Budget Begets Taxes

Budget Begets Taxes

As county grows, so does budget.

County Administrator Kirby Bowers kept the budget to a 5.5-cent tax increase in line with the Board of Supervisors' funding target for Fiscal Year (FY) 2004.

The increase will add another $390 to the average homeowner's tax bill, a 14 percent increase to what homeowners pay for every $100 of assessed value. Each penny of the tax rate will provide the county with $4.5 million in funding.

Bowers advertised a maximum $1.16 tax rate to allow full funding of the School Board's proposed budget, which exceeds the supervisors' target by $19 million as set in October 2002. Bowers proposed a smaller $1.105 tax rate that would require the School Board to make cuts to the school's portion of the budget. The smaller tax rate funds a $802 million budget for General County Services and the school system.

Bowers' budget includes $512 million for schools, $281 million for the county and $8.4 million for the Comprehensive Services Act (CSA) for At-Risk Youth. The $1.105 tax rate provides 77.5 cents for the school system, 32 cents for the county and 1 cent for the CSA.

"Education has continued to be one of the highest priorities of the board ... [and] the largest percentage of the budget," Bowers said at the Feb. 3 Board of Supervisors meeting.

RESPONDING to a slowing economy, the supervisors set funding targets to limit the county to a 1-cent tax increase for public safety enhancements and the school system to a 1 percent increase in local per-student spending, which figures in at $22 million. The School Board's adopted budget proposes increasing spending by $51.8 million, $19.3 million above the Supervisors' request. The School Board's $407.6 million budget request requires $305.8 million in local funding, or $41.3 million more than FY-03.

"I was pleased that [Bowers] presented a budget that was consistent with the direction we gave. While it may seem austere to some people, it still represents a 14 percent tax increase," said Supervisor James Burton (I-Mercer). "I'm sure we will make some adjustments. I don't know where those adjustments will go. I just hope we don't make adjustments upward."

Bowers presented the supervisors with a list of unmet needs in social services and public safety and of delayed construction projects, including the Public Safety Administration Building, the Eastern Loudoun Recreation Center and the Carver School project for a senior center in the former Purcellville school. Bower's proposed budget maintains the following projects:

* Constructing six public safety centers that will combine fire, rescue and law enforcement services.

* Constructing the Adult Detention Center.

* Renovating volunteer fire and rescue stations.

* Opening the Ashburn Library and renovating the Rust and Lovettsville libraries.

* Developing recreating centers at Claude Moore and Broadlands parks.

BOWERS INCLUDED "very few new initiatives" in the budget, he said, introducing the initiatives that focused solely on public safety and community services. The initiatives include:

* Providing $1.4 million to open Ashburn Library in July 2003.

* Providing $2.5 million to replace proffer funding for the 17 volunteer fire and rescue companies.

* Increasing county funding by 4.5 percent for all volunteer fire and rescue companies.

* Adding 29 positions to the Department of Fire and Rescue Services.

* Adding 32 positions to the Sheriff's Office.

* Adding 10 positions to the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services.

Bowers proposed a work force development program to attract and retain county employees with a 4 percent performance-based increase for eligible employees and a restored bonus program.

Bowers listed the key factors shaping his proposed budget, including the downturn in the economy, an increase in public safety demands from population growth and other factors, an increase in debt service and insufficient state funding. The county's debt is at $606 million this year. State funding is expected to be $70.8 million.

"Although the economy has slowed over the past year, the population is still growing as are the demands for service," Bowers said.

LOUDOUN'S POPULATION is projected to increase at a rate of 12,000 to 15,000 new residents a year during the next several years, or about 6 to 7 percent annually. The county's current population of 206,000 residents is expected to jump to 218,000 residents by the end of 2003, bringing the total increase during the board's four-year term to 55,000 residents.

The school population is also expected to increase by about 7,500 students a year, or about 7.5 percent annually.

"The commercial sector is growing at a slower pace than that of the population, which places increasing pressure on residential real property taxes to fund county services and the school system," Bowers said. "Loudoun's revenue picture for FY-04 is mixed. Most revenue shows some flattening or decline as a result of the national trend."

The county saw 255 new businesses last year and another 1,800 new jobs.

"It's going to be difficult, but people have to remember that the economic times are more difficult than they were two to three years ago," Burton said. "Belt tightening is not just rhetoric; it has to be real."

Residents will have a chance to comment on the proposed budget at a public hearing scheduled on Feb. 20. Budget work sessions will begin on Feb. 25.

IN OTHER BUSINESS, the Board of Supervisors:

* Approved purchasing six open space easements for $9.48 million. The easements aim to protect 1,695 acres of land from future development, along with the agriculture, historic, natural and scenic resources on the properties. The county plans to make the six purchases using $4.6 million of funds from the Open Space Preservation Fund, along with nearly $2 million in federal grants and $2.89 million in property owner donations.

The county set aside $8.98 million for the program in FY-01 to FY-03. In FY-03, the county purchased easements on eight properties totaling 1,440 acres at a cost of $3.8 million.

Drew Hiatt (R-Dulles) said the program is "a wasteful and unwise use of taxpayer funds that benefits a handful of landowners," adding that he instead supports private funding of the program.

"This is a wise investment," William Bogard (R-Sugarland Run) countered, adding that the county saves on future infrastructure costs through the program.

Chairman Scott York (At large) agreed. "Development costs and is the high price we pay for every home we put it," he said. "This is one element of what we've done to protect our county fiscally."

* Adopted a resolution urging the State Corporation Commission to reject Virginia Dominion Power’s application for the Phase II Route 606 power line alignment until a section of the line is placed underground. The board supports placing the section of line underground that runs north and west of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration property.

Hiatt said the route runs too close to residential areas but will support the route if the line is buried. "I thought that route was not an optimum route," he said.