Fluvanna takes ax to budget, restores some funding after residents protest (with audio)

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Last Wednesday, Fluvanna County Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Kenney addressed parents and teachers who were outraged at last-minute budget cuts that eliminated funds from schools, JABA and JAUNT. (Photo by Laura Ingles)  

A battle over spending costs and government priorities played out in Fluvanna last week when the Board of Supervisors made dramatic last-minute budget cuts, slashing funding for schools and services for senior citizens.

After county residents responded with outrage, the Board reallocated a portion of the funds to the schools, the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA), and JAUNT, an alternative transportation service that operates in Charlottesville and surrounding counties and is owned by the municipalities it serves. Many residents say the restorations may be better than nothing, but are still not enough.

Though the county budget had already been finalized, Republican Supervisors Bob Ullenbruch and Donald Weaver met with Chairman Shaun Kenney on the morning of May 2 to discuss a reduced tax rate that would cut funding to the School Board, JABA, and JAUNT. With Kenney’s swing vote in their favor, the Republicans of the Board ruled, and the other two Supervisors, Joe Chesser and Mozell Booker, were informed of the decision about three hours before a regularly scheduled Board meeting. School administrators were given the same notice.

With the average home assessed at $237,000, the tax cut will save county residents roughly $194 a year.

With funding slashed, the schools, JABA, and JAUNT scrambled to scale back.

The School Board later voted on a number of cost-saving measures, like eliminating all field trips, issuing furloughs for staff, and reconstructing the early retirement and extended services programs. It also decided not to open the new high school on Route 53, which was built this year and expected to offer technical career classes like nursing, cosmetology, barbering and culinary arts.

Emily Daidone, manager of JABA’s community centers, said the Fluvanna center would have to close for a day, Meals on Wheels deliveries would be reduced, and positions would be terminated. The center serves 600 Fluvanna seniors—about one in five older adults in the county.

“This is their livelihood,” Daidone said. The program provides a family-like social outlet, she said, and JABA meals can often be the only nutritious foods some seniors get all day.

The reduced budget would have made it harder for half of JABA’s users to get to the center because the Board also eliminated JAUNT from the budget.

The regional transportation system made 21,000 trips to Fluvanna last year. Residents use the shuttle bus service to travel to and from Charlottesville and elsewhere for doctor’s appointments, shopping, even work, and Daidone said about 300 Fluvanna seniors use it regularly to get to their JABA services.

JAUNT leaders said that, faced with a total cut in Fluvanna support their only choice was to stop serving the county, effective July 1.

“It’s going to be a sad day in Fluvanna County if it’s not there anymore,” said Albert Lowry, a Lake Monticello senior citizen who rides the JAUNT bus regularly. Lowry said riders would not have any alternative transportation options besides the helpful but unsustainable “neighbors helping neighbors.” Chairman Shaun Kenney disagreed.

Kenney said programs like JABA and JAUNT have ample opportunities to fundraise and sustain themselves without “dipping into the back pockets of taxpayers.”

“Governments shouldn’t be funding non-profits,” he said. “If a service is a benefit to the community, then the community should be willing to support it voluntarily.”

Two weeks after the last meeting, hundreds of protesters gathered at Central Elementary School in Palmyra to object the cuts. Children held signs that said “Support my future” and “Save our schools,” while their parents and teachers discussed numbers and demanded answers.

One Fluvanna business owner expressed his support of the lowered tax rate, but his voice was drowned out by the outraged residents crowded around Kenney, firing questions like “How can we keep our teachers?” and “Don’t my kids deserve an education?”

The rally lasted until 7pm, when the Board of Supervisors met in the school’s auditorium to hear more than 70 people, from scornful seniors to tearful teachers. After almost four hours’ worth of statements, the Board held a brief discussion and voted to reallocate $650,000 to the schools and $65,000 each to JABA and JAUNT by borrowing from elsewhere in the budget.

The $650,000 will allow the School Board to open the new high school, said Superintendent Gena Keller, but it will not fill all the gaps, and the technical education programs will be cut for the time being.

JABA and JAUNT leaders were appreciative of the reallocated funds, but said the money fell short of what they needed to maintain existing services.

Daidone said she felt the rally was successful, and was proud of JABA’s members for putting such effort into creating awareness about the program.

“We’re coming together and deciding what this means for the JABA programs and what the impacts are going to be,” she said.

In nearby Albemarle, County Supervisor Duane Snow said the attitude toward funding established social services was different. He and his colleagues have made about $30 million in cuts in the past three years, but keeping JABA and JAUNT afloat has remained a priority. He and the rest of the Board recognized that “we have an aging population,” he said, and voted unanimously to fund them again this year.

Snow said he has seen first-hand the benefits of the programs, and a close friend has been able to maintain her job by taking her husband to JABA’s adult day care center during the day. He said the county funded the organizations long before he joined the Board, and has been forced to discuss cuts, but never eliminations.

“You are always going to make people unhappy if you raise taxes,” Snow said, “and you’re always going to make people unhappy if you don’t raise taxes.

 

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