OPINION / Al Alborn: I’m going to watch for a while.
by Al Alborn
The Alborn Foundation
Since we started paying more attention to Prince William County Government on November of last year, a lot has changed. Some of it has been good, other stuff… not so much.
It’s time, at least for me, to sit back and watch for a while.
We just started the FY2014 budget process. I watched Michelle Casciato present the methodology for deciding how much of our money Prince William County will collect and how they will spend it. The process strikes me as sound, and typical of the kinds of decision models we discussed in Graduate school. Prince William County does understand process.
That being said, it is no better than the assumptions that go into the process, how weights are determined for the various alternatives, guidance from the Board, and the decisions that come out of it. As the Buddhist Monk always advises, “…we shall see”.
Like a lot of you, I plan to attend as many budget events as possible.
I was pleased to hear Chairman Stewart announce the creation of an internal audit committee. I was particularly pleased to hear him say, “…we can use that function to save money…” and determine if some things should be done at all. It is the privatization of the internal audit function, which I appreciate.
Melissa Peacor announced that the School Board plans to participate in the budget process this year and use the same format (and transparency) the County Government uses to communicate with the public. County residents are realizing that perhaps we ought to pay closer attention to exactly where 56.75% (over a Billion dollars) of our money goes and how it is spent. Recent abuses of our money has heightened public interest.
Argue with the details if you wish; however, this is progress. Things are changing in Prince William County, Virginia.
There will always be disagreement about the details. The alternative is to “do nothing”. I prefer to see progress. It’s fair that we recognize “what’s better” and “what’s right” as well as “what could be improved”.
I see the FY2014 budget process, the Internal Audit Committee, and the Board’s awareness of public interest as our Chairman and Supervisors adjusting to life in the limelight. I can imagine the last year has been painful. Suddenly, a number of routine and historically accepted decisions about what some considered small things were being questioned, challenged, written up on blogs, and even covered by the national media.
We have the Government we deserve because for years, perhaps decades, nobody paid attention to what was going on in the McCoart Administration Building. The abuses occurred because we let them occur. Elected officials Govern with the consent of the Governed… and we consented with our silence.
There are still many people in Prince William County who don’t even know where the McCoart Administration Building is, or that it exists. There are still more who can’t name their Supervisor (I often ask and this answer always amazes me), don’t know exactly what a Supervisor does, or aren’t even sure about our form of Government.
Fortunately, there are fewer of these folks.
Every dime to which the public has objected being spent was posted on the Prince William County website two weeks in advance and voted on publicly in a forum that was available on the internet and local TV. While some of us grumbled, no one raised that grumbling to a level that was noticed, until November of last year.
That’s when a “tipping point” in public acceptance of how our money was spent in Prince William County occurred.
The only reason we are watching today is because some of us accidentally turned over a rock on November of last year to see what was but one more perfectly legal and previously acceptable use of public money for what some might consider appeared to be a private purpose and objected.
The appearance of impropriety was the issue (at least, to me).
As we discussed this one issue, we turned over a lot more rocks. If we had not publicized that one event, there would still be discretionary funds, there would be no internal audit committee, and our board would be conducting business as they have for Decades.
I suspect that Prince William County Government is hoping we don’t find another one of those “rocks”. If we do, we know what to do.
I understand that we are the audience to the theater of Government that you must orchestrate to give us that “warm, fuzzy feeling” that everything is ok. For decades, you played to an empty house that really didn’t understand the script. The Board meeting that I attended yesterday played to mostly empty seats.
Thanks to streaming video, archived recordings of board meetings, blogs, the local newspapers, and public interest the “virtual seats” (or, the people who are paying attention but can’t attend an afternoon meeting because they are working, taking care of their families, or simply choose to be elsewhere but care) are filling up. We are learning not only to understand the script, but also to read between the lines.
I saw progress yesterday. I’m sure other bloggers will disagree. Change is difficult. It takes a while. I saw the first steps towards change regarding how Prince William County spends our money at yesterday’s meeting. I’m guessing what I saw yesterday wasn’t perfect, but it does appear to be an improvement. If we don’t like what we see as this budget cycle unfolds, we know how to fix it in 2015.
Like a lot of you, I’ll be watching.
Addendum: I got the call and took the Prince William County satisfaction survey. It occurs to me that a few questions are missing.
I would love to find out just how many people actually understand how Prince William County is governed or our budget is managed. Perhaps next year, the survey might ask, “Do you know the name of your Supervisor?” , “Do you know your current real estate tax rate?”, or a couple of other simple civic questions to find out just how literate the population is on local Government.
There were a lot if “feel good” questions; however, there was never any association between the cost of “feeling good” and the service. I suggest that putting a price on the things Government does might influence just what we want Government to do for it.
After all, Government doesn’t pay for anything… we pay for everything. That’s a point that is sometimes lost on those who Govern.
This is my opinion based upon the facts that I have found. Alternate opinions welcome. I’m always available to join anyone over a cup of coffee who wishes to learn more. My office is the Starbucks at the corner of the Prince William Parkway and Hoadly Road in Prince William County, Virginia.
For a decent conversation, I’ll buy.
by Al Alborn
The Alborn Foundation