Budget cuts cause concern

Published 10:26 am Saturday, October 10, 2009

RICHMOND—Officials in local constitutional offices are trying to figure out how they can best continue to serve the public while receiving even less money from the state.

Gov. Tim Kaine announced $1.35 billion in budget cuts recently to address revenue shortfalls that were projected to continue into the 2010 fiscal year.

The governor’s plan contained no tax increases and K-12 education would not be affected, but 929 positions statewide would be eliminated, including 593 layoffs. Most of the state workers who remained would take a one-day furlough on the Friday before Memorial Day.

But workers in the five constitutional offices across every locality in Virginia — Sheriff’s Office, Commonwealth’s Attorney, Treasurer, Commissioner of the Revenue and Circuit Court Clerk — are being asked to shoulder a large part of the $1 billion in savings proposed under Kaine’s plan, announced last month.

Three offices that serve both Southampton County and the city of Franklin — the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office, the Southampton County Circuit Court Clerk and the Southampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney — face proposed cuts of $172,366, $28,237 and $23,476, respectively.

“I’m obviously concerned about any reduction of services countywide, from my office and others,” Southampton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke said. “It’s of great concern to all of us.”

Meanwhile, the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office faces a $71,298 budget cut, while the Isle of Wight County Circuit Court Clerk will get $21,740 less and the Isle of Wight County Commonwealth’s Attorney is being cut $21,794.

Commissioners of the Revenue also face budget cuts. In Isle of Wight County the office will be asked to take a $12,299 cut, while their counterparts in Southampton County and the city of Franklin respectively face cuts of $6,827 and $4,430.

The governor’s cuts will affect Treasurers in all three localities as well, with cuts of $10,311, $4,924 and $7,714 being handed out to Isle of Wight and Southampton counties and the city of Franklin, respectively.

Cooke said he anticipates that he will have to leave vacant a paralegal position that he’s been trying to fill for a couple of years. The paralegal would have performed case preparation, data entry and research work.

“Most of the cut that I have we’ll be able to deal with by not filling the vacant paralegal position,” Cooke said. “Obviously that means forfeiting that position or most of the money that would be used to fund it. But what I really was striving for was not to have to lay anybody off. I’m optimistic that we’ll be able to accomplish that and maintain at least our current staffing for the time being.”

Cooke said his office has three attorneys, including himself, an office manager and a worker in the victim and witness services office.

“What these cuts mean for the following year, I’m not sure,” Cooke said. “But I’m concerned about it.”

Down the hall from Cooke’s office, Southampton County Circuit Court Clerk Rick Francis is also pondering his options.

“Back in March, the county asked us to make a five-percent cut,” Francis said. “We did that by cutting all our supplies, postage and other things to make the savings. I told (the county) that we were going to probably have to come back next year and ask for some of that funding to be restored. We won’t be able to continue without purchasing filing cabinets for additional storage and other things as time goes on.”

Francis said the governor was now asking his office for what amounts to a 15-percent cut.

“The last thing I want to do is lose staff,” Francis said. “Some days it is terribly hectic here. We’re short-staffed. I don’t know how we would accommodate not only lunchtime, but also vacation time or if anyone’s sick. We would be hard-pressed to have the courtroom manned and to have sufficient people at the desk to handle the walk-in clientele that we have.”

That clientele is looking for Francis’ six-member staff to perform one of 803 mandated services the clerk’s office provides.

“The only thing that’s not mandated by code that we are doing is passports because there is nowhere else in this county or (in Franklin) that does passports,” Francis said, adding that Suffolk and Emporia are the next closest locations to get a passport. “I’ve been in communication with those clerks because I’m not sure what they’re going to do, if they’re going to keep doing passports or not.”

Francis said that limiting hours or limiting services were some of the few options he had available to make the necessary cuts.

“I may have to make people schedule appointments to even do little trivial things such as coming in for handgun permits or marriage licenses,” Francis said. “We have a lot of walk-in business. My office and the treasurer’s office are the primary two conduits for funds coming to the county and to the state. I think it’s going to be a little tough without it hurting the backend financially if we cannot take people’s money when they’re ready to pay it.”

Both Cooke and Francis said they planned to meet with Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson in the coming weeks to discuss how their offices can best weather the budget cuts, and to see if the county is able to make up for any of the lost state funding.

“It’s very tough times,” Francis said. “I’m hoping that we will be able to put our heads together and come up with a solution that will not limit the hours and not limit the services provided to the good folks of Southampton County and the city of Franklin.”