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Stopping The Political Slush Funds

By Greg L | 8 April 2012 | Virginia Politics, Manassas City, Prince William County | 27 Comments

Today’s Washington Post’s article on the controversy in Manassas over public spending on non-governmental entities helps to keep this useful discussion alive, but largely ignores the wide and long-running policy debate that continues to defy resolution.  Public officials can’t seem to give up their slush funds, which yield both political and personal benefits for public “servants” but the persistent chorus of outrage over these may someday mean they’ll have to.

It can’t come soon enough.

Although I would not at all be surprised if this debate started much earlier, I remember the issue beginning to flare around 2006.  Then flush with extra cash needing someplace to go, state legislators competed with one another to earmark millions of dollars in public funds to charities and other non-state entities in their districts.  A few in the blogosphere decried the practice, but the complaints hadn’t grown widespread enough to cause much beyond Chuck Colgan explaining that “bringing home the bacon” was what his constituents expected of him and he was proud to top the list of legislators abusing fiscal responsibility and the Constitution of Virginia.

The boom times quickly came to an end about the same time newly-minted Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli issued an opinion that this practice was indeed illegal, which put an end to this widespread and bipartisan defiance by the General Assembly of the very constitution it swore to uphold each session.  Not only was there no longer extra taxpayer money at the state level to hand out to favored beneficiaries, but even if it somehow materialized at some point the General Assembly was given notice that one more shenanigan would land it in court.

That same constitutional provision does explicitly permit the General Assembly to grant authority to localities to dole out taxpayer dollars to non-state entities in a completely bizarre instance of a power not held by a superior division of power being granted by it to an inferior division of power.  The law that implements this is one of the worst-crafted pieces of legislative malfeasance in Virginia history, granting localities power to do pretty much whatever they want because of a problem with the construction of the act that largely negates what the General Assembly was trying to do.  Localities avail themselves of every opportunity to extend their abuse of this act as far as possible.  As a result, we have county supervisors and city councilmen doling out cash to their favored groups with nearly no restrictions as they curry favor with the influential and receive free dinners, theatrical performances, and other valuable benefits as a result.

It is stunning that any elected official with the slimmest sense of moral righteousness can justify this practice in any way.  Wealth is extracted from taxpayers by the awesome and deadly legal force of the state and doled out by elected officials in return for political favor, exclusive hundred-dollar dinners, and undoubtedly, campaign contributions.  Supervisor Wally Covington even goes so far as collecting campaign contributions from volunteer fire departments that he appropriates money to out of his district funds.  The wife of Manassas City Councilman Mark Wolfe is paid a salary by Manassas Ballet Theater which obtains a significant amount of its funding from the City of Manassas, while Mark Wolfe is the head of the Arts Council that has a role in distributing funding.  The appearance of impropriety here is enormous, if not suggestive that the incitement towards outright corruption is overwhelming and unavoidable.

At the same time, the taxpayers who are footing the bill for all this are suffering one of the most persistent and difficult economic downturns in modern history.  Families are dependent on coupon-clipping to make ends meet, free and reduced cost school lunch participation rates have exploded, and another round of home foreclosures is on the way.  The same families struggling to provide basic food and shelter for their families are paying the bill for elected officials to attend special fundraising galas at the Hylton Center so they can hear Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw explain to the audience the importance of re-electing Chuck Colgan to the Senate of Virginia.  How could any elected official bear to attend swanky dinners that their constituents were forced to pay for under penalty of fines, arrest, and possible jail time?  How could they not vomit in their mouths at the idea their constituents are being ripped off so they can wear a tux, eat lobster, and listen to Dick Saslaw give a campaign speech for Chuck Colgan?

The rather obvious solution to this state of affairs comes in two parts - ruthlessly hold accountable those elected officials that engage in these utterly immoral practices and fix Virginia Code § 15.2-953.  I appealed to Delegate Scott Lingamfelter to do just that last session, but that idea didn’t make the cut amongst all the other things he was trying to do that session.  By the time I found this out no one else I contacted about it said they had any room left under the limits imposed on the number of bills members can introduce each session.  It could be a case of legislators being less than eager to stop the gravy train for local allies, or just bad fortune last time around.  Next session we’ll find out for sure.

In the meantime, the opportunity for delivering accountability in Manassas City is rapidly approaching.  A strong message delivered there could change a lot in Virginia, and an object lesson about the consequences of this indefensible behavior is long overdue.



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27 Comments

  1. Al Alborn said on 8 Apr 2012 at 3:01 pm:
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    It would be worth noting that, regardless of the applicable Virginia Code, The Virginia Association of Counties and the National Association of Counties advises that most Counties in Virginia and the rest of the Country have long ago done away with these “slush funds”.

    Prince William County is the last “hold out” in Northern Virginia (and perhaps one of the rest in the State and the Country) to cling to the idea that it’s ok to knowingly give County Supervisors more Supervisor Funds than they actually need to pay for their legitimate expenses so they may use the rest “at their discretion”. We may never say that anyone is doing anything wrong because there is absolutely Prince William County policy regarding the use of excess Supervisor Funds (what we have come to call, “discretionary funds” or “slush funds”). The potential for abuse and the appearance of impropriety in many cases speaks for itself.

    Once Government at any level figures out how to get its hand in our pocket, it is difficult to get its hand out of it whether it be BPOL taxes created to fund the war of 1812, Car Registration Fees that exist long after the decal they were designed to pay for go away, or any of a number of other taxes and fees that have long ago lost their original intent. The “discretionary fund” issue is particularly insulting because it’s a fee hidden within our taxes and covered by simply allocating more to Supervisor funds than they really need.

    It’s simple, really. Our process for budgeting Supervisor funds, those funds necessary for legitimate expenses to cover office space, staff, copy machines, etc., is broken. It we budget so much that there are “leftovers” to be spent without any applicable County policy or oversight other than the quid pro quo approval of one’s peers on the Dias, we have obviously budgeted too much. It’s time to harmonize actual Supervisor expenses with the amount budgeted annually to pay for those expenses.

    When I see those we elect spend the “leftovers” at their discretion rather than leave money in the pockets and household budgets of Prince William County residents, I cringe. Those leftovers should not be treated as a tip from a grateful public.

    We may assume that our elected officials are following the “this too shall pass” strategy. This issue isn’t going to go away any time soon. I keep hearing, “but we’ve always done it this way”. This my be true, but “we” weren’t always watching. Now, “we” are.

    For a sense of community outrage, I strongly recommend Prince William County residents take the time to watch the Committee of 100 video on a Panel formed to discuss this issue. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyX3Fvo0_C0&feature=youtu.be

    I suspect neither one of us will be getting many Christmas Cards from Prince William County Government this year… or perhaps for the next three years. I can live with that.

    Hand salute for an excellent post!

  2. Greg L said on 8 Apr 2012 at 4:38 pm:
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    The issue is much larger than PWC’s “megisterial district funds,” although that’s one of the worst abuses. Localities across the commonwealth appropriate gifts of taxpayer money to non-governmental entities. If these were accompanied by contracts, a competitive bidding process and the expectation that these entities would be performing a service on behalf of the locality complete with performance measures that would be a different matter. These appropriations to places like “affordable housing” charities in Fairfax County (to the tune of $9 million annually) all the way down to $50k appropriation requests for “Rainbow Riding Center” to provide equestrian therapy to persons who don’t live in the county, to $20k appropriations by PWC to orchestras outside of the county lack all of these accountability measures that would demonstrate a legitimate core function of local government.

  3. Ray Beverage said on 8 Apr 2012 at 8:55 pm:
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    The County, starting last year, established the procedure for Contributing Community Entites as part of their application process to align their services/programs/activities with the Strategic Plan. That way at least there was a benchmark against what dollars were being given. Unfortunately, as was known by those of us involved in various Boards/Committees/Commissions, those benchmarks within the Plan stunk to high heaven or were poorly written objectives that nobody could meet. Of course, with the new Strategic Plan 2013-2016, more clearer objectives are supposed to be developed.

    The City of Manassas Park does not have the funds for any local contribution and have again zeroed those out in their proposed budget.

    The City of Manassas created a Committee comprised of two Council Members and selected citizens to review all applications from Contributing Organizations. This was in part to have a review process versus the former times of the various groups coming in and doing a “dog & pony show” to the full Council. It is at least a move in the right direction to both have a means for vetting plus have it as part of the budget cycle. Of course, CoM vs. PWC, the Contribution Review was always part of the budget cycle each year.

    But what is missing so far in the CoM and also in PWC is linking it stronger to either the Strategic Plan or better yet, the Comp Plans as to how the Human Services entities or the Arts contribute to the overall economic objectives. Within some Human Services, this can be done as a tie to the Plans, but also demonstrate that “X” number of residents are receiving services at “X” cost which can then be seen if less expensive than government providing. Of course, if the government cannot provide the service and the entity can, that is an economic factor to consider.

    Each discretionary expense, whether a Supervisor or the City Manager, should also met the same test. There are times puchasing tickets to some event does have an economic benefit (i.e. marketing as Mr. Way said in a prior post). Regardless if it is a contribution to a school or the Boy Scouts, show in the background paper what the economic benefit is….even a Scout cleaning up a hiking trail has one (tourism).

  4. Frauds Are Everywhere said on 9 Apr 2012 at 1:24 pm:
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    The article also mentions Republican Council member Sheryl Bass and the good Republican Manassas Mayor as part of this ballet gate free money for those we like in Manassas.

    I saw a pink sign for Ms. Bass promoting her write in campaign for Manassas City Council today. I guess since she failed to get the nod from her fellow Republicans at the recent Republican Convention (in spite of her friend Ms. Pamela Kincheloe who evidently crashed the Republican convention to vote for Wolfe and Bass and now publicly supports Democrat Ms. Richie-Folkes in a nasty and hate filled letter to the News and Messenger) its full steam ahead for her self-absorbed Sheryl Bass write in campaign?

    Why does the local Manassas City Republican Party leadership continue to allow such a blatant disregard for party rules from its member Sheryl Bass? Why do they allow hate-filled liberals like Pamela Kincheloe into their convention so she can vote for RINO Republicans? Some leadership please City Republicans.

  5. Loudoun Insider said on 9 Apr 2012 at 2:24 pm:
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    When will enough people scream about these BS discretionary funds so that the politicians have no choice but to get rid of them? Are there any people left who really care?

  6. Just the Facts said on 9 Apr 2012 at 3:28 pm:
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    Here’s one more item about Manassas Ballet’s operations. They are still using an Annandale group to perform music. This means that even more PWC and Manassas taxpayer money is going out of our area to support Friends of Wolfe who are not part of our community.

    Linked is Annandale-based Dominion Symphony Orchestra’s latest Form 990. Note on page 14 all the cash Manassas Ballet pays them. Note also on page 14 that their board members live in Annandale and Baltimore.

    http://dynamodata.fdncenter.org/990pf_pdf_archive/541/541964442/541964442_200912_990PF.pdf

    Also of interest in the Form 990 is that Dominion paid a fine for filing this one late, and has not yet filed their Form 990 from last year (at least it doesn’t appear online and would if it had been filed on time).

    Dominion’s President is listed on Wolfe’s website as Manassas Ballet’s Music Director, and Manassas Ballet claims to have a Manassas Ballet Theatre Orchestra. Nonetheless, Dominion Symphony Orchestra files under its own Employer Identification Number, is featured prominently as a member of the Prince William County Arts Council on their website, and shows how much they get from Manassas Ballet on the Form 990.

    Dominion Symphony Orchestra is benefiting from its connections to Wolfe, and Wolfe’s ability to get taxpayer money in Manassas and Prince William County.

    Manassas and Prince William County taxpayers get the bill once again for the fun and entertainment of the elites AND their friends in Annandale and Baltimore.

  7. david montgomery said on 9 Apr 2012 at 3:34 pm:
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    Because I represent the Prince William Symphony – the oldest professional musical organization in PWC (and far older than the ballet) – I feel that I should clear up some misconceptions here. Wolfe is clever. He claims no influence in the disbursement of Manassas City or PW County funding to his ballet company. I once knew a wise old person who used to say, “kick me, but don’t [smooth-talk] me”. At last count, Wolfe was able to jack up his organization’s public income to five times the amount that the Symphony received, even though the two organization contribute equally to the benefit of the county! I’m sorry, but this stuff comes from the wrong end of the horse. I’m done with polite! I’m done with Wolfe, who is a financial manipulator of the worse sort – and and I’m done with folks that just let this slide. If this is “good enough” for YOU and your county, then fine. But, if not, then kick this guy out!!!!!!

    Dr. David Montgomery, Executive Director, Prince William Symphony Orchestra

  8. Robert L. Duecaster said on 9 Apr 2012 at 3:47 pm:
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    Well, I enjoyed the MB’s production of “Peter and the Wolf,” even though they watered down the original version where the wolf gets killed and instead took it off to some zoo. So thank you, my friends and other taxpayers in Manassas and PWC for making the production possible.

  9. david montgomery said on 9 Apr 2012 at 4:01 pm:
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    I’m sorry that you were offered only a “watered-down” version of Prokovief’s great masterpiece. Somehow, this single event doesn’t surprise me, but the fact that you - as a good republican - would be satisfied with such pablum — I guess I’m a bit shocked - considering our mutual desire to engage in the truth.

  10. Doug Brown said on 9 Apr 2012 at 4:29 pm:
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    @David Montgomery

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daSG5fwdA7o&feature=related

  11. david montgomery said on 9 Apr 2012 at 9:21 pm:
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    I guess its time to show the goods. Here is a small audio clip of the Prince William Symphony (the group that Wolfe has crippled). The work is Jan Sibelius’s “Finlandia” - which was influential in the political emergence of that country. You will be hearing the great U.S. military brass in this performance, because we have strong and lasting ties to all of the military bands.

    http://www.montmusik.info/finlandia.wav

    go get ‘em - we want PWSO in our County!!!

  12. Doug Brown said on 9 Apr 2012 at 10:04 pm:
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    @David M.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=daSG5fwdA7o&feature=related

    Encore! :-)

    It’s pretty sad the county is subsidizing and promoting an outside symphony orchestra while crippling the PWSO, and a shame Manassas is taking part.

  13. david montgomery said on 9 Apr 2012 at 11:17 pm:
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    Wolfe takes a strong position against hiring illegal “aliens” but hires them anyway to suit his needs (contact dm.pwso@gmail.com for the proof). My god, do we need such a liar in office?!

  14. Annoymous said on 10 Apr 2012 at 11:40 am:
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    @ Frauds Are Everywhere

    The City Republican Party leadership will do nothing to stop the Sheryl Bass for Council write in effort because the current Republican Party Chairman’s wife is leading the effort - check Facebook if you doubt me!

    Sadly, this ultimately hurts the other three Republican candidates which we all pledged to support coming out of the convention.

  15. Tamara Thomas said on 10 Apr 2012 at 1:34 pm:
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    “Why does the local Manassas City Republican Party leadership continue to allow such a blatant disregard for party rules from its member Sheryl Bass?”

    If you would bother to check with Sheryl Bass, you would know that she has nothing to do with this write in effort and to my knowledge, she has endorsed the entire Republican ticket.

    ” The City Republican Party leadership will do nothing to stop the Sheryl Bass for Council write in effort because the current Republican Party Chairman’s wife is leading the effort - check Facebook if you doubt me! ”

    I have resigned from the Manassas GOP and that was done well over a month ago, before I involved myself in the write-in effort. Last time I checked, women are allowed to vote for whomever they want. My husband does not try to control me and says I may vote for whomever I want. I don’t believe that being married to the Chairman of the Manassas GOP requires me to vote for the ticket. Only membership in the Manassas GOP Committee does.

  16. ruserious? said on 10 Apr 2012 at 4:40 pm:
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    Maybe the republican leadership will do something to stop the Bass write-in campaign after they deal with all of those convention attendees who now have Carman signs in their front yards.

  17. Greg L said on 10 Apr 2012 at 5:24 pm:
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    Oh my. Oh goodness. The wife of the Manassas City GOP Chairman is leading an effort for a write-in candidate running against Republicans. If I did not hold both of them in such high regard I’d be writing a crazy post about the Manassas version of “The War of the Roses” and poking a heap of fun at the situation and asking whether the daughter is considered part of the domestic DMZ.

    But I think I’ll just say a prayer or two instead.

    If this wasn’t coming straight from the source, I’d laugh at anyone trying to peddle such a ridiculous story to me.

  18. rue it said on 10 Apr 2012 at 7:34 pm:
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    What’s to like about Sheryl Bass? Her positions are what exactly? Sell me someone!

  19. Pink Signs Rule said on 11 Apr 2012 at 6:49 am:
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    Sheryl is a woman and all the other candidates are men and we need some diversity on this council. She also believes in the schools deeply and will provide them with extra funds as she was a school board member for years and helped create the schools as we have today.

  20. Doug Brown said on 11 Apr 2012 at 8:54 am:
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    Pink Signs Rule,

    She “helped create the schools as we have today.”

    Make up your mind are you for her or against her.

  21. Indie Voter said on 11 Apr 2012 at 11:41 am:
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    Does the local GOP here in Manassas have a secret death wish? Sure seems like it to me! People are laughing at you all at this point.

  22. Doug Brown said on 11 Apr 2012 at 8:35 pm:
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    Manassas Republican Establishment to Voters:

    That will be an additional thousand dollars for the Council’s ballet just because you complained.

  23. true blue said on 12 Apr 2012 at 6:59 am:
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    RU Serious on 4/10 made an interesting point… “Maybe the Republican leadership will do something to stop the Bass write-in campaign after they deal with all of those convention attendees who now have Carman signs in their front yards”.

    Mrs Bass is a fine lady, and in my opinion deserved a nomination. It didn’t happen. Mr. Carman never sought a Rebublican nomination, running as early as January as an Independent. To RU’s point, since I see a ton of Carman signs in “loyal rebublican” yards, it is very clear that party members have no intention on voting the ticket that they pledged to support. BTW, the same people who make fun of others for their lack of values and honesty.

    As pointed out, Mrs Bass is not violating her oath. Hence, to write in Mrs Bass over Mr Wolfe because of what we now know (and what is talked about above) could be an acceptable breach from the Republican oath. However, if you’re Rebublican, voting for Carman, is plain wrong! Even worse, this clear divide in the party could result in a Democrat being elected in Manassas this year.

  24. gettting confused said on 12 Apr 2012 at 9:36 am:
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    @ true blue

    You make some good points re Wolfe needs to go and Bass would be better than him, but why do you think the voters at the convention did not see that?

    Can we all be honest here that it spite of all the hard spin work by many with interesting connections to GOP party folks to prove otherwise, Mrs. Bass is clearly behind and supporting her own write in campaign so we can stop pretending and you might even get my vote.

    This write in effort is hurting Jon Way and Ian Lovejoy the most and that is unfortunate as they were the clear winners at the convention by the people there, Mrs. Bass did lose fair and square at the convention.

  25. true red said on 12 Apr 2012 at 10:52 am:
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    Bass and Wolfe and Harrover are all cut from the same cloth and all protect each others interests which is basically making sure the money tap stays on for the Manassas Ballet, expensive crime - err - bike trails to no where against citizen wishes and more crappy townhouse developments which are polluting the City get approved

  26. 4 REAL said on 12 Apr 2012 at 11:11 am:
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    still waiting for the most honorable MsBass to PUBLICLY tell her adoring fans to please, please, please NOT write her name in and instead support the 3 republican candidates . . . that’s a letter to the editor you’ll never see!

  27. Doug Brown said on 12 Apr 2012 at 11:18 am:
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    Given the upheaval and double dealing within the local Republican Party a vote for Carman would send a clear signal to the Republican establishment, clean up your own house (and your ballet companies) or we will do it for you.

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