Over the past decade, Charlottesville’s budget has nearly doubled—compounding meteoric budget ascensions of the 1990s. Many factors facilitated City government’s gross overconsumption of taxpayer monies, any of which could have been remedied if only the offenders had acknowledged transgression.
An overview of the City’s fiscal mismanagement reveals four problem areas:
- Puppet City Manager
- Rising assessments without fiscal restraint
- Single-party rule in Charlottesville City Hall
- Deceptive budgeting practices
Gary O’Connell, Charlottesville’s outgoing City Manager has for years keenly been aware of Council’s financial crapulence. It is his office that proposes the City’s annual budget, and ultimately, as the “CEO” of the Charlottesville “Organization,” the buck stops at his desk.
Unfortunately, it never did.
The inept executive oversaw in his tenure the demise of City infrastructure: leaking water pipes, disintegrating sewers, cracked streets, failed bricks on the Downtown Mall, decimated sidewalks, decaying parks, and buckling bridges, amid myriad other capital collapses.
When confronted with his lack of leadership, Chairman O’Connell has abdicated his responsibility and blamed previous City Councils for not prioritizing infrastructure maintenance. O’Connell claims councils have only wanted to “build the new stuff,” relinquishing himself from culpability even as he watched Charlottesville crumble.
When O’Connell saw that the ship was listing, it was his duty to sound the alarm. Instead he went below deck and battened the hatch. In dereliction, he deserved court-martial; in reality, he was favored with a golden parachute and retirement benefits beyond calculation.
With waves breaking over the bow of the S.S. Charlottesville, O’Connell has abandoned ship altogether, heading for the relatively calmer waters of the Albemarle County Service Authority.
Don’t Blame Me; It’s the Assessor’s Fault
The corruption of Charlottesville’s assessment process and resulting outcomes has been documented here, and the City Manager played a large part in allowing residents’ taxes to spin wildly out of control during real estate’s “go-go” years. His “policy” of developing a budget “within projected available revenues” is the rotten core of Charlottesville’s budget “apple.”
As property assessments rose, year-after-year, O’Connell and his Council had opportunity to exercise fiscal restraint and reduce the real property tax rate in order to ameliorate rising assessments, but instead they chose to grow the budget to unfathomable bloat primarily because finding ways to spend the inflow was easier (and more profitable) than cutting back expenditures and returning excess funds to taxpayers.
Annually, desperate citizens, fearful of losing their homes to Charlottesville’s crushing real estate tax levy, pleaded with council for forbearance. Like clockwork, and with a wink and a nod, Council feigned sympathy but reasoned that City government had greater and higher use for citizens’ money (property) than did the citizens themselves.
Hundreds of long-time residents abandoned Charlottesville during the O’Connell era, never to return. And those who replaced them—seeking refuge from high-tax behemoths like New York, California, and Vermont—found Charlottesville to be relatively inexpensive tax-wise, and thus, they did not complain about tax hikes as the natives had.
Of the Democrats, by the Democrats, and for the Democrats!
Single-party rule has been a paramount inhibitor to City government’s efforts to”bell” the budget “cat.”Political inbreeding in City Hall as a result of Charlottesville’s corrupt Democrat machine politics has, for the most part, defanged dissenting voices.
Monolithic thought has led to a lack of discussion and “new” thinking regarding budget policies and issues, while intellectual unison has promoted stagnancy.
In the annual budget conversation few non-conforming votes have occurred, and a fear of publicly criticizing”fellow” Democrats has overwhelmed any desire to propose substantive change.
Democrat campaign managers, Democrat business owners, Democrat non-profit directors, Democrat clergy, Democrat “arts” patrons, Democrat architecture firms, Democrat attorneys all have profited from cronyism Charlottesville-style, but the subsequent favors bestowed upon the Democrat fortunate sons (and daughters) has cost taxpayers dearly.
City Manager O’Connell develops the budget in a dubiously non-partisan environment; indeed, he is a self-proclaimed co-conspirator to Democrat favoritism in the budget process. In a February 26, 2010 budget cover letter, O’Connell trumpets his use of public tax money to pay for the whims of individual councilors:
“This budget includes funding for a few new and expanded programs that are a high priority of City Council. Between the Operation and Capital Budgets, there is over $2.6M in Council Priority Initiatives.” [emphasis in the original]
The annual playing-out of this backstage charade ensures that, at budget time, Democrat councilors can deliver promised patronage to Democrat beneficiaries.
But the flip side of this duplicitous relationship is almost entirely surreptitious.
Each fall, the City Manager solicits councilors for a performance “evaluation” with an appurtenant salary increase (and oftentimes a bonus) request either implied or directly requisitioned. And each fall, councilors, who have been favored with tax dollars by the City Manager, are eager to satisfy his salary demands in anticipation of the following budget season and its congenital political benefits.
This cycle of partisan political payback between Council Democrats and a Democrat operative in executive residency (City Manager) has, of course, exacerbated already irresponsible and capricious budgeting and spending practices.
O’Connell’s Budget”Dog and Pony Show”
Unbeknownst to many Charlottesville taxpayers, Charlottesville City traditionally has run a budget surplus—totaling tens of millions of dollars over just the past five years. Mayor Norris himself has described City government as “swimming in cash.”
While a budget surplus may be considered evidence of prudent fiscal management, this supposition bears further examination in the context of Charlottesville governance. In the budget process, Council sets tax rates and fees under the presumption that all monies collected are legitimately required for the operation of the municipality. Though a small annual surplus may be anticipated, the consistently large annual budget surpluses Charlottesville incurs do not point to careful management of tax dollars but rather to an insatiable and unjust desire to over-collect tax revenue from the pockets of hard working citizens.
Interestingly, O’Connell and the City Hall Cabal have been reluctant to use the “s” word (surplus) openly, rightfully fearing backlash from the city’s few budget watchdogs. In order to delude the public, instead they refer to “fund balances” and “unspent allocations,” knowing well that these terms obfuscate.
Through O’Connell’s budget sorcery, excess (surplus) funds are quietly distributed at the end of each year with the City Manager suggesting to Council appropriate disposition. And millions of dollars taken from citizens—under false pretenses—are not returned.
Much of the money does make its way into the capital budget, but the mendacious path taken to secure those dollars, for often-superfluous projects, borders on criminal deceit.
When questioned on the subject of Charlottesville’s fiscal management, however, Councilors and the City Manager are quick to self-congratulate describing themselves as “responsible,””prudent,” and “sustainable”in reference to their budgeting prowess.
Yet, the practice of assiduously seizing from taxpayers more money than is justified amounts to government thievery, with O’Connell himself cast as the “Prince of Thieves.”
Time to Change
Change is overdue in Charlottesville, and with O”Connell’s impending departure, it may soon be realized. But before necessary change can take place, the lie that Charlottesville is a fiscally well-managed city must be dispelled.
A fiscally well-managed city does not:
- place an escalating tax burden on citizens that is so high it leads to mass exodus of homeowners
- through excessive taxation promote reduced commercial activity and sky-high rents
- nearly double its annual budget over ten years while serving decreasing citizen and school populations
- after millions of dollars squandered, retain embarrassingly high levels of crumbling infrastructure
Rather, consistent and astronomical surpluses in Charlottesville indicate budgetary incompetence or mass artifice, neither of which merits accolade.
That City Manager O’Connell and his Council accomplices have robbed tens of millions of dollars from Charlottesville taxpayers should bring shame to the hearts of these larcenists. Sadly, they revel in their success annually, having bamboozled Charlottesville citizens once again.
To see how Charlottesville can easily trim $15 million from this year’s budget, read The Charlottesville budget bomb 2.