Two weeks from tomorrow, Dec. 23, voters in Prince William County’s Brentsville District head to the polls in a special election to fill the seat vacated by former Supervisor Wally Covington (R) who has been confirmed by the Virginia General Assembly for a judgeship in the county. Virginia Virtucon’s endorsed candidate, Jeanine Lawson, is looking very strong in the run-up to election day and we have high hopes that she will join Gainesville Supervisor Pete Candland and Occoquan Supervisor Mike May as another voice for the county’s taxpayers on the Board.
Candland and May were the only two supervisors to vote against the 5-year, 22.5%+ tax increase that passed the Board earlier this year. In a good news / bad news item, May has decided to run for Commonwealth’s Attorney in 2015. While we will finally be gaining someone in that office far superior to the current occupant whose abilities we have long questioned, we will be losing May from the Board of Supervisors where he has served with distinction. The addition of Lawson will at the very least help maintain the status quo for advocates of good government.
In deference to Mrs. Lawson’s campaign, I am holding off on making any announcements about my political future until after the first of the year so as to not detract any attention from where it should be these next two weeks. We need to do all that we can over the next 15 days to ensure that Jeanine Lawson is the next supervisor from the Brentsville District.
Why is it so important that we elect Lawson and others who share this basic good government philosophy? Because good governance ultimately benefits all citizens regardless of party, race, gender or current economic situation and that is the primary function of local government. We need people willing to commit to reforming our county government because we cannot keep going in the same direction that we have been for the past two decades in Prince William County — taxes are up, schools are more crowded, traffic is worse and businesses are bypassing us for Loudoun and Stafford counties. That is not good for anyone (unless you live in Loudoun or Stafford.)
This is why I have drafted “Agenda 2015: A Plan to Reform Prince William County Government.” Agenda 2015 is a series of common sense proposals aimed at solving our county’s current tax, spending, budget, education, economic, transportation, governance and ethics problems. By no means is this a panacea for these issues, but the start of what I hope is a long conversation that must be held in order to move forward on developing and implementing workable solutions. We cannot wait until after next year’s elections to start this discussion with new people, but must begin it now.
A PLAN TO REFORM PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY GOVERNMENT
INSTITUTE “ACCOUNTABILITY BUDGETING”
This twist on zero-based budgeting sets clear measurable goals, verifies progress, and makes adjustments as necessary. Not only would agencies and departments have to justify every dollar they request each year rather than start from the previous year’s baseline and grow from there, but requests for funds must be accompanied by specific measurable goals against which progress can be ascertained. This will allow for future budgets to make adjustments based upon what works and what doesn’t work. Perhaps if the county budgeted according to such straightforward principles, residents would not be facing a 4.5% tax hike for FY ’15 and a massive 22.5%+ tax increase over the coming 5 years.
MAKE REDUCING CLASS SIZES AND INCREASING TEACHER PAY A PRIORITY
The Board of Supervisors currently hands over nearly 60% of all tax revenues to the school system via a revenue sharing agreement, yet our classrooms remain the most crowded in the Commonwealth and our teachers are among the lowest paid in the region. The revenue sharing agreement must be scrapped and the supervisors should ask the school board members to put together a budget that sets as its priorities: 1.) reducing class sizes, and 2.) increasing teacher pay. The school board can then do this as they see fit, present their plan to the county supervisors who then have the option to approve the budget or ask the School Board to make additional changes before approval. That would ensure the school board’s legal autonomy while also maintaining the board’s oversight for nearly 60% of our tax dollars. That certainly makes much more sense than what we have now – a backwards process where the supervisors hand the money over first and then relinquish all oversight responsibility.
REFORM THE COUNTY’S TAX STRUCTURE
Fundamental reform of our tax structure in Prince William County is needed in order to protect taxpayers as well as to ensure the county’s future economic development and prosperity. We should be upfront about what taxes the county collects. County taxes on electricity, telephone service (both landline and cell), and cable as well as the personal property tax decal fee should be abolished and be made transparent by utilizing real estate taxes to raise the same revenue instead. Likewise, special assessments for fire, gypsy moth eradication and other services should be included in the real estate tax, not separated out. By doing these two things, taxpayers would know precisely how much they truly are paying in taxes and would also be able to deduct the full amount from their federal taxes.
REFORM THE COUNTY’S CAR TAX
We need to reform the county’s personal property tax, which is one of the most onerous taxes that we have to pay. Every October residents get hit with a bill that they must pay in a lump sum unlike the real estate tax that most people pay each month via payments to an escrow account as part of their mortgage. This is unconscionable and the portion that taxpayers must pay should be eliminated. Since the state reimburses the county for a portion of the car tax and we should not forgo that, the county should credit taxpayers with the amount they would owe on the tax with money paid by them in real estate taxes. Even renters indirectly pay real estate tax by way of the rent they pay to the property owner, so everyone would be paying their share in one way or another. Simply put, just as the phone or cable company has been able to bundle your phone, TV and internet into one package for a single price, the county should bundle all the revenue that it needs to raise into one tax and eliminate the rest. It will be simple, fair and easy to understand as well as beneficial to taxpayers.
IMPROVE THE COMMERCIAL-TO-RESIDENTIAL TAX RATIO
Our county’s tax base remains disproportionately residential resulting in a heavier than necessary tax burden on homeowners. The county has not even been able to meet the all-too-modest goal of a 75% / 25% residential to commercial split – and that includes counting apartment complexes as commercial property rather than residential. The continuous rezoning of commercial property to residential, which is the heart of the tax ratio problem, can no longer go on unabated. The Board of Supervisors should adopt a rezoning “swap” policy where commercial property may only be rezoned for residential if an equal amount of unused residentially-zoned property is converted to commercial use. At the same time, policies must be put in place to attract businesses to the county that will offer high quality jobs rather than simply more hospitality and retail sector positions.
The Business, Professional, and Occupational License or BPOL tax (which is a relic of the War of 1812) is on gross receipts, not actual income. Stafford County’s elimination of their BPOL tax is something that their economic development department has used to great effect in luring high-end businesses that might otherwise have located in Prince William County. As a result, Prince William County attracts low-wage retail and hospitality industries as its primary employers while Stafford and Loudoun counties struggle to keep up with the demand for office space from high-end, good paying private sector employers.
STREAMLINE THE COUNTY’S PERMITTING AND INSPECTION BUREAUCRACY
The county bureaucracy responsible for issuing building permits and conducting inspections is riddled with problems ranging from lost site plans for parcels of land to ridiculously high fees for permits to do something as minor as moving a fire sprinkler head a few feet to accommodate the reconfiguration of commercial office space. When it is easier to obtain a building permit for a house in the county than it is for a simple outdoor covered structure that has no walls, doors, windows, power or plumbing, there is something drastically wrong. When new businesses have their openings delayed by several months because of this bureaucracy, resulting in lost wages for employees and lost tax revenue for the county, it should be a priority for the Board of Supervisors to fix the process.
SHINE MOONLIGHT ON BOARD PROCEEDINGS
Our Board of County Supervisors is supposed to be a part-time position and represent the typical county citizen. Due to the county’s lack of quality employment, many residents must travel to other parts of Northern Virginia or into Washington, DC for their jobs. Most people have 9-to-5 types of jobs, yet too often our county supervisors hide in broad daylight by way of afternoon meetings that citizens cannot attend without taking time off from work. As a result, a majority of current supervisors are either self-employed or retired because they are the only ones who can participate. In order to encourage better civic involvement, both in terms of residents attending meetings to have their voices heard as well as encouraging them to serve on the board themselves, all meetings should be held during the evening.
INCREASE EFFICIENCY OF BOARD MEETINGS
Establish four board committees: Finance, Government Services and Operations; Transportation and Land Use; Economic Development; and Joint Schools/BOCS. Items would be introduced before the full Board and then the Board would have the option of sending them to committee for a more in depth discussion and study. The committees would have 3-5 members, meet monthly, and make recommendations to the full Board. During the budget process, Finance would hold additional meetings and work out a Capital Improvement Plan for adoption by the full Board using different metrics on things such as debt capacity, load, ratios, etc. This will serve to make BOCS Business Meetings more efficient and more focused on making decisions as opposed to exploration and/or oversight.
ADOPT STRONGER CONFLICT OF INTEREST AND ETHICS RULES
Our current Board has been plagued by numerous scandals with one of the most egregious being the use of taxpayers’ money in the form of office discretionary funds that were used instead for personal and political purposes. While this has been reined in somewhat, other avenues for abuse of our tax dollars still exist including the budget carryover process. The ethics and conflict of interest statutes that currently only apply to Loudoun and Fairfax counties must be extended by the General Assembly to cover Prince William County as well. Our county should be at the forefront of lobbying for this change and until it is instituted should put in place rules that mirror it.
IMPLEMENT COST-EFFECTIVE MASS TRANSIT
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) can be implemented at a fraction of the cost of extending Metro, providing more immediate service and getting customers where they need to go much faster than Metro ever could.
The county needs to better publicize the OmniRide Metro Direct service (prominent Metro Direct signs at pick-up locations and recognizable signs on the buses like the DC Circulator would help). BRT can serve the needs of people to connect with Metro now at a fraction of the cost. The service should be tweaked – the buses could go directly to Metro stations in Fairfax from their origination point in Prince William and the departure/arrival stations could be prominently located close to entrances for the EZPass Express lanes on I-95 or the I-66 HOV lanes. This would also enable the county to avoid becoming a member of the Metro system and paying millions of dollars each year for system-wide maintenance of Metro that would gut the county’s transportation budget.