$15 billion in unfunded county debts go dark in Virginia

Kenric Ward
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Aug 15, 2014 10:58 AM
$15 billion in unfunded county debts go dark in Virginia

 

LICENSE TO PRINT MONEY:  Virginia's auditing agency is no longer disclosing the unfunded debt of counties and municipalities. At last report, the figure topped $15 billion.

LICENSE TO PRINT MONEY: Virginia’s auditing agency is no longer disclosing the unfunded debt of counties and municipalities. At last report, the figure topped $15 billion.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia has stopped reporting billions of dollars in unfunded county debts, leaving the public in the dark about the depth of the red ink.

The last online report by the state Auditor of Public Accounts showed that Virginia’s 95 counties had piled up $15.4 billion — $15,474,494,443 to be exact — in “unfunded debt” in 2012.

Every county listed some unfunded balance, ranging from Highland’s $934,771 to Fairfax’s whopping $3,907,246,725.

Raw numbers tell only part of the story, however.

Fairfax has less debt per-capita than many other jurisdictions because it is Virginia’s most populous county and generates hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Rural King George County — with an unfunded debt of $97,347,822 — carries a $4,230 debt for every man, woman and child.

The average county per-capita debt ran around $2,000 in 2012.

Other comparisons can be useful to advocacy and tax-watch organizations.

David Sparkman, a former leader of the Northern Shenandoah Tea Party, noted, for example, that his county, Frederick, had $175 million in unfunded debt versus gross income of $120 million.

But year-to-year and county-by-county comparisons are no longer possible now that the Auditor of Public Accounts has stopped collecting data on unfunded debt.

The APA says the move was made to give counties “more leeway,” presumably to amass more debt. Omitting the data was the recommendation of an advisory panel composed mainly of local officials.

DOWNLOAD a county-by-county list of spending and debt

A survey by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government found no standardization in what counties are required to report in their budgets.

“Localities should be reporting as much information as possible, and making it readily available,” said the group’s director, Megan Rhyne.

Ironically, some counties with the highest debt loads manage to maintain A or A+ scores from bond-rating organizations — scores based mainly on revenue-generating capacity.

But with no more statewide accounting of unfunded debt, the public will be unable to assess fiscal health among counties.

Even year-to-year comparisons within counties are already problematic. Two years ago, Rhyne’s group issued “F” grades to more than a dozen counties that failed to post relevant budget data on their websites.

“We’re way past the point where government can say it doesn’t have the technological know-how to put data online,” Rhyne said.

Kenric Ward is chief of Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau. Contact him at kenric@watchdogvirginia.org or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward