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Votes

Tax Rate Falls by a Penny

Board try to make school projects fit without increasing county's debt.

By the end of their work session, Wednesday, March 28, the Board of Supervisors had cut $9 million from County Administrator Kirby Bowers' proposed fiscal year 2008 budget, taking just under 1 cent off of the proposed 97.5 cent tax rate. The board was scheduled for a vote on the budget at its Tuesday, April 3 meeting, but following the final work session, Supervisors had not reached a decision on which amended budget they would support.

In February, Bowers proposed a budget with an advertised real property tax rate of 97.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. The fiscal plan totals approximately $1.38 billion in appropriations to the county government and Loudoun County Public Schools. The proposed fiscal plan includes $887.5 million for the school system, $438 million for county expenditures, $46.7 million for the new Fire and Rescue tax district and $8.2 million for the Comprehensive Services Act for At-Risk Youth (CSA).

The 97.5 cent tax rate would represent an increase of approximately 2 percent in the average residential tax bill, or $85. Bowers also prepared budgets that showed what enhancements would be included at an advertised tax rate of 95.5 cents and the current rate of 89 cents.

Of the $9 million reduction, $2.8 million came from adjustments to the public schools' proposed budget. At previous work sessions, the board voted to cut an emergency management specialist from the Department of Fire and Rescue and an emergency communications officer from the Sheriff's Office. Supervisors also voted to cut employees and equipment requested by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services in half.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT'S work session focused on finishing work on the county's Capital Improvement Program (CIP).

Following a motion made my Chairman Scott K. York (I-At large), the board decided to vote only on projects in fiscal year 2008 and save the discussion of projects in subsequent years until after it has adopted the year's budget. Bowers told the board it would have until early May to adopt the entire CIP.

"I am also very concerned about the cost of schools," York said. "I am convinced that we can lower prices in Loudoun County and still deliver what we've been delivering."

Some Supervisors, however, said the board needed to do more than look exclusively at 2008.

"This is a capital improvements plan," Supervisor Mick Staton (R-Sugarland Run) said. "I know everyone is tired and wants to get home and get this budget over with, but you can't just decide to ignore 80 percent of your work."

THE BOARD WORKED from a CIP proposal by Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Blue Ridge) that required a 10 percent funding reduction in school construction projects and added $20 million in each year for land acquisition.

Burton's proposal maintained the county's debt capacity of $200 million, which is a large factor in the county's AAA bond rating. The school's proposed plan would move the debt capacity to around $250 million.

School Board Chairman Robert Dupree (Dulles) told the board the school's proposed plan was the best it could do.

"This is the leanest, best estimate that we've got," he said. "We're trying to figure out where to put 500 students in fiscal year 2008 because there is no school with capacity to put those students."

While some Supervisors said they supported "blowing" the debt capacity if it meant getting money for schools needed by communities in Loudoun, others said there was simply no way to make all the requests fit.

"I understand," Dupree said. "I can't make all these students fit in a school that can only fit a certain amount."

Dupree told the board that if a new middle school in Dulles was not included in fiscal year 2008, Mercer Middle School would be 549 students overcapacity in 2009.

Supervisors voted to add $12.2 million for a new middle school in the Dulles District and $960,000 for the design of a two-story elementary school, which Ben Mays, the county's budget manager, said could be added to the CIP under the $200 million debt capacity ceiling. Any additional projects would mean an increase in the county's debt capacity, he said.

WHEN THE BOARD could not reach a decision on whether to decrease the proposed salary increase for county employees from 6 percent to 3 percent, Supervisor Jim Clem (R-Leesburg) made a motion to keep Supervisors' salaries at the current level.

"We are asking our county staff to take a hit in raises," he said. "I think you need to lead by example."

Only Supervisors Stephen Snow (R-Dulles) and Eugene Delgadio (R-Leesburg) voted to support Clem's motion.

Snow also put forth several amendments to the CIP, including reducing the tax exemption for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute by half and cutting the county's planning staff by one-third.

"All the growth planning and CPAMs are done," he said.

Only Delgaudio supported reducing the planning staff, with other Supervisors calling the idea ridiculous.

"You have no evidence that you put in front of us," Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) said. "You are going to triple your timelines."

Snow also proposed supporting Bowers' proposed budget, but only received support from Burton. Instead of bringing forth other motions for an approved budget, the board voted delay any further work to its April 3 board meeting.

As of press time, the board had yet to adopt a fiscal year 2008 budget or set a tax rate.