County Puts in Three Cents Worth

County Puts in Three Cents Worth

The Board of Supervisors' proposed three-cent property tax cut translates into a $21 million scramble for the county and the School Board.

"What we're trying to do is have a reasonable budget and a reasonable tax rate," said Supervisor William "Bill" Bogard (R-Sugarland Run).

The board cut the property tax from $1.08 to $1.06 in a straw vote March 19 and two days later dropped it by another penny to $1.05 per $100 in assessed value. For homeowners, the cut means an average increase of $343 to their property tax bills, instead of $421 under County Administrator Kirby Bower's original proposal. The tax rate helps fund the county's local share of the FY 2003 budget.

"Under the circumstances, I think that was as low as we could go. I would have liked to go lower, but I don't see how we could do it," said Supervisor James "Jim" Burton (I-Mercer).

The supervisors battled over where to make the cuts and to what extent during two work sessions last week, while school officials lobbied against the district's $6 million share of the cuts. The county's share is $15 million. The supervisors originally asked for a $10 million cut to the School Board's budget, but restored $4 million with a straw vote March 19.

"I would like to see further cuts," said Supervisor Mark Herring (D-Leesburg). "We need to reduce the tax rate to mitigate against the increased tax assessments," he said in reference to a 15 percent average increase in assessments from 2001 to 2002. "We need to make more cuts and prepare for a more difficult budget next year."

Bowers proposed a $1.08 tax rate and gave a maximum of $1.12 to fund the entire budget. The board agreed by straw vote to cut the tax rate to $1.05, meaning $11.6 million less in funds than would have been raised from the $1.08 rate and $21 million less than the $1.12 tax rate.

IN A HALF-HOUR rally before the work session March 19, six to seven school officials, School Board members and members of the Loudoun Education Association spoke against the supervisors' move to cut the School Board's budget. The School Board passed a $355 million budget in January to fund the district's operating costs before forwarding it to the Board of Supervisors.

"We talked about the impact of budget cuts and going back on the progress we made," said School Board member Warren Geurin (Sterling), one of the speakers appearing before a crowd of 300 residents who met outside the County Government Building, some with signs.

"We're finally paying people what they're worth. We don't want to go back on our progress," Geurin said.

The cut to schools has already meant a cancellation of the greeting program budgeted at $1.1 million next year, while further cuts will be debated by School Board members after the supervisors finalize the budget April 1. The greeting program, which ends this month, places front door greeters at county schools to check visitor identification as a safety measure implemented after Sept. 11.

"My last choice would be to cut salaries," said School Board member John Andrews (Broad Run) in reference to an already reduced cost-of-living increase from 3 to 2 percent as adopted in the School Board's budget. "Fairfax County is sticking to a 2 percent cost-of-living increase. I will not support a budget that pays our teachers substantially less than Fairfax."

Geurin said cuts could come from reducing the number of new administrator positions and through program reductions in the arts, music and foreign languages, along with cutting back the block scheduling program in middle schools not currently under the program.

"What the supervisors did to us on Tuesday is very disappointing, especially because the person who did this to us [Burton] wants to see us go $100 million in debt to build two high schools when we only need one," Geurin said in reference to the School Board's proposed Capital Improvements Program (CIP) for FY 2003-08. "You just can't do the math that way."

Burton said the School Board is asking for a 20 percent budget increase for the third year in a row, this year to cover an 8 percent increase in student population. "We have several people running about claiming the sky is falling, and I think the claim is not justified," he said.

THE COUNTY'S overall budget for both county and schools shows a 5 percent increase from $835.5 million in FY 2002 to $875.3 million in 2003. On the county's end, the board agreed to make cuts to county expenditures and to increase county fees at the March 19 and March 21 work sessions.

On March 19, the supervisors agreed to cut $9.96 million from the county's budget, which includes the operating expenses, capital projects, asset replacements and debt services for both the county and schools. The proposed cuts reduce the cost-of-living raise for county staff from 3 to 2 percent, reduce the performance increase to 3 percent from 3.5 percent and cut vacancies in staff positions. At the same time, fee increases to the emergency E-911 and development fees added $1.85 million to the budget.

At the work session, the board voted against several proposed enhancements, including those for the storm water program and for increases in staff positions in social services, health services, parks, recreation and community services, and the county attorney's office.

The board agreed to another $2.6 million in reductions at the last budget work session on March 21. The cuts totaled $2.9 million, with another $300,000 restored to the budget.

To make the cuts, Bowers proposed reducing the cost-of-living raise by another $350,000 by delaying giving the raise until September. He suggested delaying some new hirings to save another $450,000 and eliminating empty and contractual positions to save $800,000.

The board agreed to Bowers' recommendations, including cutting $1.3 million in personnel costs and dropping the performance raise to 2 percent from the 3 percent voted on previously. The board voted to cut $14,000 from the fee paid to the Washington Airports Task Force, $20,000 from funds provided to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and $130,000 from the amount paid for court security, balanced with an increase in court costs.

The board restored some enhancements that were cut on March 19, including providing $37,000 for a school resource officer in Leesburg, $150,000 for the county's homeless shelter and $200,000 to help finish construction on the Franklin Park Performing Arts Center in Purcellville.

"Our dilemma is clearly the result of high residential growth, lack of state support and statutory dependence on the real property tax," Bowers said in a memo he sent to the supervisors on March 20. Bowers mentioned the 2003 budget includes $65.5 million in commonwealth aid, though he expects a $347,000 state cut in grants and funding that will have to be brought to the board at a later date.

BOWERS RECOMMENDED the board consider the FY 2004 budget when adopting the 2003 budget. He expects the residential sector of the county to recover from last year's recession faster than the commercial sector.

"This will mean a continuation of growing population and service demand with a lag in revenue-producing commercial activities," Bowers said in the memo. "Revenues are projected to increase but less so than in preceding years."

"In the next four to five years, we're going to see our past growth policies coming back and hitting us," Bogard said.

The county expects to take on another $23 million in debt service, while the School Board's preliminary budget is expected to increase $86 million to $435 billion next year. The increase will require a 20-cent tax increase, according to the current rate of generating $4 million for every penny in taxes.

The county's debt service is estimated at $73.68 million for FY 2003 and is expected to increase to $96.34 million in 2004 and nearly double to $138.85 million in 2008.

"I'm very disappointed we reduced the tax rate from $1.08 to $1.05. We should have kept it at $1.08 and used 3 cents in savings toward debt service," said Supervisor Chuck Harris (D-Broad Run).

The Board of Supervisors will adopt the budget and set the tax rate April 1. The board voted at the March 19 meeting to meet with the School Board after that date to discuss proposed increases in the school district's FY 2004 budget.