Sheriffs: Restore cuts in budgets
Sheriffs say cuts would hurt their offices
January 28, 2010
Chelyen Davis - Freelance Star
-- Fewer sheriff's deputies in jails and courts, slower emergency response times, elimination of school drug programs, and limited response to traffic accidents could all be a reality under state budget cuts to law enforcement, sheriffs and police chiefs said yesterday.
The officers held a news conference in Richmond to protest more than $160 million in cuts to their state funding that are proposed in former Gov. Tim Kaine's two-year budget bill.
They said the cuts would "devastate" their ability to provide services and ensure public safety.
"We will not be able to adequately protect our communities," said Stafford County Sheriff Charles Jett, who is the president of the Virginia Sheriff's Association. "These proposed cuts may very well compromise the safety of families across the commonwealth."
The budget reductions include changing the ratio of police officers to members of the public, from one officer per 1,500 people to one for every 2,000; slashing in half, from $8 a day per inmate to $4, the state per diem reimbursement for jail inmates; changing retirement benefits; and other cuts.
Jett said the cuts could eliminate nearly 1,500 deputies statewide, and police departments would also likely see job cuts.
The Stafford Sheriff's Office would lose $1.2 million, just under 30 percent of its state funding, Jett said. That equates to 27 deputies that the state won't be paying for, and Jett said he doesn't yet know if the county can help pick up the tab.
In Spotsylvania County, the loss would be about $1.1 million, or just over 30 percent, equating to 26 deputies, said Sheriff Howard Smith.
They and other sheriffs and police chiefs said having fewer officers makes it more dangerous for the remaining officers, who won't be able to rely on quick backup in emergencies, and for both deputies and jail inmates in jails that might have fewer staff.
It would also be more dangerous for the public.
"When people dial 911, they expect someone to show up," said Kevin Carroll with the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police.
Jett and leaders of police chiefs' associations and the state police said that they are already understaffed--there are about 200 state trooper vacancies, said Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association.
"It's an extremely dire situation," Huggins said. "The single most important function of the commonwealth is public safety."
William Davenport, the commonwealth's attorney in Chesterfield County, said commonwealth's attorneys are also being cut, and that could impact their ability to prosecute misdemeanors and traffic offenses. He, too, said public safety should be the state's top priority.
"If you're not safe in your community, it doesn't matter how good your schools are, your roads, and your parks," he said.
The cuts were proposed to help make up a $4 billion budget shortfall in the 2011-12 state budgets. Kaine's cuts actually covered just about half of that; he did the rest with tax and fee increases that Republicans say are a no-go, so more budget reductions are likely to be coming as the legislature tries to balance the budget.
Gov. Bob McDonnell, who replaced Kaine, has said he is concerned about the cuts to public safety, but has not yet made a proposal to limit the reductions.
In Spotsylvania, Smith said, he's concerned that a loss of deputies would result in slower response times to traffic accidents. He would probably also have to give up school resource officers and DARE programs. Smith's department has about 192 deputies, he said, of which 88 are paid for by the state.
"It'll be a rough time for the people in Spotsylvania," he said. "The days of being proactive are gone, because all we'd be doing is responding to calls."
Several lawmakers attended the press conference, all promising to do what they could to protect public safety from budget cuts.
"It's really important that people understand the job losses that are going to come," said state Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, who chairs the public safety subcommittee of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, came because he has a bill that would raise the fees to file civil lawsuits, with much of the money to go to sheriff's departments. He said police need more, not less, funding in bad economic times.
"When the unemployment rate goes up, you can pretty much guarantee the crime rate's going to go up," said Stuart, a former commonwealth's attorney. He said police "simply cannot provide the services we need if these cuts go through."
Vogel’s bill advances in Senate committee
Measure would make it illegal to mandate that Virginians purchase health insurance
January 27, 2010
Cynthia Cather Burton - The Winchester Star
Democrats in the General Assembly seem to have taken a cue from last week’s election in Massachusetts of Republican Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate.
His victory gives the GOP enough votes in the Senate to filibuster the health-care reform bill proposed by Democrats.
A similar message was sent Monday during a meeting of the state Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee in Richmond.
Two Democrats — Sen. Phil Puckett of Russell County and Sen. Chuck Colgan of Prince William County — provided the needed votes to pass Republican-sponsored legislation to make it illegal to require Virginians to buy health insurance.
The 8-7 vote came as a surprise to GOP legislators because the state Senate and its Labor and Commerce Committee are controlled by Democrats.
The legislation was submitted in three identical bills by Sens. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, Stephen Martin, R-Chesterfield, and Fred Quayle, R-Suffolk.
“I’m very happy,” Vogel said of the outcome. “I thought it would die” in the committee.
While it is unlikely that the legislation will pass the full Senate, Monday’s vote sent a message that the federal government has no business forcing people to buy something, Vogel said. “It’s like the federal government telling you that you have to go out and buy a car and what color it needs to be.”
While she conceded that the nation’s health-care system is broken, requiring people to buy health insurance is not the way to fix it, Vogel said.
“This really comes down to Federalism and honoring that there are some issues best left to the states,” Vogel stated in a news release.
Similar legislation is being proposed in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.
The outcry is not occurring just in Virginia and Massachusetts. At least 13 attorneys general across the country have vowed to fight the health-care reforms if they become law.
In addition, other state legislatures are proposing bills similar to the ones being considered in Virginia.
“The federal government doesn’t always know best,” Vogel said.
Tea Party turns out for Vogel bill
January 19, 2010
Cynthia Cather Burton - The Winchester Star
A states’-rights, pro-gun rally brought about 1,000 people to the State Capitol in Richmond Monday.
Many came to support two bills that have been submitted for this legislative session: the Health Care Freedom Act (House Bill 10 and Senate Bill 417) and the Firearms Freedom Act (House Bill 69), said Jamie Radtke, chairman of the conservative Virginia Tea Party Patriots.
The organization, with more than 25,000 followers, supports limited government, fiscal restraint, and strict adherence to the Constitution.
The health-care bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, would make it illegal to require Virginians to buy health insurance or to punish those who refuse to do so.
The measure is in reaction to efforts by federal leaders to reform health care and mandate insurance coverage.
Legislators in at least 19 states are proposing bills to limit, alter, or oppose parts of the health-care reform package, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Requiring citizens to enter into a contract is unconstitutional, Vogel said.
Radtke praised Virginia for “leading the charge” on 10th Amendment issues. (The amendment provides that powers not granted to the federal government are reserved for the states.)
“The national government has overstepped its bounds on what it has the authority to do under the Constitution,” said Radtke. “This is really going to create a conflict between the states and the federal government, and it’s going to be settled in court.”
Attorneys general in 13 states, including Virginia, are threatening to sue the federal government if the health-care reforms become law.
“We are seeing an enormous response from average Virginians who are tired of the national government eroding our freedoms and taking control of all their decisions,” Karen Hurd, communications director for the Virginia Tea Party Patriots, said in a news release.
Vogel, who represents the 27th Senatorial District, said concern about health-care reform is the top issue with her constituents.
But her bill will probably face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Democrats have a two-vote majority.
The firearms act, sponsored by Del. Charles W. Carrico Sr., R-Grayson, dictates that guns manufactured or sold in Virginia are not subject to federal regulation.
Montana and Tennessee recently passed similar laws.
Even though questions remain about the legality of the health-care and firearms-freedom acts, Radtke was optimistic: “If we can get both of these bills passed, it will set a precedent that will hopefully start a ripple effect across the country.”
The state’s Republican legislators, who have an ally in Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s first Republican governor in eight years, are submitting other bills as well to fight federal overreach.
Vogel gets a ‘startling’ message
January 13, 2010
Cynthia Cather Burton - The Winchester Star
Winchester — Constituents from the 27th Senatorial District used the keypads on their phones Tuesday night to send a loud and clear message to state Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville.
During an hour-long interactive town-hall meeting, a large majority said cuts in Virginia’s budget must be made.
Vogel conducted the meeting via conference call. Constituents participated via phone in their homes. The session drew 4,713 callers.
When Vogel asked them how state legislators should close the budget gap in Virginia’s $4.2 billion revenue shortfall, 82 percent voted in favor of more budget cuts.
Just 17 percent favored raising taxes.
Their votes were cast by pushing a button on the telephone keypad.
“That’s pretty startling,” Vogel said, seconds after the votes were tallied.
Her town-hall session was held on the eve of the start of the 2010 General Assembly session in Richmond. Last year, Vogel conducted a similar meeting in which 2,400 callers participated.
“It’s a great way to communicate,” she said earlier in the day.
About 120,000 people live in the district, which encompasses Winchester, Frederick and Clarke counties, and parts of Loudoun and Fauquier counties.
Callers asked Vogel a variety of questions on topics that ranged from the budget crisis to jobs creation to concerns about health-care reform.
Two calls came from Clarke County about outgoing Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s budget proposal to freeze the Composite Index at current funding levels. The index is used to calculate the amount of state funding local school divisions receive.
“That would have a pretty negative impact on a lot of your counties,” Clarke County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mike Hobert told Vogel.
She agreed, saying she wants to “fix the index, not freeze it.”
At the beginning of the call, Vogel discussed some of the 30 bills she is proposing this legislative session.
They include measures to study local government, to allow school divisions to set their school calendars, and to create a bipartisan commission to help redraw the state’s political districts in 2011.
Vogel spent most of the day in Richmond, where she described the mood among legislators as “very positive” despite the grim budget outlook.
“There's a real spirit of cooperation ... but we know we have some weighty, weighty, weighty tasks ahead,” she said. “There’s probably nobody at the end of this who’s going to be spared.”
The General Assembly’s 60-day session will begin today.
Lawmakers prepare for Assembly
2010 session to convene Wednesday in Richmond
January 09, 2010
Cynthia Cather Burton - The Winchester Star
Winchester — Constituents streamed into state Sen. Jill Vogel’s Piccadilly Street office Tuesday afternoon, eager to voice their concerns before the annual legislative session starts next week in Richmond.
Area lawmakers plan to propose bills ranging from requiring state colleges and universities to accept 80 percent of their students from Virginia to requiring people who pick up waste kitchen grease for rendering into biofuel and other products to register with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Del. Joe T. May, R-Leesburg, is helping to draft a transportation revenue bill that addresses state road funding issues.
But the 2010-12 budget will dominate General Assembly discussions.
“These are unprecedented budget times,” said Vogel, a Republican who represents Winchester, Frederick and Clarke counties, and parts of Fauquier and Loudoun counties. “People are telling me, ‘Try to do as little harm as you can.’”
Faced with Virginia’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the state’s 140 legislators must find a way to close the gap on a $4.2 billion revenue shortfall during the 60-day session that begins Wednesday.
Gov-elect Bob McDonnell, the state’s first Republican governor in eight years, will take office Jan. 16. He will inherit an unpopular $77 billion spending plan drafted by outgoing Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.
Kaine’s two-year proposal raises the state income tax 1 percent, removes $2.3 billion from public education, law enforcement, and other core services, and reduces the $950 million the state government gives localities as car-tax relief.
About $7 billion has been carved from the budget during the past two years.
McDonnell has not unveiled his budget, but May — who serves on the Appropriations Committee, which has jurisdiction over state budget matters in the House of Delegates — said the panel will offer some “innovative approaches” to soften the budget cuts.
“But it won’t eliminate them,” said May, who represents Clarke County and western Loudoun County.
“It’s just going to hurt”Localities are braced for state budget cuts.
Area government officials just hope they aren’t so severe.
Frederick County Administrator John Riley said this week that Kaine’s cuts would have a “drastic” effect.
The statewide reductions would take $375 million from kindergarten-through-12th-grade education, $270 million from sheriffs and constitutional officers, and $73 million from local police.
Clarke County School Board Chairman Robina Rich Bouffault said Kaine’s plan would reduce $919,310 from the county school system — a 4.6 percent decrease in budgeted revenues.
That’s in addition to more than $700,000 the school system has lost in state funds in recent years, Bouffault said. “That’s a lot for a little school system. It’s just going to hurt .... This is going to be without a doubt the most daunting budget this school division has ever had to face.”
She noted that the school system’s annual operating budget has dropped from $20.3 million in fiscal year 2008 to $19.3 million in FY 2010. “It’s just going down, down, down.”
Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper said his department, which has an annual operating budget of about $1.6 million, would lose $176,508 in state funds.
He’s already receiving $141,000 less in state funds this year.
“We wouldn’t be able to operate in the same way,” Roper said. “We’d have to re-evaluate everything we do.”
Tough budget decisions must be made, area legislators concede.
But the high stakes may rally the 100-member House, controlled by Republicans, and the 40-member Senate, controlled by Democrats, to work together to protect the state’s core services, Vogel said.
Public education, public safety, the courts system, roads and transit, social safety-net programs, and jobs creation are top priorities, she said.
Items that are not a main government responsibility may have to be sacrificed.
“In all honesty, there are some things we probably should have gotten rid of a long time ago,” Vogel said.
Del. Clifford L. “Clay” Athey Jr., R-Front Royal, likened the situation to sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of bills after losing your job or having your work hours cut in the wake of the economic recession.
He said he has received numerous calls in the past year from constituents on the verge of losing their houses because they have lost their job and are struggling to find another.
With the state unemployment rate at 6.3 percent, the last thing Virginians need is higher taxes, he said.
“It’s incumbent upon us to lessen their burden,” said Athey, who represents Warren County and the Middletown and Stephens City areas of Frederick County. “If there’s any time that people would understand the need to cut government spending, it’s this year.”
Seeking a “silver lining”
Virginia isn’t alone in its budget quandary.
In states across the nation, tax collections continue to sputter. Federal stimulus dollars are about to dry up. Rainy day funds have been tapped.
And demand for services — such as Medicaid, food stamps, and unemployment benefits — is soaring.
“It’s a more difficult year than I have ever seen,” said Del. Beverly J. Sherwood, R-Frederick County, who has been a state legislator since 1994 and serves on the House Appropriations Committee. “I’ve been through the ups and downs before, but this is longer-lasting.”
She represents Winchester and most of Frederick County.
For the past two budget cycles, Sherwood has served on a conference committee that reconciles differences between the House and Senate budget proposals before the spending bill lands on the governor’s desk.
“It makes you focus on what state government is all about,” she said of the lean times.
The upside of the budget crisis is that it could yield a more efficient, innovative state government, Vogel said.
“I’m looking for the silver lining.”
For more information about the 2010 legislative session, visit the General Assembly Web site at legis.state.va.us, the Virginia Public Access Project at www.vpap.org, or Richmond Sunlight.
The Associated Press contributed some information for this report.