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Votes

Supervisors Begin Budget Votes

New projects and enhancements could force readvertisement of tax rate.

While the Board of Supervisors began taking straw votes Thursday night in an attempt to reduce the county's tax rate, changes to the county's construction projects could result in an increase in the advertised rate.

In February, County Administrator Kirby 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.

WHILE SUPERVISORS indicated late last year that they were interested in keeping the fiscal year 2008 tax rate at or near the 89 cent rate, few reductions were made to the enhancements recommended by Bowers.

"Generally speaking I am very comfortable with what the county administrator proposed," Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Blue Ridge) said before the straw votes began. "I think he heard the board's sense of priority really well."

Among the enhancements supervisors voted to cut was an emergency management specialist, which would have helped the county's ability to deal with problems related to natural disasters or large-scale emergencies for the Department of Emergency Management, and an emergency communications officer, which would have centralized data entry for the Sheriff's Office emergency communications center.

In addition, the board voted to cut in half the $583,000 for six new maintenance workers and the $410,000 for new maintenance equipment requested by the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.

Diane Ryburn, director of the parks department, said it has been difficult to keep up with the maintenance of Loudoun's 32 new fields with the employees and equipment the department has.

"It's been four years since we have gotten a significant equipment enhancement," Ryburn said.

Many supervisors, however, said they believed the department that could make due with half of the enhancements.

"We added a lot of acreage, but when we were having the discussion [with the department] I was comfortable that we could operate with three workers," Supervisor Bruce E. Tulloch (R-Potomac) said.

ONE OF THE board's biggest debates came over whether it was necessary to staff the new Lansdowne Fire and Rescue Station with 24-hour, seven-days-a-week career staff.

Supervisor Mick Staton (R-Sugarland Run) questioned whether it would be possible to limit career staffing to 12 hours, seven days a week, and fill the remaining hours with volunteer firefighters.

"We have a volunteer fire service that seems to be rapidly diminishing," he said. "If we start at the beginning under the assumption we are going to go with 24/7 career staffing, it will always be 24/7 staffing."

Chief Joseph Pozzo said that there is interest in helping staff the Lansdowne station from the Ashburn Volunteer Fire and Rescue Station, but that the approval must come from the fire and rescue commission. If the commission does not approve the plan for volunteer staffing at the new station, the Department of Fire and Rescue would have to find money for the additional career staff within the approved budget.

"At this point I am going to support the 24/7 coverage to make sure there is the safest coverage," Supervisor Lori Waters (R-Broad Run) said. "If the volunteer staffing does happen, then we would have a balance that would be applied next year. This area needs service and we need to make sure that it is properly covered."

The total reductions made to the proposed budget only equaled about one quarter of the approximately $9.4 million it would take to reduce the tax rate by 1 cent.

WHEN DISCUSSING the Capital Improvement Program, the board debated an issue that could increase the proposed tax rate by almost 2 cents, or $20 million. The board discussed delaying several construction projects, freeing up some money for school land acquisition. The delay would also require the School Board to agree to reduce each project's cost by 10 percent and would raise the county's debt cap from $200 million to $225 million.

If the board is unable to reduce the proposed budget by $20 million, the tax rate would have to be readvertised to allow for an increase of up to 2 cents.

Bowers told the board that the June 15 deadline for real estate tax bills would have to be delayed and another public hearing would have to be scheduled.

Staton said that if a new tax rate would be advertised, that many people would also call for the board to fully fund the school budget. In his recommendation, Bowers cut $16.2 million from the school's requested budget.

"We don't have any time," Staton said. "If we are going to get [a new tax rate] out, we are going to have to get it out now."