Vice Mayor Rosen worries talk of a Roanoke fiscal cliff by Mayor Bowers will scare citizens.
Mayor David Bowers’ comment was a bit of a head-scratcher at last Monday’s joint meeting with the Roanoke City School Board. “I’m becoming concerned that Roanoke’s fiscal cliff is looming just beyond the horizon,” said Bowers.
Bowers claimed that other civic organizations were in the same boat. The fiscal cliff not only pertains to Roanoke’s schools but “other things that we as a council I think are going to be facing.” He explained that council was going to have to make serious decisions within 12-18 months about the schools, museums (Taubman), the zoo, the performing arts and storm water management regulations.
Bowers feared museums and the zoo would close and funding for community assistance organizations would dry up.”The time is coming when alternatively we can do nothing and in a couple more years they will be bankrupt,” said Bowers. “The clock is ticking on our fiscal cliff. Is this what we’ve come to in Roanoke?”
Vice Mayor Court Rosen took a less amicable tact and directed a barb at Mayor Bowers. “Just to be more blunt and fair I’m not sure where you came up with this notion of Roanoke is facing a fiscal cliff,” said Rosen. Bowers started to explain but Rosen cut him off saying he didn’t want a debate. “I would disagree completely … Roanoke has been proactive.”
Rosen listed the proactive steps Roanoke had taken like funding the reserve at $25 million and reforming the pension system. “I don’t think it’s fair you are scaring the public. Roanoke is on a solid footing.” he said. “I just don’t know where in the world that comes from.”
Later in a phone call Bowers said that “if the Vice Mayor wants to dispute the fact he may do so and should I be wrong and [School Board Chairman] Dave Carson is wrong than OK we are wrong … time will tell if Carson and I are right or Court is right.”
Bowers said his remarks came from a meeting with School Board Chairman David Carson just before Christmas. Bowers looked over documents showing the schools healthy reserve. Carson than went through a laundry list of expenditures that would deplete the reserve in 15 to 18 months.
Over the last month he said he had also been contacted by representatives of arts and culture organizations. “They’ve been struggling so bad some of them are moving into the danger zone,” he said though admitting that they might be exaggerating their dilemma.
The culmination of these interactions brought to mind the term “fiscal cliff” he said. Bowers clarified that the city itself was in good shape but financially flat.
“It is a dereliction of duty if we don’t now relay to the public the concerns of our very reliable superintendent [Rita Bishop] and chairman of the school board. That’s where I take issue with the Vice Mayor,” said Bowers. “Time will tell … do we need to address it now or can we wait another year.”
This is the same point Carson made in May, 2012. The $12 million RCPS has squirreled away came from both the meals tax and stimulus funds. “We are not spending excess but spending down savings,” said Carson at the time.
At the same May meeting with city council Deputy Superintendent Curt Baker said, “It is clear that the Virginia Retirement System is going to be the wild card if it keeps increasing.” The draw down comes to $4 million this year and is a third of our total fund balance Baker explained.
Carson said Monday that RCPS is “deficit spending right now.” He praised city council for the meals tax revenue and the new funding formula that has served as a financial cushion. The state however, is funding the schools at 2005-2006 levels.”All of our issues, financial and otherwise would be taken care of if the state stepped up and did what it needs to do.” said Carson.
The city had “doubled down” when the schools were failing years ago and the risk has paid off in higher graduation rates. “It’s only going to get better,” said Carson. “So there will come a point at which you decide do we double down again – do we not and keep hoping that the state does what it needs to do.”
“The present course of deficit spending cannot continue,” said Carson.
Councilman Ray Ferris made it clear that taxpayers shouldn’t be on the hook to fund arts and culture organizations like the Taubman museum. “We absolutely cannot in my mind impose upon the citizens of Roanoke a burden that they didn’t assume.” They are going to have to find their own way he said. “The city has been very generous in the past … education is going to have to be the priority,” said Ferris. He indicated that the funding formula might have to be adjusted to compensate for any shortfalls.
Last year the state played a shell game. They gave schools more lottery money but the state cut funding to schools by an equal amount said Carson. Additionally the state saddled the school system with the financial burden imposed by the reform of the Virginia Retirement System last year.
Councilman Bill Bestpitch chimed in calling the lottery system “the biggest bamboozle that has ever been perpetrated on the public in the Commonwealth of Virginia … it is an accounting trick.”
Councilman Sherman Lea added that “it seemed when [council] meets with our legislators - it seems to be a picnic … they need to understand our frustration.” He blamed council as a whole for dancing around the issues when they held their joint legislative sessions.
The state has been shifting its Constitutional responsibility for funding public education to localities while holding them responsible for academic achievement standards. To compensate local governments are faced with increasing taxes or cutting funding to public education and other public services.
If the economy remains stagnant or falls into recession again Roanoke citizens could be looking at higher taxes.