Newest board members forge relationship, differences aside
CHRISTIANSBURG – On opposite sides of the political fence, the newest, youngest members of Montgomery County’s Board of Supervisors say they share a hope that a strengthening economy will prevent recurrence of the budget turmoil that wracked the county this year.
“Last year was the cliff. We went over the cliff,” Supervisor Matt Gabriele said last week, still sounding surprised by the financial straits that the county found itself in. “There was a variety of reasons for that, some of which were honestly the county’s own doing and some of which were well beyond our control. But I just can’t see that happening again next year. We’re on our way now.”
“I’m very optimistic,” echoed Supervisor Chris Tuck, who like Gabriele was elected last year and who sits next to Gabriele at most meetings. He pointed to new estimates that Montgomery County will bring in $1.5 million more in tax revenue than expected this year, plus a new $1.7 million in taxes if the county’s growth equals last year’s. “That would give us almost $3 million to do a lot of things with.”
Gabriele, 36, is a Democrat and an associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Religion and Culture. He represents District G in east Blacksburg.
Tuck, 45, is a Republican and an attorney who works from Blacksburg. His District B takes in much of Christiansburg.
As they near the one-year mark in office, Tuck and Gabriele have changed the seven-member board’s dynamic, bringing new ideas and a markedly different energy to the array of issues the board tackles. Both championed a still-in-play plan for the county to join the Blacksburg-Christiansburg-VPI Water Authority and pushed back at Supervisor Gary Creed’s proposals to use general fund money to build more water lines, a step that the towns had warned they opposed. Gabriele pushed the use of iPads to replace the thick paper packets given to supervisors before meetings, and Tuck suggested Goodwill collection boxes at several county trash and recycling centers that in July brought in 5,800 pounds of donations.
The only issues that found Gabriele and Tuck at odds were financial. During last spring’s fraught budget process, Gabriele pushed to advertise a 13-cent increase to the county’s real estate property tax rate, a step that would have let the county adopt that rate if enough supervisors wanted to. Tuck, after finding no board interest in eliminating a tax increase altogether, agreed to support a 10-cent boost because it was the lowest amount a board majority was willing to consider. The board later approved a 12-cent increase on a 4-3 vote with Gabriele and Tuck on opposite sides.
More recently, the two were on opposite sides of a school board request to use rollover money for one-time expenses. Tuck, who cast the lone vote to deny the request, thought part of the schools’ proposal – to spend $250,000 on furniture for new administration offices, while half the projected cost of fully equipping the new space – was frivolous when budgets are tight.
Montgomery is by some measures the region’s most prosperous county. But it went through an extended, very public budget agony this year. An unprecedented $124.5 million school construction initiative, increased to that amount by the closing two years ago of Blacksburg High School after its gym roof fell in, pulled at one end of spending plans as the end of federal stimulus money and shifts in state funding cut into the other. Residents packed meeting after meeting to protest proposed tax increases or to demand that officials maintain services.
Adding the 12 cents to bring the real estate tax rate to 87 cents per $100 value was the largest one-time tax increase officials could recall in the county. But the school board was still left to slash millions of dollars from its operating budget, cutting teaching jobs and other positions and spurring complaints that important programs were being gutted.
Tuck and Gabriele sat down recently to recall the budget struggles and to talk about what they see ahead for Montgomery County.
Challenges and hopes
They agreed that the greatest difficulty facing the county is the ongoing decline in state support for local services.
“In some ways,” Tuck said, “the counties are being required to balance the state budget. … Unfunded mandates – you hear the states complaining about it, and yet we’re having the state have basically unfunded mandates.”
He and Gabriele pointed to county figures that show that state support for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office has fallen from 77 percent of the office’s budget to 33 percent during the past dozen years.
“We’re darn near the tipping point,” Gabriele said,” in our ability to be able to fund all the services we need.”
But they both see hope in recent county projections of continued growth and higher-than-expected revenue. And the sale of surplus school properties and possible General Assembly approval of allowing liquor-by-the-drink sales near Interstate 81 exits 128 and 109 – a measure that supervisors hope would attract chain restaurants – may bring more.
Both supervisors want the county to find a location for a new industrial park that could offer a site for “the next big company, whether it’s Dish Network or BackCountry or Sierra Nevada,” Tuck said
“Trying to bring in enough new revenue to avoid having to raise taxes: That’s my goal,” he continued.
Gabriele said he’d like to see at least discussion of another more moderate tax increase that could bring in money to set aside for future needs.
“We don’t have to expend it now,” he said. “But we can put it in the bank so we don’t have to keep coming back year after year after year after year, you know, adding onto this tax increase. … The biggest thing that’s been my concern, at least related to taxes and the budget is to try to see a little more long-term planning so that we don’t make short-term decisions that may make sense kind of politically and serve a certain constituency but will ultimately be harmful to the county in the long run.”
Who to serve?
The Tea Party and Occupy Blacksburg – both organized political-based groups – were perhaps the most vocal entities at the marathon public hearings on the budget this year, but numerous school and community groups offered statements as well. Gabriele and Tuck said that while they enjoyed hearing from everyone, it was the stories of individuals, rather than of groups, that most affected them.
“It’s the human beings who are coming up in front of me and saying, ‘This is what is going on in my life. … This is how the budget cuts are going to affect my family,’” Tuck said.
“That for me is what the First Amendment is all about,” he continued. “Did I necessarily enjoy going until midnight? Probably not, but did I enjoy the overall process as far as listening? I think that was helpful.”
As for partisan politicking on the board, both said there wasn’t much.
“The Republicans right now have the chair,” Tuck said, referring to board Chairman Jim Politis. “And there’s only three of us. So I don’t necessarily think politics is driving every decision we’re making. … I don’t get phone calls from the party heads in Richmond telling me how to vote.”
Both Tuck and Gabriele said they planned to continue trying to shift the board’s direction.
“Simply because we’re different people, we ask different questions that perhaps haven’t been asked in the past,” Gabriele said. “We are also by far the youngest people on the board so I think we bring a very different perspective in that way too.”
Time to move on
Tuck and Gabriele said the sometimes-heated rhetoric of the budget discussions hadn’t boiled over into anything personal between board members.
“The budget process was probably as ornery as anything that we’ll go through – and it’s over,” Gabriele said. “We voted and moved on. I don’t see anybody holding grudges.”
Tuck said he’d had to put aside his own opposition to building a new Blacksburg High School – he preferred to rebuild the old one – when he was elected, because the construction decision had already been made, and he thought it would be a waste of money and maybe a blow to the county’s bond rating to try to back out of contracts and reverse the decision.
“I kind of felt like I was invited to dinner and by the time I got there, everybody’s done eating and they say, ‘Here’s the tab,’” Tuck said.
With a just-finished new courthouse and the ongoing school construction, county officials do not expect to be able to borrow for new projects for four or five years. But Gabriele and Tuck said they hope to start planning now for whatever the next school project will be. Tuck said he is particularly concerned about Christiansburg High School, which is in his district. With Eastern Montgomery High School in its first decade, and new Blacksburg and Auburn high schools due to be finished next year, Christiansburg is due for attention, he said.
“Perhaps we can use some of the school monies … monies that were generated from selling off the (surplus) school properties. Could I see us doing that? Yes. But if we don’t know if we’re going to build a new CHS or remodel, I don’t want to put millions of dollars into that building,” Tuck said.
Gabriele and Tuck said a joint meeting with the school board last month was promising. But, said Gabriele, “The important meeting will be the next meeting.
“The school board has gone back and determined a priority list on its capital needs, what do we need first and second and third. And we can talk about our sides of the capital needs, and what do we want and what do we need to pay for right now. And then we can actually start to put those two lists together and think about how are we going to pay for that,” Gabriele said.
Questioning each other
Tuck and Gabriele finished a recent discussion with a question for each other.
Tuck: “Are you going to propose another tax increase next year? But that’s so far off, it’s not a fair question.”
Gabriele: “I’ll answer that. I would like to talk about it … One of my frustrations from the last budget process is that I think that we weren’t willing to talk about a higher rate. For me, I would advertise a 50-cent (increase). Because it doesn’t lock us in in any way, shape or form. But we could talk about that. And we could even say we’re not really thinking about this at all, there’s no votes. And everyone would know there were no votes to do that. But it allows us to discuss possibilities for funding, which there aren’t. …
“So I probably will propose a one- or two-cent tax increase in the next budget, simply to discuss. I won’t ever commit to vote for it but I want to talk about it. Where can this money be diverted? Christiansburg High School, or demolition – does it seem like a sure possibility down the road? You know, animal shelter, all that kind of stuff.”
Gabriele then asked one of Tuck.
Gabriele: “You’ve had some criticisms of the school board in the past. Do you think that is a good working relationship? Or maybe to turn that into a more positive kind of thing, how can we improve that relationship? Because these are kind of the big two elected boards in the county.”
Tuck: “I feel like I can call up the school board members and talk with them. But it’s been very frustrating at times. One of the things I’ve been asking from the school board is numbers, and what are some projects at Christiansburg High School that you would like to do? I started asking school board members that in April and I still haven’t gotten an answer. And that is extremely frustrating …
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