The Latest Locality Unfunded Mandate

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    As Richmond contended with the state budget shortfall while devising the current biennial budget, we all know how legislators filled $630 million of the budget gap by “borrowing” from the state retirement fund, VRS. Now, it seems that another way it dealt with the fiscal crisis was to push yet another unfunded mandate onto localities, which are already struggling with cuts in state aid for vital services. The state program to provide death benefits to families of police officers and firefighters and health benefits to those injured or disabled in the line of duty is now slated to become the responsibility of localities.

    The greatest fallacy in actions like that is somehow believing that localities can easily find revenue not available to the state. For any locality in Virginia, the main source of revenue is its property tax. As long as the housing market remains in a “bubble has burst” recession, that revenue will stay below pre-recession levels. Localities are already scrambling to replace huge cuts the state has made in its aid; now, this mandate becomes just the latest. As Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Whitt said, “They’re going to have to rob someone else’s budget to make sure we have adequate funds.”

    All Virginia localities will pay $233.89 per full-time first responder employee and $58.47 per volunteer to fund the program, starting July 1. No one can predict how high the per employee amount will be in the future, but estimates are that costs per full-time employee could hit $642.47 by 2015. Since the program began in 1975, covering officers back to 1966, claims have been paid using the state’s general fund. Now, the program becomes just another state responsibility pushed off onto someone else.

    • It’s also important to keep in mind that many people in these jobs have a very difficult time getting private insurance to cover them in any meaningful way, and premiums can be very expensive. If we are going to ask people to take on dangerous jobs (and a big thank you to everyone who does!) then this is part of their pay.  And the ONLY way to do this that provides these men and women with the security they need in a cost effective way is to create a large pool — something better done at the state-wide level than the local.

    • As you say, once you introduce something like this, the state-wide pool starts to go away.  And once that goes away….so does protecting our public employees.  How hard is it to imagine that some county sets up its own pool and then doesn’t contribute for some reason?

      There are some things that simply cannot be compromised on — and fire and police (and making sure they have the most basic needs met) are one of them.