Wednesday, May 29, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

COVID delusion syndrome


It seems to us that some local governments are suffering a severe case of COVID delusion syndrome.

That’s not an officially recognized disorder, yet, but perhaps it should become one.

The apparent symptoms of COVID delusion syndrome that we’ve witnessed locally are the widespread belief that local government employees, who already enjoy many of the most secure jobs in the economy – whether measured at the local, state, or national level – deserve bonuses, even higher salaries, or other special considerations during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, many local private-sector employers are struggling to keep the doors open and the lights on. And some have already closed, victims of the restrictive access rules imposed by the governor.

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Let’s look at a recent list of millions thrown at these already privileged local government employees.

  • With no public notice that they were going to consider the idea, and thus no public input, the county’s commissioners decided last week to bestow “merit-based” raises on all county employees. Total tab to the taxpayer: a cool half-million dollars ($552,440 to be precise).
  • The commissioners also decided, again with no notice, to give the sheriff another eight employees – in the middle of the budget year – at a cost of about $206,000 just for the next five months of this fiscal year.

Now we don’t have any strong disagreement with giving the sheriff some more staff, if he feels he needs them and can use them effectively.

But it seems to us that commissioners, and all local boards, would be better-advised to make such decisions in the course of the regular budget process, which is just about to begin, culminating in new budgets to take effect July 1.

Mid-year variations – i.e., inevitably increases – do not typically emerge so suddenly that they cannot await an annual budget review and consideration.

Instead, when various officials get early, or preemptive, budget hikes, it obscures two things: the real, long-term cost (for instance, that $206,000 price tag for those eight extra employees swells to $494,000 on an annual basis) and it avoids comparing needs and priorities within the same department and among all government departments.

Frankly, we think the largesse of the commissioners calls for some fundamental restructuring of their procedures. We’d recommend that the chairman revive a rule, or practice – which seems to have been forgotten – that used to forbid the commissioners from voting spontaneously on issues and expenditures that have not at least been on the meeting agenda.

Graham’s city council has some extravagant practices, but at least that governing board has established the practice of not voting on items that someone might bring up that are not on the agenda. So a resident or council member who proposes some new idea can do so, but the council won’t actually deliberate or vote on it until the next regularly-scheduled meeting.

In the case of local city councils, that generally means a month’s cooling off, or incubating, period before the topic returns. In Burlington, which meets twice a month, that delay would be only two weeks; same for the county’s commissioners.

Meanwhile, over at the community college, the board’s trustees said it would be a good time to bestow $1,000 bonuses on all their full-time employees (222). Their only restraint was not to give anything to their part-time employees.

Yes, we recognize that the state hasn’t built in pay raises for community college employees for a couple of years. But, to our mind, they should all count themselves lucky, indeed, that they have jobs at all – compared to many people in the private sector.

But if big spending efforts were a contest, the school system would almost always win – and they certainly display a heavy dose of COVID delusion syndrome this time around.
Let’s see if we can explain these astronomical figures succinctly.

The school system has received a windfall of about $35 million in additional funding over the past nine months, ostensibly for COVID-related purposes from federal and federal/state coffers.

To put that in some context, that extra money amounts to about half again as much as the normal county-funded part of their budget.

Now, all this extra money is despite the fact that the schools are not actually open. There should be no janitorial expenses, since there are no students (or staff) to make any mess. There should be no cafeteria services, since there aren’t any children to feed. (Although, in what is truly a “make-work” project only a government would think of, some meals are being delivered by yellow school buses at dozens of locations throughout the county. What a boondoggle!)

And there should be no bus driver expenses, no gasoline expenses, and very little bus maintenance expense since the buses aren’t running their routes, since the students aren’t going to school. There are no substitute teachers, and the schools should be saving a bundle on utility expenses.

But even while stockpiling this huge influx of extra money, and the savings from fewer expenses, school officials want more money from local taxpayers.

With an apparently straight face, the school system leadership is currently contemplating whether to ask local taxpayers to put in another 10½ percent in increased funding for the next fiscal year (that begins July 1).

This for a school system that hasn’t even been open since March 2020 and whose reopening plans are in flux – i.e., the school board keeps postponing when students and teachers will ever return. [More on that in a separate editorial on this page.]

School officials and some other public officials appear to be oblivious to the looming economic uncertainty facing the private sector, but they don’t care; they just repeat their habitual refrain of asking for more money.

On seemingly every front, local government boards are angling for more money for their employees. Considered in a vacuum, each of the raises and bonuses (above) might have some merit.

But in context with what private industry, private-sector companies, and private-sector taxpayers, are facing, these expenditures – actual and desired – are extravagant and unreasonable.

To add insult to the injury, we suspect that come real budget season, we’ll hear all sorts of tales of woe from these same government agencies about how there’s not enough money in their proposed budgets to fund their “essential” government services.

They’ll be wanting to go to the taxpayers for even more money, possibly even in the form of a property tax hike.

Someone, somewhere in Alamance County needs to stand up for the taxpayers.

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