The county and the public schools could be facing a spending cap for the fiscal year 2004 budget. Programs and services could be cut. Or Loudoun residents could have to pay another 26 cents to the $1.05 per $100 in assessed value they already pay in property taxes. Twenty-one cents would be for the schools and the rest for the county.
The last option is not likely, according to James Burton (I-Mercer), who favors a "small" tax increase for the next fiscal year that begins July 1, 2003 and ends on June 30, 2004.
"It sets an enormous jump in one year no one would seriously consider. It's too much," Burton said.
These options are being considered as the county faces a potential budget shortfall of $100-110 million for next year, according to a memo County Administrator Kirby Bowers issued two weeks ago to the Finance and Government Services Committee. The shortfall is the result of a slowing in county revenue, coupled with an increase in expenditures to accommodate the county's growth. County department heads already had to cut $8.1 million from their budgets this year through a hiring freeze and other cuts made in their individual departments.
"The economy has slowed. Sales taxes slowed down. Personal property tax has slowed, and construction has slowed," said Ben Mays, budget officer for the Department of Management Services.
At the same time, the county's debt service is expected to increase from $74 million this year to $96 million next year.
"It's a difficult situation," Mays said. "There's the need to keep the tax affordable versus the need to provide the services for a growing population."
PROGRAMS WILL HAVE to be severely cut to make up for the shortfall, said Burton, who chairs the Finance and Government Services Committee. "As far as I'm concerned, there are no sacred cows. Everything will be up for consideration," he said. "There's no question the level of service in many areas will be reduced from what it has been in the last several years."
The Board of Supervisors and School Board met in a joint meeting last week to discuss setting spending caps for the county and schools that will be considered at the Oct. 7 board meeting. The amount of spending allowed will depend on the tax rate the Board of Supervisors sets next spring. As of now, Bowers is asking for another $10-15 million to cover next year's county expenses.
"I don't think we're going along with that. I expect we're going to hold him close to where he is at now," Burton said.
THE SCHOOL DISTRICT'S request is for an additional $67 million, as outlined in the FY03-04 budget that includes projections for next year.
"That's a number we consider excessive, and I don't think there's any chance in the world the Board of Supervisors would grant that," Burton said. He expects the Board of Supervisors to provide the School District with enough funding to cover a projected increase of 2,811 students next year, but not more. The board increased the per-pupil spending during the past three years at about 10 percent per year.
"We told them we won't be able to sustain those kind of increases for FYO4 and they should start planning for it early," Burton said.
"It kind of concerns me," said School Board Chairman Joseph Vogric (Dulles) in response. "It gives an indication of where they expect us to be. I hope that doesn't close their minds to a detailed school budget."
Vogric said the board is "almost coming to a conclusion, and we haven't started the process. ... We have an adopted FY03 budget and for 04, we have the superintendent's recommendation. Hatrick hasn't submitted his budget for evaluation."
Hatrick will present a preliminary budget to the School Board in November.