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Agencies prepare to tighten budgets

Monday, November 12, 2012

By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Area agencies and entities are assessing the local impact of possible 4 percent state budget cuts.

Last week, Gov. Bob McDonnell ordered all state agencies to devise plans to reduce their budgets by 4 percent by Nov. 21.

His order was prompted by the possible across-the-board automatic federal budget cuts — called sequestration — that could occur Jan. 1 unless Congress and President Obama reach a budget agreement.

McDonnell’s office said the contingencies must be submitted for the governor to review as he prepares to send midterm revisions to the state’s two-year budget to the General Assembly next month.

While the immediacy of McDonnell’s order may have come as a surprise to some, Joe Keiper, executive director of the Virginia Museum of Natural History, said the possibility of budget cuts from the state always exists, so agencies must be prepared.

“We’ve gone through a number of budget cuts, so we anticipate these things,” he said. “We’re always looking for ways to run more efficiently.”

For instance, Keiper said plans have been drawn up to improve the air flow of the heating system in the museum’s main entrance to help reduce utility costs.

Because the main entrance and foyer area have ceilings up to 47 feet high, Keiper said, heat often rises to the ceilings and gets lost, causing the HVAC system to work harder than necessary. The museum plans to install several air turbines in the ceiling to recirculate the air, allowing the warmer air to remain closer to the floor and, as a result, the thermostat, he said.

Keiper said the museum expects to save $10,000 to $20,000 annually on it utility bills with the improvements. Though he didn’t know an exact figure on what the turbines would cost to install, he said the turbines likely will be funded out of the state’s maintenance reserve fund that would not be affected by the budget cuts.

“You never like to say the project is a ‘go’ until you have the money in hand,” Keiper said, but the project has “gotten a green light.”

While Keiper said a 4 percent budget cut “isn’t the end of the world,” he met with fellow museum officials Friday to discuss the order. Also, the museum board is scheduled to meet Saturday, and he expects members will discuss how to cut the budget with the least impact on the museum and its exhibits.

“We’re trying to ensure the people who walk through the door will have the usual experience they’d have,” he said.

The most likely area to be affected is the marketing budget, he said, especially in areas outside the region such as Roanoke or Greensboro. However, “we might be able to make that back through tourism grants,” he said.

William Wampler, executive director of the New College Institute (NCI), said potential cuts have a different meaning for educational institutions, since state education officials must make the call on what areas of the budget can be cut.

In the next two weeks, he said he will receive detailed instructions on the cuts. For example, he said, the state might tell the college not to cut any area that would involve personnel.

There are challenges that come with any sort of budget reduction, Wampler said. But, like Keiper, he said they are par for the course when a school receives state dollars.

“It’s not unusual as a state agency to prepare for spending reductions where you can, so this isn’t the first time,” he said. “Families do it; businesses do it; state agencies can do it.”

Jim Tobin, executive director of Piedmont Community Services, said he was unaware of the governor’s order until he read about it in Friday’s Martinsville Bulletin. As a result, he didn’t have many answers, but he said he understands the decision and reason behind it.

“I would guess the governor is taking a precautionary step in any case (so that) Virginia’s not caught flat-footed” if the federal budget is cut, he said.

“My immediate instinct at a local level is not to do anything at this point,” he said. “If the governor’s order is to the departments, it will affect them first.”

Tobin’s said his main concern was, “what would be within that 4 percent (of the budget) within the department of behavioral health?” he said. “The majority of their budget goes into the state hospitals.”

He said administrators in Richmond had told him as of Friday “they didn’t have any kind of plan prepared.”

Tobin also noted that because Piedmont Community Services is directly connected to every human services agency in the area, “any reduction of funds will result in some hard choices.

“We would look at what is our core obligation to the community, (and) what are the things we try to do but things we don’t have to do, but I wouldn’t want to speculate on that right now,” he said.

In short, he said, the best solution would be to avoid the cuts altogether through an agreement on the federal budget.

“I think everyone is hoping this goes away” and better solutions are found in the coming weeks, Tobin said.


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