Virginia’s Commission on Local Government publishes annually a catalog of state and federal mandates on local governments. This year’s edition was 310 pages long and the list keeps getting longer, according to county administrators in the Northern Neck frustrated with the Virginia General Assembly passing the buck.
“They could care less at this point. The General Assembly used to be pretty forthcoming. You knew what was going to happen,” said Kenneth “Kenny” Eades, Northumberland County administrator. “It’s just getting more and more expensive and they’re doing everything they can to pass it to us and we don’t have anybody to pass it to but the taxpayers, so we catch all the grief.”
Eades estimates that mandates constitute approximately 50 percent of his annual budget, excluding education spending. Usually the cost of running a government rises proportionally to population; as the number of citizens increases, the demand for government services such as education and public safety rises as well. That hasn’t been the case in Northumberland County.
“Our population increased by 71 people but I’ve got more deputies than I ever have, the schools have more employees than they ever have,” Eades said. “Things don’t reduce.”
And some mandates are just odd. Perhaps the strangest example Eades has encountered is the law requiring the county to keep its animal shelter cooled during the summer months.
“I’m mandated that the temperature in the summer in the animal shelter cannot go above 85 degrees. So, I have to air-condition my shelter but there’s no requirement that I have to air-condition my schools,” he said.
Ted McCormack serves as director of governmental affairs for the Richmond-based Virginia Association of Counties. He said that the phenomenon known as “unfunded mandates” has been affecting local governments in a real way for at least the last two decades.
“We hear about it all the time. It’s one of the things that is in the forefront of local governments throughout the commonwealth. It’s been an issue probably over 20 years or more.”
The Virginia Association of Counties, known as VACO, represents localities in the legislative and regulatory environments. McCormack previously served on the commission on local government created in the mid-1980s at the request of localities and tasked with overseeing assessment of local government mandates.
McCormack said that unfunded mandates continue to affect all types of localities, from rural counties and small towns to metropolitan and suburban areas.
“It’s a universal concern. In the more urban counties, they provide more services to their residents which exposes them to more mandates,” he said.
The converse is also true. Rural counties that provide a lesser amount of government services see a proportional mandate burden. McCormack stressed that mandates from upper levels of government play a key role in developing and maintaining public policy.
“We have cleaner water, cleaner air, less disease, things like that, because of mandates,” he said. “Mandates are used by all levels of government to further public policy purposes. The concern local governments have is with unfunded or underfunded mandates.”
McCormack said that often, when a higher level of government cuts spending, mandated programs that they used to fund remain in place and local governments wind up with the bill. A prime example in Virginia is the state’s “Line of Duty Act,” a formerly state-funded program set up to compensate families of law enforcement officers and emergency responders killed in the field. The program originally was extended to local governments as well, but that changed when the economy went south, McCormack said.
“When the recession came, one of the ways that the state used to make sure it had a balanced budget, because of the constitutional requirement, was to say ‘alright, from henceforth, the local portion of this program is going to be paid for by local governments and by the way, we’re going to still control the program,’” he said.
This program has specifically impacted the public safety sector. But asked whether one sector of government is more hard-hit by unfunded mandates, McCormack said that the impact really depends on the size of the department and what’s being required of it.
“It’s more of an order of magnitude rather than one area is more regulated than another,” he said. “But generally speaking…I think the most mandates are those imposed by the department of education and…I think the next level is probably social services and health/mental health areas.”
The Bay Act
Due to its location on the environmentally sensitive Chesapeake Bay, the Northern Neck has to abide by a number of regulations designed to keep pollution out of the beleaguered estuary.
In Richmond County, County Administrator William “Bill” Duncanson saw firsthand the impact that state mandates can have on local government. The state adopted the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act in 1988, action that forced Richmond County to adopt comprehensive zoning ordinances in 1995. Although Richmond County was obviously impacted, the measures generated regional indignation.
“There was very strong resentment I think in the Northern Neck when it was implemented,” Duncanson said. “Over time, I think most of that’s gone away. I think it’s fairly well accepted now.”
Counties were allotted some initial grant funding to implement the Bay Act, a series of laws designed to curb the amount of pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay.
“I can’t say there was no funding for it. All the counties did get various grants to help implement the Bay Act,” Duncanson said. “Those grants are, of course, long gone and we’re still dealing with that.”
A specific program under the Bay Act requires localities to enforce a five-year pumpout requirement for homeowners operating septic tanks. Eades points to this mandate as a prime example of the state putting the onus of environmental regulations on localities, and ultimately, private citizens.
“First of all, why wasn’t the health department mandated to do that if it’s such a good thing?” Eades said. “It’s because the state didn’t want to have to pay for them to do it. They would rather the localities pay for it, so they throw it into our laps.”
Enforcement of the program requires counties to maintain a database of citizens that county staff has to track, something Eades calls “busy work.”
“You’re putting an added expense on the individual, you’re putting an added expense on the locality and there’s no proven statistics that it’s doing anybody any good,” Eades said. “It’s little stuff like that that gets to you after a while.”
More to come
Virginia Governor Robert “Bob” McDonnell implemented a commission on local government, charged with reducing mandates on localities. In the past year, this commission eliminated six mandates and made 10 “less burdensome.” At the same time, mandates at the local level increased by 2.5 percent to a grand total of 632.
“What was it, 16 that they cut out? It was 16 that didn’t amount to a hill of beans,” Eades said. “As far as staff time or reducing a program, it didn’t happen. It was just a political thing.”
Bill Pennell, interim county administrator in Essex County and a longtime local government official in Lancaster County, agreed that the mandate burden has increased over the years despite politicians’ outcries in the General Assembly.
“All the legislators decry unfunded mandates but every year they seem to heap more onto the pile,” Pennell said.
McCormack noted that the commission on local government has only been through two legislative sessions and had some minor success in last year’s general assembly.
“The overall impact of those were, yes, they had the success in eliminating some of those mandates or lessening the burden on local government but only one or two were really significant,” McCormack said. “Continuing their work, they’ll probably have some more recommendations this session.
“Every legislative session regardless of the impact on local government seems to have more requirements on local government than less, that if they take one thing away some people say they put five things on.”