A brand-new supervisor on the Fairfax County Board in the late 1980s, Sharon Bulova got the chance to see first-hand the highs and lows of the county's financial situation.
Similar to current trends, the county was in the middle of a housing and tax rate boom, with increasing costs and a muscular economy.
So Bulova signed on to chair the Budget Committee for the Board of Supervisors under then-Chairman Audrey Moore in 1989, hoping to curb the pinch homeowners were feeling.
"I thought ‘Oh good, we’ll have a chance to get some control over these staggering increases in assessments and have a chance to make an impact on the budget,'" said Bulova of her new role.
"Looking back, that was pretty naïve of me," she said. "But I’m kind of a process person, and it was the process that bothered me, so I thought I would like to try improving the process."
Bulova served for two years, then stepped down as chair when Tom Davis took over as Board chairman in 1991. In 1994, when Kate Hanley was elected chairman, Bulova returned to chair the Budget Committee, and has spent the last 13 years in that capacity.
WHAT BULOVA saw as being key to the annual budget process was increased involvement from the Board of Supervisors, instead of simply rubber-stamping the decisions of the County's Office of Budget Management and the chief executive.
The dark side of the budget came in the early 1990s, when the housing market fell apart, and instead of hefty balances, the county was left with potential shortfalls as the years wound down. Bulova said she believed a change in philosophy might help make the county better equipped to make decisions about the budget.
"I felt we (the Board) should be more engaged in the actual making up of and changing of the budget," said Bulova. "I wanted to help create a process where, number one, there were more meaningful budget guidelines, and number two, we have more principles of what we should and shouldn't be doing."
Nearly 20 years later, the process has changed, to the point that now, numerous parties have involvement in the process whereby the Fairfax County budget is adopted each year.
"It's a very, very open process. There's no surprises," said Susan Datta of the Office of Budget Management. She attributed much of that to Bulova's willingness to consider differing viewpoints.
"She always approaches the budget process with an open mind, in terms of what the goals and priorities of the BOS and the county exec and staff are, and tries to make sure all viewpoints are included in the process," said Datta.
AS CHAIR of the Budget Committee, Bulova is tasked with the responsibility of compiling a package of recommendations of the Board of Supervisors for their annual "markup" session, which takes place in advance of the adoption of the county budget. Those markups alter the recommendations of the county executive, who publishes the first advertised budget in late February. Rather than make it a one-step process, Bulova said she has tried to incorporate several steps whereby members of the community, public interest groups and each of the supervisors has the chance to present arguments for certain components to be included in the budget.
"It’s not that the county executive creates it, and then board members want to make sure their favorite projects get added. It’s more of a shaping of fiscal policy and rearranging of things in the budget," she said.
The Budget Committee, like all committees of the Board of Supervisors, is made up of all 10 supervisors, and meets three times, according to Bulova. The first meeting is soon after the advertised budget is released, the second just prior to the public hearings on the budget, and the third takes place the Friday before the Monday markup session.
In addition to each of those meetings, Bulova said for each of the last 10 years, she has met with each supervisor in one-on-one meetings during budget season.
"The package changes as we go through all of those meetings to reflect what I’m hearing from my colleagues," she said.
"One of the things that should be obvious … is that Fairfax County is a collection of some very different parts that make a unique whole, and as people who are directly elected to represent those parts, you can only imagine the diverse needs and desires each of us brings to the table," said Supervisor Dana Kauffman (D-Lee). "Sharon has a definite gift for people, and while you may end up agreeing to disagree, she listens."
THE THIRD committee meeting is a recent addition, to prevent any "markup day surprises."
"It’s a chance for everybody to see what happened to the list as we’ve gone through all the Supervisors," Bulova said. "The rule is that anybody who has a different idea, they should put the cards on the table then, and not blindside the board at the last minute by coming in when we’re doing markup."
The Board also attempts to work with County Executive Anthony Griffin to develop certain "priority" issues that they hope will have a foothold in the budget. This year, both affordable housing and storm water management will receive a penny from the real estate tax, since they were identified as important by the board.
"With Sharon at the helm, we've actually taken a number of these issues on, and whether everyone agrees we took the right approach, no one can doubt that we're actually doing something," said Kauffman. "She has stepped up her county-wide efforts accordingly and has shown great leadership in helping us craft a leadership that to the extent anyone can provides a forum for folks with every view on the map."
The public hearings and public budget meetings that occur in each district also help to increase the openness of the process, said Datta.
"I think it dispels a lot of the tendency to say 'Everyone is saying the same thing,' because we hear from a lot of people, and there are a lot of different interests in Fairfax County," she said.
The goal of each budget season is the same, said Bulova — unanimity. In recent years, she said the board has become cohesive and willing to compromise to accomplish a solid fiscal policy. This year's budget, passed Monday, reflected that, with a 9 to 1 vote in favor of the budget, and only Michael Frey (R-Sully) voting against the budget. That near-consensus is a result of open lines of communication, according to Datta.
"She spends a great deal of time speaking with each member of the board individually," Datta said. "She has worked hard to hear each member's concerns and questions and ideas."
Although when Bulova got into it, she had little experience with complex budget issues, she is proud to have been able to affect the process in some way.
"I feel that it’s probably the most meaningful thing that I do because the budget is actually philosophy," she said. "Elected officials can stand up and talk about what their priorities are and what they think is important, but it doesn’t mean diddly until you put your money where your mouth is."