At some point over the next six to eight weeks, a bunch of people you may — or may not — remember voting into office are going to sit down with some phone-book-sized documents and consider whether to make your monthly house payment or annual car tax bill go up.
As those city council members and county supervisors pore over those books, they'll be making decisions that may determine how often a police car swings down your block on patrol, whether that sidewalk is going to be patched this year and the chances you can sign the kids up for summer rec.
It's time, that is, for local government to begin writing budgets for the coming year.
The numbers involved are huge: more than $1.7 billion for the Peninsula, an additional $180 million when you add Isle of Wight and Gloucester counties.
They touch almost every aspect of daily life: from the age of the textbooks your kid uses, to the water that flows from your faucets to the traffic aggravations of your commute and errand-running.
They touch extraordinary events, too: the speed with which the fire department and EMTs come, the way streets are cleared after a heavy snow or hurricane.
They are all about choices officials need to make.
"I see the budget process as taking your community's values and needs and turning that into an action plan," said Chris Morrill, city manager of Roanoke who has just completed a term as president of the Government Finance Officers Association, the professional body of some 17,500 local, state and provincial government numbers crunchers.
"It's really all about prioritizing," he added.
Hampton City Manager Mary Bunting is already warning that a weak real estate market, increased employee costs and less state aid are going to hurt. Newport News Budget Director Lisa Cipriano expects revenue will remain depressed, but an unexpectedly large drop in spending on foster care and adoption services will leave the city with a larger financial cushion than it expected as she and her colleagues put the finishing touches on their budget proposal.
"We're still digging out of the great recession, and while we are anticipating revenues to be up a little bit, they still aren't very robust," said Williamsburg Mayor Clyde Haulman.
These days, city council members and county supervisors don't have a lot of wiggle room.
"There is some flexibility, but everything flows downhill, so to speak, from the federal and state governments," said John Camobreco, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University. "Local governments often have to make hard choices that the state and federal governments can put off or avoid altogether."
The feds can put things off because Congress doesn't have to balance the U.S. budget — it does not have to make sure the money projected to flow into federal coffers is enough to pay for all the spending it wants to do.
State governments, including Virginia's, can tap into more sources of money to pay their bills than local governments can.
In Virginia, meanwhile, the state legislature has extensive power over local government. It provides about a third of local governments' funding, and often dictates new tasks for local governments without always saying how they are to pay for it.
"Budgeting will be captive to what happens in Richmond," said Neal Menkes, director of fiscal policy for the Virginia Municipal League.
That may be particularly so this year.
Most of the heavy lifting on city and county budgets happens in April in May — after the General Assembly is supposed to agree on a budget for the state. This year, though, the battle lines between the House of Delegates and state Senate over the budget are particularly sharply drawn because of the politically charged issue of Medicaid expansion.
"If the House and Senate don't get together to find a way to agree on budget, it is going to be a difficult time," Menkes said.