unpaid president of the group, Covington withdrew his request rather than “further politicize or demean this worthy organization.”

No one denies the worthiness of the Rainbow Riding Center. But it brought into stark relief the question of whether supervisors should be able to select agencies to receive taxpayer money which doesn’t go through the full budget process, or give to agencies that don’t serve the whole county.

John S. Gray, a two-time candidate for board chairman and a certified public accountant, monitors the Prince William budget closely. “I don’t have a problem,” Gray said, “when the funds are being used for people in all the magisterial districts. But for the Rainbow Riding Center, you have to be a member, not just anyone can use it. It’s got to be for the benefit of the full public.”

Officials in Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington and Alexandria said their board or council members do not have access to discretionary funds. Loudoun supervisors each have office funds, but the money may only be spent on the office, and any leftover money is rolled back into the general fund, spokeswoman Anna Nissinen said.

Stewart, the current board chairman, said, “I personally don’t do it. I don’t know if I ever felt comfortable, even when I was a district supervisor, giving to charitable organizations from a government account. Even though it’s well-intentioned, it’s been controversial. For me, it’s not worth the controversy.”

Jacqueline Byers, research director for the National Association of Counties, said the number of counties with discretionary funds has dwindled greatly in recent years, because of “abuse. We did see occasionally a little too much discretion,” and that county officials sometimes traded approval of each other’s pet projects.

“The counties that decided to keep them, decided to put guidelines in that they could use,” Byers said. Jim Campbell, the executive director of the Virginia Association of Counties, said discretionary funds were “not a common practice” in Virginia.

Frank Principi, the Woodbridge Supervisor who raised questions about Covington’s $100,000 donation, said he didn’t have a problem with discretionary funds so long as they went to government or non-profit entities and served Prince William residents. But when donations are particularly large, Principi said, they should go through the normal budget process, with staff review, public comment and then board approval.

Covington said he thought the funds were useful and the process worked because it is open, from the first budget meetings to the frequent board sessions. He said his discretionary fund has grown because for many years he only had one staff member, while other supervisors have two or three.

Covington likes the ability to spend money that wasn’t specifically budgeted at the beginning of a fiscal year, particularly for capital improvements (such as ball fields) and schools. He said he provides “challenge grants” to Prince William schools, where if the school can raise $10,000 or so for technology or books, he will match it. At the middle and high school levels, Covington said this provides an incentive for more parents to participate than might otherwise.

He said the funds are not secretly dealt out. “I think it has every bit the same scrutiny as every budgeted item,” Covington said.

Stewart said the issue of whether the supervisors should have discretionary funds “comes up like clockwork every three to four years. And then it goes away.”