How can voter turnout be improved? What will the new property tax rate be? Where do county taxes go?
These were just a few of the questions raised last Wednesday at the Vienna Town Council candidates night, sponsored by the Southwest Vienna Citizens Association. About 30 people attended the event. Some submitted questions and some just sat and listened to comments from the candidates, all of whom are running uncontested.
And although all four candidates are uncontested, this wasn’t the case a few weeks ago. Current council member Steven Briglia recently dropped out of the running for Town Council in order to take over as town attorney. Briglia’s decision left just three candidates running for three open council seats. Mayor Jane Seeman is also running uncontested.
One question at the candidates night focused on voter turnout. Gary Gillum, who moderated the event, asked the candidates if they had any plans to stir up more interest, in light of Briglia’s decision.
The three Town Council candidates — Albert Boudreau, Edythe Frankel Kelleher and Laurie Genevro Cole — all said they are still knocking on doors around town, canvassing for support.
"I entered the race because I wanted there to be a race," Cole said. "Events have overtaken us, but I am still knocking on doors. People say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re all getting in. What are you doing out here?’ I say, ‘Well, you never know. Please come out and vote.’"
Boudreau and Seeman both said voter participation has been a problem for many years. It is an issue, they said, that is under constant discussion among council members.
"If there was something more controversial in town," Seeman said, "maybe more people might come out and vote."
But, she added, controversy is not always a good thing. Boudreau said the frequency of elections might also add to the problem.
"There is an election every year," Boudreau said. "So there is a sense of, oh, there’s another election."
THE TOWN'S PROPERTY tax rate attracted questions at the candidates night. Town manager John Schoeberlein released a draft budget a few weeks ago based on a one-cent cut in property tax. This means that, under Schoeberlein’s budget, homeowners will pay 29 cents for every 100 dollars of assessed property value. Last year the tax rate was 30 cents, but Vienna assessments have increased an average of 18 percent this year so most homeowners will pay more in taxes, despite the cut.
The town council recently endorsed another half cent reduction in the property tax rate, on top of Schoeberlein's cut. To make room for their one-and-a-half cent cut the council plans to eliminate, among other items, a proposed special pickup division of the public works department. The town council changes are not final, though, and there will be a budget public hearing on Monday, May 20, 8 p.m. at the Town Hall.
Vienna residents are currently able to schedule special pickups on items like furniture or building materials. But the town averages 10 days to make such pickups. By creating a special pickup division the town would hope to decrease the average wait to five days. A new division would require three new staff members, though, at a cost of $106,734. As she has talked to Vienna voters, Kelleher said she has heard a lot of complaints over the current special pickup program.
"If you want the tax rate to be lowered much more," Kelleher said, "Perhaps there is a trade-off there."
Boudreau said the entire county tax system needs revision. While residential assessments increased 20 percent in Vienna this year, commercial assessments only increased by 10 percent.
"The whole idea of assessments and taxes has become quite bothersome," Boudreau said. "There is a basic problem with the whole structure. Residential taxation makes up 70 percent of our revenue while commercial taxation makes up 30 percent. As our residential taxes go up, it’s not true for commercial."
GILLUM ALSO ASKED the candidates to explain what kind of services Vienna residents receive in return for their county taxes. Boudreau said the Town Council has been investigating that issue for 10 years. As a town, Vienna maintains its own police department, and handles most infrastructure costs.
"I have determined what revenue we are sending to the county," Boudreau said. "What I’m working on now is, what do we get in return."
Boudreau said he is assessing the cost of county police efforts in Vienna, the cost of county fire and rescue services and the cost of the Patrick Henry Library.
"I’m trying to do it quietly and peacefully," Boudreau said. "The easy one is school. The others are harder. It will probably take the rest of the year."
"The big one, besides the library, is social services," Seeman said. "All the programs that are available to county residents are available to us. Its a matter of putting a value on it, a price."
Town elections will be held Tuesday, May 7, 6 a.m. until 7 p.m. Voting booths will be located at the Vienna Community Center.