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The Lancaster County budget process started very late this year, in April rather than February, as discussed during the strategic planning meeting in January. When the process did finally start, the custom of publishing the various budget versions on the county website was not followed.
People attending the various Finance Committee meetings were provided with paper copies of the budget on request, but requests for electronic copies were ignored. The status of the county budget was thus kept out of the public eye until it was in the middle of its three reading passage protocol, a repudiation of the principle of transparency in government.
The general fund budget that was revealed to Finance Committee members and a few interested outsiders in April turned out to have an anticipated revenue of about $35 million, while expense requests from department heads were $41 million, a very large gap to close.
The proposal at the time included cutting the expense budget to $38 million and funding $1 million in radios and computer programs with a bond, along with a 4.8 mill tax increase, the statutory maximum for this year, plus a recovery of the 2-mill property tax increase not used last year. There was still a $1 million deficit and taxpayers were unhappy at the prospect of a 4.8 mill (5.5 percent) property tax increase.
At this dark hour, the state provided a $400,000 windfall and there were proposals to raise the plan review fee in the building department to five times its previous level and the road fee from $5 to $30, the highest in the state. It took the Finance Committee one minute to implement these proposals for a $2 million revenue increase.
In one additional minute, that money was spent to fund the budget deficit, provide a pay increase to county employees, hire people for the building, planning and probate court departments, buy furniture for the planning department, restore funding for 4-H and the Indian Land convenience center and provide a fiber redundancy connection.
Left unfunded were additional sheriff’s deputies and funding to reduce overcrowding and extend the life of the jail, along with numerous other projects. Inexplicably still funded was the second rewrite of the county’s comprehensive plan.
Not one single second was devoted to taxpayer relief, the injustice of imposing a road fee increase that will not result in filling a single additional pothole, or the absurdity of raising the plan review fee price by a factor of five for no additional work at all.
What do we learn from this?
The first lesson is that the current County Council is not committed to transparency in government, keeping citizens informed as time goes on. Publication of the budget on the county website was delayed until the very end despite several requests, one on the record at a council meeting.
The second lesson is that council is willing to delay consideration of the budget until action is mandated by state law to limit the time available for the public to learn about, debate and provide input on the issue.
The third lesson is that council apparently has some sort of hidden agenda other than what is in the strategic plan published on the county website. Hiring sheriff’s deputies is very near the top of priorities in the strategic plan, while the comprehensive plan is at the bottom, yet in the budget, the comprehensive plan is funded at $170,000 for a consultant and an employee, while the sheriff’s deputies are unfunded. Better communication with citizens is a priority in the strategic plan (although lower in priority even than the comprehensive plan), yet in the budget process, communication with citizens was deliberately withheld.
This sort of behavior is unacceptable; there is no excuse for it. Communication between government and the citizens is essential to the Jeffersonian democracy upon which our country is founded. The county needs to manage its cash better and keep a better eye on available resources when it is committing to projects. The county also needs to remember that morality is part of the picture.
Passing a law requiring citizens to obtain building permits and then charging an exorbitant price for those permits is extortion, not a fee or even a tax. The fact that other counties do it is not justification.
Get your act together, people.
J.R. Wilt is a Van Wyck resident