What are the core services of the Loudoun County government?
That is the question the Board of Supervisors have been grappling with during its slog through the first budget process of its four-year term.
“Core government services” are the buzzwords of the year as the supervisors attempt to delineate which services are essential and which are not.
The concept of core services is not new, although the widespread use of this expression has a ring of political ideology, as if anything other than a core service is expendable.
Two decades ago, the county’s mission statement began, “We are in the quality of life business.” With this focus, government services that enhanced the quality of life were valued, even if they might not have been considered core governmental functions.
Every year, supervisors talk about affordability and the need to strike the appropriate balance between funding the services the citizens demand and our ability to pay for them. Some supervisors have preferred to focus the budget debate on defining wants versus needs – services that are nice to have versus services that we must have.
“Quality of life” is a useful, if subjective, measure because it captures the need for balance – if the cost of government services gets too high, the quality of life goes down.
The expression “core services” suggests that there is a fairly clear dividing line between what is and isn’t an essential governmental function. Nearly any supervisor would agree that education and public safety are core services.
But even though education and public safety are core functions, there’s plenty of room to disagree regarding which education and public safety services are at the core.
The Board of Supervisors decided that the School Board would not receive as much money as it had requested. Now it will be left to the School Board to decide which school expenditures are “non-core,” so they can make the necessary budget cuts.
Drug court? Supervisor Shawn Williams said it is a great service but not a core government service. Thus, even though the program may save money compared with the costs of incarcerating drug offenders, it has been judged to be beyond the proper role of government.
The Sheriff’s DARE substance abuse prevention program? Maybe it’s not a core service either, as evidenced by the fact that it took a razor-thin majority of board members to approve its funding.
On the other hand, what about support services such as human resources, purchasing, tax collection, and building maintenance? By definition, support services are not at the core of the government’s mission. They are one step removed – they support the core programs. But they are still necessary for the government to function at all.
Although “core government services” sounds like a rigorous test for framing the budget deliberations, the debate really boils down to the same thing it always has – setting priorities. The supervisors’ highest priorities by definition become core services, and those they value less are defined as non-core, and are therefore at risk of being defunded.
In less than three months, the current Board of Supervisors has sent a strong signal that it places the highest priority on economic development.
After voting to cut relatively inexpensive “quality of life” programs like the Master Gardeners, which will likely have no impact on the tax rate, the board eagerly voted to give more than $580,000 in additional funding to the Department of Economic Development and hire three employees to market the county to businesses. This wasn’t a close vote. It was 8-1, with only Eugene Delgaudio dissenting.
I certainly see the merits of economic development. Attracting business is good for the economy, and adding to the commercial tax base could help reduce the tax burden on homeowners.
But it is a stretch to call economic development a core government service, especially in a county that already has a relatively low unemployment rate and the highest incomes in the country.
In their election campaigns last fall, several current supervisors even questioned whether economic development should remain housed in the county government, and said they would explore the value of shifting the function to an independent, business-led Economic Development Authority.
Now that the newly elected supervisors find themselves in a position to oversee the Department of Economic Development, they have quickly come to the decision to keep the function in-house, and have elevated it to a priority level that would place it at the very core of county government.
So what are core government services?
Answer: anything five supervisors say they are. And a majority of the current board has signaled that economic development is just about as core as it gets.