To avoid a potential 26-cent property tax hike next year, the Board of Supervisors set funding targets for the fiscal year 2004 county and school budgets at Monday’s board meeting. The tax increase would have accommodated an expected budget shortfall of $110 million.
“We all realize we’re facing a more serious situation in '04 than we did in '03,” said Supervisor James Burton (I-Mercer), chairman of the Finance and Government Services Committee.
The three-member committee is recommending the Board of Supervisors approve the funding targets. “It’s gotten to the point where we need to think in stronger terms,” Burton said. “We do have a revenue problem in FY04. We believe it’s time to set some targets in terms of expected budgets.”
The targets are intended to help county and school staffs plan for the FY04 budget, a process that will begin this fall and end in early April.
“I know this is not a budget exercise today. Today, we’ll set the tone. We can get through this with modest cuts,” Burton said, adding that after talking with School Board members, “I got the impression they do understand the seriousness of the situation.”
THE COUNTY’S expenditures are estimated to exceed FY04 revenue expectations by $21 million, while school expenditures are expected to be another $89 million, according to preliminary projections.
On the county side, $15 million is projected for operating expenditures and $6 million in debt service for county capital projects. The increases are the equivalent of five cents on the real property tax, leaving 21 cents for the School District, if such a tax were approved. For the School District , operating expenses are expected to increase $67 million and debt services $22 million, according to the projections.
“I think some kind of tax increase is unavoidable,” Burton said. “There can’t be any sacred cows if we want to keep our taxes reasonable.”
The board set the property tax for FY03 at $1.05. Burton mentioned setting a maximum tax rate of $1.11, the same rate as when the board took office in 2000.
TO ACHIEVE an “affordable” tax rate, Burton proposed a targeted budget increase of $26 million to provide $22 million for the county and $4 million for the School District. The targets increase the county’s overall operating budget from $875.3 million in FY03 to $901.3 million in FY04.
Burton motioned to set the School District’s target at a one-percent increase for per-pupil spending from $9,310 per student in FY03 to $9,403 in FY04. The board approved increases of eight to 11 percent per student in fiscal years 2000-02.
“The idea of eight to 16 percent increases every year are out of the question for FY04,” Burton said. “We’re at a point now, we have to get tough.”
“This is too simplistic to not consider inflation,” said Supervisor Chuck Harris (D-Broad Run).
Burton’s motion passed 5-2-2 with Harris and Eleanore Towe (D-Blue Ridge) voting against and Chairman Scott York (R-At Large) and Drew Hiatt (R-Dulles) absent from the vote.
In a second motion, Burton set the county’s target increase at $4.5 to $5 million for additional public safety expenses. The increase would come from an additional one cents on the property tax.
“This has turned to lunacy,” Harris said, adding that the increases do not provide enough funds to cover the county’s budget. “To limit ourselves … is lunacy … when we don’t have the information on the table to look at.”
Burton’s motion passed 6-1-1 with Harris voting against and Hiatt absent from the vote.
“Like all budget exercises, what is being proposed is a target. It’s not a final decision,” Burton said. “We have to get off the business of double digit increases each year.”
On Tuesday, Joseph Vogric, chairman of the School Board, said the funding caps "will have serious consequences for the school system."
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Edgar B. Hatrick said, "You could see a rollback in almost every improvement you made in the last three years" from compensation to new programs. "We've got our work cut out for us."
IN OTHER BUSINESS, the board agreed not to supplement cuts to state funded and state-mandated programs with local tax dollars. The state government is facing a $2 billion deficit and may cut the state budgets for FY03 and FY04.
“There comes a point in time when you have to stop taking over responsibilities of another level of government,” Burton said.