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.