After four hours of debating and, at times, fighting the Board of Supervisors adopted the county's fiscal year 2007 budget and set the real estate tax rate at 89 cents. The board spent Tuesday evening altering changes it made to the budget during several work sessions over the last month.
The 89-cent tax rate is a 15 cent drop from last year's $1.04 rate, but still means a large increase in the average citizen's tax bill due to a 36 percent average increase in home assessments over last year. The average tax bill will increase 10 percent, or approximately $420.
In a last-minute change, Loudoun County Public Schools received an additional $7 million in its operating transfer following a motion by Supervisor Stephen Snow (R-Dulles). The board cut more than $31 million from the school system's requested budget increase during an earlier work session.
Although supervisors continued to debate whether the county should get involved in building roads, they voted to include $12.5 million in the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for road improvements and agreed to take the issue to the voters for their input.
SNOW'S MOTION TO add more money into the school transfer budget also brought some opposition from supervisors. The motion passed 5-4 with Supervisors Lori Waters (R-Broad Run), Jim Burton (I-Blue Ridge), Mick Staton (R-Sugarland) and Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) opposed.
Prior to the motion, the school system was receiving and additional $70 million over its current budget, a number many supervisors felt was "more than fair."
"We're giving them an additional $70 million and we are still portrayed as cutting the school budget," Waters said. "I think a fair compromise of $70 million will far meet the needs [of the schools.]"
Snow, however, was concerned about making a decision that would negatively affect Loudoun County students in the years to come.
"If we make a mistake and we don't have the education for our young folks and it doesn't come out right and we have a shortage of this or that down the line, you will just ignore it," he said.
When voting for the school budget some supervisors considered the fact there are no new schools scheduled to be built in 2007 and that enrollment has not increased as significantly this as it has in the past.
"There was 7.3 percent increase in enrollment this year, Staton said. "They have set up 12 percent increase in spending. Any good manager is able to deal with a budget with an increase like that."
WHILE THE BOARD voted 7-2 to include the $12.5 million in the CIP and allow citizens to address the issue of funding road construction with county dollars, the decision to include road projects in the CIP at all was the most contentious issue of the night. Some supervisors saw the inclusion as a decision that would squeeze both schools and public-safety projects and others stated that the county has to get involved in order to help citizens who spending more time in traffic every day.
"People are sitting at light after light after light," Waters said. "In the recent county survey, traffic was No. 2 at 44.2 percent, right behind growth and development."
During the CIP vote, Waters asked that a total of $30 million be used in the plan for the construction of the Route 7 and Loudoun County Parkway interchange. Staton amended the motion to add an additional $3 million for Battlefield Parkway. The motion failed 4-5 with Supervisors Waters, Staton, chairman Scott K. York (I-At large) and Delgaudio voting in favor.
"I can't support funding transportation at the same time that we are squeezing schools," Burton said, "and we are squeezing schools in this proposal."
For at least one supervisor the issue was not only what could lose out if the county began funding road construction, but where the money would come from.
"The issue is not that we need more transportation dollars, it is paying for it," Supervisor Sally R. Kurtz (D-Catoctin) said. "Make no mistake about it, the facts of the matter are, if we start getting into the road building business, the property tax will be paying for it."
Many of the supervisors cited the lack of money coming from Richmond back into Loudoun as the reason roads have become a county issue.
"The state, if they gave us our fair share of our education money and our transportation money, Loudoun County would be in much better shape," Supervisor Jim Clem (R-Leesburg) said.
ALONG WITH THE decisions on roads, the board also voted on school construction projects. Waters made a motion to adopt the CIP as it had been voted on at the March 29 work session, but Supervisor Bruce Tulloch (R-Potomac) made a substitute motion to adopt the proposed CIP he had originally put forth. He stated he did not agree with the March 29 proposed CIP, which was a hybrid of his, Waters' and staff recommendations.
Following the drawn-out argument over the inclusion of road projects, Tulloch moved that the board adopt the March 29 proposed school projects, which passed unanimously.
The school projects plan included the construction of one elementary school in South Ridge Station during fiscal year 2007 and moved some elementary, middle and high schools' construction out beyond fiscal year 2008. The plan also lowered the projected costs, something Waters had originally proposed.
All the other projects on the CIP were passed unanimously, except for the building of the Sheriff's Office firing range, which Delgaudio opposed. Snow attempted to get the Dulles South Multipurpose Facility back onto the CIP, but received no support from the rest of the board.
In a turn from the last work session, both the Adolescent Day Treatment Center and the three Mental Health/Substance Abuse residences were added back into fiscal year 2008, with the provision that the locations were not been decided upon. Previously, the board had voted to remove the projects, following Waters' objection to the proposed University Center and Loudoun Center sites.
THROUGHOUT THE budget work sessions, the heads of various county departments expressed frustration at the way the process was moving, with extra meetings and broad cuts in enhancements.
"Things have constantly gone up and down," Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson said. "And we've been jerked around in this whole process in a way that I don't appreciate."
The Sheriff's Office, while originally granted an additional $2.4 million for new deputies, is still unaware of what money he will receive come July following a problem discovered in the board's motion.
"For all government the No. 1 responsibility is the safety of the citizens," Simpson said. "I think it is unfair that we are even in this process to begin with."
While all departments saw a reduction in the budget enhancements they will receive for fiscal year 2007, Simpson is concerned about how behind the county is from national averages.
"We are 116 law-enforcement members behind where we should be," he said. "We stand to sit way behind if we don't get the extra positions. Everyone wants these proactive programs, but we need the reactive [personnel] first."
Throughout the budget process, many departments saw cuts in the enhancements they requested and the projects the were planning in the coming years. In a year when there was such a pull between county needs and increasing tax bills, some less essential departments feared losing some of their funding.
"We got our CIP which is really important to us," Douglas Henderson, director of the Loudoun County Public Library said. Henderson had been concerned that his CIP for two new libraries and the renovation of the Rust Library would be pushed out.
"All I know, is that I wouldn't want their job," Henderson said, referring to the supervisors.
THE FINAL VOTE on the budget and the 89-cent tax rate only passed by a 5-4 margin and that only came after Burton agreed to switch his vote for the tax rate if the board agreed to use the remaining $528,000 toward reducing the cuts on the vacancy list. The board had originally voted to cut vacant positions by $3 million.
At first, the board had voted 4-5 on the budget and 89-cent tax rate, with Supervisors Waters, Staton, Delgaudio, York and Burton voting against; however, Burton switched his vote on the final motion.
Following the failed original motion, Waters moved to adopt an 87-cent tax rate with additional cuts to be identified at later work sessions. The motion was removed by Burton's substitute motion.
"I think that 89 cents is too rich," Delgaudio said. "In respect to the people of my district that have expressed they have a tax burden that can only be relieved by lowering the tax rate."
While none of the supervisors were happy with the increase in taxes the 89-cent tax rate would bring, those that voted for the final budget believed they had done the best they could.
"I do believe we have done the best by Loudoun County residents as a whole," Tulloch said. "This budget reflects a lot of hard work and now we need to move on and do what is right for the citizens."