Editor’s Desk: I have yet to meet the free money fairy

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, April 25, 2024

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I have yet to meet the free money fairy. I’m told that much like Santa Claus, all it takes is belief and he’ll magically appear, immediately giving you all the cash your county or town requires. He’s apparently been known to spring from the ceiling, throwing bundles of cash at unsuspecting council members. Or when you take a break mid-meeting, some supervisors return to find checks worth millions in their seats. 

Sadly, I’m apparently too cynical to visit, although I’ve met many who believe in him. Now granted, they don’t actually label him as such. Instead, they just let everyone from lawmakers to news editors know he exists. Why else would people come to everything from school board meetings to county budget hearings with a wishlist of things they have to know there is no money for? I mean yes, we’re in the middle of budget season, which is sadly getting extended this year thanks to the fact the General Assembly can’t agree with itself or the governor. It’s going to be mid-May before the final state budget session is held. But regardless of the state government, we have to be realistic with what’s possible here. 

I’ve talked with several people before and after county and town meetings where they just say “find another way” or “just work harder, there are other options”. Having sat through years of budget work sessions, having seen what staff in each of these counties goes through just to be able to present you with the budgets you’re seeing right now, I’m here to say that’s not always the case. 

For all the folks armed with pitchforks about the planned 33 cent real estate tax here in Lunenburg, what’s the county supposed to do instead? It’s not exactly like people are knocking down the doors to try and move in here. In fact, the opposite is the problem, as we detailed earlier this year. 

In 2000, Lunenburg had 13,146 residents. That fell by 232 in 2010 and another 978 in 2020. Despite a small increase from 2020 to the present day, a study from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service projects that Lunenburg will see some severe losses over the next 26 years. Lunenburg County’s population was 11,936 in the 2020 census, and Weldon Cooper Center’s projections show slight growth in 2023 at 12,060. However, the study expects that to decline to 10,801 people in 2030, 10,046 in 2040 and 9,441 by 2050. 

If you have a shrinking population, then typically counties turn to new business, retail and other revenue to balance things out. But Lunenburg doesn’t have a large amount of those either. So what happens? Well, if you don’t have enough businesses to handle the tax load, the burden either falls on increased taxes or you cut everything else to the bone. 

And so, now here we are. The free money fairy gets asked to make an appearance, with county departments and other groups asking for funds that simply aren’t there. It’s not that supervisors or anyone else is trying to restrict their use. The money just isn’t there. 

So how is that supposed to work? Where is the money supposed to come from? And don’t just say “it’s their job to find it” or something similar. It’s also the job of county supervisors to be realistic and recognize that they can’t pull from the fund balance to cover all the requests and they can’t raise taxes enough to provide that money without harming residents. 

No, there isn’t more money “somewhere” they could get. No, they can’t cut without affecting services. And if someone has a better solution, please speak up. If you don’t like any of these things, what’s your method for bringing more money into the counties? Counties need money to operate. Those programs you want launched and projects you want built cost money. You have to convince restaurants and retail shops, along with other employers, that they want to operate in your community. And in many cases, we’re not there yet. 

But here’s where I point out it’s not all doom and gloom. Kinex plans to have more than 1,200 miles of broadband laid in Lunenburg and the surrounding area by 2025, giving residents access to high-speed internet. Schools across the county are showing improvement in both chronic absenteeism and test passing rates. The county is in a transition phase, in many ways, creating tools and building concepts that will help in the future. 

But the future’s not here yet. And so we need to temper expectations just a bit. You know, until the free money fairy puts that $10 million check in your seat. 

Brian Carlton is the editor for The K-V Dispatch and Farmville Newsmedia LLC. He can be reached at Brian.Carlton@KVDispatch.com.