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Citizens Voice Concerns Over Budget

Not enough or too much?

Loudoun Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Mercer) was not surprised by the comments Thursday on the county's proposed budget.

"We probably will reduce this budget below what [County Administrator Kirby] Bowers proposes. I'm hoping the majority of the board won't agree to a 15 to 17 percent increase two years in a row," Burton said about the fiscal year 2003 budget, which calls for $875.3 million in expenditures.

The 2003 budget includes $552.9 million in funding for the school district, $10 million less than the school board requested, and $314.9 million in expenditures for county expenses. The budget's funding will come in part from a proposed $1.08 tax rate, the same as last year's tax rate. At the same time, assessments increased by an average of 17.4 percent, meaning higher property taxes for county residents if the Board of Supervisors approves the proposed budget.

"I hope the majority of the board lowers the tax rate to offset some of the increase in assessments," Burton said.

Burton said every time the Board of Supervisors brings a proposed budget to public hearing, representatives from Loudoun schools, social service programs and anti-tax groups turn out to speak. This year was not any different.

The surprise for Burton was a lower turnout than expected with 80 speakers at both the afternoon and evening sessions, which together lasted four-and-a-half hours. The same surprise caught the attention of Supervisor Chuck Harris (D-Broad Run).

"It's going to be tough budget process with limited resources, increased demands" and the county's increased responsibility to fund fire and rescue services, Harris said.

The board will use the speakers' comments as it considers adoption of the fiscal year 2003 budget.

MORE THAN 20 speakers, including parents, teachers and members of parent organizations, addressed the school board's budget. Some of the speakers asked the board to fully fund the school board's request, as it has done in the past two years. They wanted the school district to continue to attract good teachers with salary increases, avoid overcrowding existing schools, maintain current class sizes and continue newly implemented school programs, claiming they are willing to pay higher taxes for a fully funded school budget.

The vice-president of a parent organization suggested the Board of Supervisors reduce the county budget without touching the already tight school board budget by delaying library and county recreation projects and not hiring additional county staff. "None are as important as what the school board faces," said Kathy Lague of the Seneca Ridge Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) for Seneca Ridge Middle School, in Sterling.

"Teacher salaries are not the place to cut corners. This will negatively affect class size [and] test scores," said Jacklyn Schmetzer, representing Mill Run Elementary School's PTO, in Ashburn.

Burton said the school board promised the budget request for this year would not be as high if the Board of Supervisors agreed to support the past two budgets in fiscal years 2001 and 2002. Those budgets called for salary increases to allow the district to become competitive with Fairfax County's salary rates.

"This budget is greater than the last two," Burton said. "It doesn't sit too well with members of the Board of Supervisors."

Harris said he will review the school board's budget to determine what he would support maintaining or recommend for additional cuts in the school board's budget.

"Are there things in the school budget that I think we could do without, and how much do they add up to? What am I willing to fight for in the school budget?" Harris said.

SEVERAL SPEAKERS turned out to support social service programs, including Northern Virginia Family Services, Loudoun Volunteer Care Givers, Good Shepherd Alliance and Loudoun Interfaith Relief.

"Ninety-five cents of every dollar is used for food [for] families who need it. It's a small price to pay to put food on the table," said Laura MacLaurin, executive director for Loudoun Interfaith Relief, about the agency's annual $1 million budget.

"It's no secret the Commonwealth faces a crisis with the delivery of resources. The message is do not forget the human service needs," said July Hines, co-chair of the Human Services Network.

Other residents asked for a lower tax rate and urged the county to decrease government spending.

"You're playing with fire when you're increasing budgets by 15 to 20 percent," said Loudoun resident Ken Glozer, member of the Loudoun Taxpayer Coalition. He said if the county's budget increases more than 5 to 10 percent a year, the county will end up wasting money. "How much is enough? We're getting to the point where we ought to cap these rates."

Loudoun resident Leon Miller asked that the tax rate be set at 91 cents, the equalization rate needed to raise the same amount of property taxes as last year, and not at $1.08 as proposed. He said the budget's increase from fiscal year 1999 to 2003 is too large, pointing to individual department increases of more than 100 percent. "None of this makes sense in this document," he said.

Burton said with the 91-cent rate, the anti-tax group is asking the county to not fund services for the 15,000 people who have moved to the county since last year.

"They make a lot of noise about 91 cents. It's a ridiculous request," Burton said. "We could not provide the same level of service for everyone."

The county's tax rate will be set by April 1, when the budget must be approved. The Board of Supervisors has work sessions scheduled every Tuesday and Thursday evening from Feb. 26 through March 21, along with a Saturday session on March 16.