County to Start Recovering From Recession

County to Start Recovering From Recession

Growth and funding during tough economic times is a concern that likely will play out in 2003 in Loudoun County, according to a few local officials.

"We will have some tough choices to make. The money is not there to deal with the challenges we have," said County Administrator Kirby Bowers.

Bowers' biggest concern for 2003 is the county budget, he said. The county faces state budget cuts and the costs of growth associated with opening new schools each year, opening the Ashburn Library and beginning construction on the new Adult Detention Center. Loudoun County Public Schools plans to open five schools in 2003, the same number the school district opened in 2002.

"We already did it once," said Joseph Vogric (Dulles), School Board chairman. "We're opening five schools on top of five schools. That's a challenge."

Vogric is concerned about a funding target proposed by the Board of Supervisors in late 2002 that could limit the district's budget increase to $22 million. In November, Superintendent Edgar Hatrick presented a $309.2 million proposed budget, a $44.7 million increase from last year's local appropriations, doubling the board’s limit.

"I'm hoping they're not going to hold to their target," Vogric said. "It's not reasonable given we need to give our teachers raises and keep our salaries competitive."

The increase, in part, will cover the expenses associated with student growth when another 2,700 students are expected to attend the district’s 61 schools during the 2003-04 school year. At the same time, another 15,000 to 18,000 residents are expected to move into the county, increasing the demand for services when the county's resources will not increase at the same rate.

"The biggest challenge is to present a budget to the Board of Supervisors in an election year, trying to find a solution to these pressing budget issues," Bowers said. "[It] will impact the services we provide citizens at the state level. ... We will have to be very creative to find new solutions to some of the issues we have to deal with here."

BOWERS HOPES for a public dialogue of what residents expect from the county government. "We might have to find new ways to deliver things ... more of a barn-raising approach to our affairs," he said, adding that the government’s role could evolve into being more of a facilitator than a direct-service provider. "There's opportunity for us to do more of that if the community gets engaged with the process. If not, we don't have the opportunity."

John Clark agrees that "innovative and creative solutions" need to be sought to begin solving the county’s transportation problems. "The county’s needs on the highway side are influenced by the state’s budget woes," said Clark, director of the county’s year-old Office of Transportation Services. "We rely on VDOT [the Virginia Department of Transportation] for our highway needs. ... VDOT in good times was not able to meet the needs of the fastest growing jurisdiction in the state."

To get around the lack of funding, governmental entities could focus on working "smarter" by evaluating procedures and design standards currently in use, Clark said. "Do we need to be looking at it this way? It’s saying how we can get it done ... with limited resources," he said.

Services provided through the county’s transit services, which are funded through the gas tax, are expected to increase this year. "We have a long way to go. I want to see a lot more people in transit," Clark said. "We want to get people to be familiar with the service and use it."

FOR BOARD of Supervisors chairman Scott York, the biggest item this year will be the budget. "We have human service needs we need to try to take care of, and deal with the human impact from those budget cuts," said York (R-At large), adding that transportation improvements and growth management strategies are two of the other top issues the county will face next year.

Sheriff Stephen Simpson expects he will have to operate the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office with less funding next year.

"It's going to be more with less," Simpson said. "The county is still growing rapidly. There's more traffic, crime and increases in calls for service, yet we've really not increased personnel. ... We're way behind anyway."

In 2002, the Sheriff's Office expected to add 13 approved positions, but had to eliminate five of those positions to accommodate a county budget cut. "There's a lot of overtime because we have to maintain a certain level of staffing. I'm concerned about burnout as time goes on for our people," Simpson said. "Bracing ourselves for the increases we're seeing with really no resources is going to be one of our challenges."

Likewise, the courts in the county face an increasing workload in court cases and other transactions, said Clerk of the Circuit Court Gary Clemens. "It's going to be a very tough year for the clerk's office and courts to keep up with the pace in the ever increasing volume of work while we're trying essentially to do more with less due to state budget cuts and potential county cuts," he said.

AS FOR YORK’S and the Board of Supervisors’ focus on managing growth, the board and the Planning Commission worked on several planning documents last year and will continue to refine the documents this year.

The county adopted a Revised Comprehensive Plan in July 2001 to guide growth and development in the county for the next 20 years. The proposed remapping of the countywide zoning map and amendments to the zoning ordinance are necessary for the board to implement the Comprehensive Plan. The board is expected to adopt the map and zoning ordinances by the end of 2002.

"What we're doing right now will have a huge effect on land development in the future," said Julie Pastor, director of planning for the county.

This year, the Planning Commission will work on aspects of the Comprehensive Plan that the board recommended as first priorities, including a bicycle and pedestrian master plan, a preservation plan to protect the county's historic and cultural resources and possibly the area plans for the Ashburn, Sterling, Dulles and Potomac suburban communities in eastern Loudoun.

"The implementation of the Comprehensive Plan is going to be the No. 1 issue that is going to [concern] landowners and farmers," said Gary Hornbaker, director and agricultural extension agent for the Loudoun Cooperative Extension.

The plan reduces the number of new homes that can be built by 41 percent countywide, decreasing development by 27 percent in the east and 77 percent in the west. Zoning densities will be reduced in the west from A-3, or three units per acre, to either A-50, one unit per 50 acres, in the southwest part of the county, or A-20, one unit per 20 acres in the northwest, unless the units are clustered for higher densities.

"So many farmers have borrowed money based on the equity of the land and is that equity going to fall?" Hornbaker said.

County assessor Bill Gardner said the market will determine the land values. "It's too simple to say the zoning ordinance changes the value," he said. "There's so many reasons people can find property valuable. Zoning by itself does not create value."

HORNBAKER MENTIONED two other concerns for the agriculture community. Farmers face a possible increase in operating costs, which can be offset with an increase in commodity prices or by selling more product, along with a labor shortage.

"Labor is becoming more and more difficult for farmers to acquire. Agriculturists can't afford to pay a rate of labor on an hourly basis that so many employees make," Hornbaker said, adding that fewer people have the skills associated with working on a farm. "Farmers can’t afford to pay to make a profit. Agriculture is in a real squeeze and that’s been the situation for a number of years. I’m not trying to be a pessimist but a realist."

As for other types of jobs, major employers such as America Online Inc. and WorldCom appear to be stabilizing, said Randy Collins, president of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. "I think business wise, things will continue to grow," he said. "We're hoping the national economy turns around and moves toward something stronger. The people I talked to said 2003 is going to be a slow build. I'm optimistic about things turning around more quickly."

THE ECONOMY is expected to technically start recovering in 2003 but the effects will not be felt until 2004, said Larry Rosenstrauch, director of the Department of Economic Development. As of early December 2002, the National Bureau of Economic Research had not declared an end to the national recession, which began in March 2001.

"We’re still getting a mixed set of signals on the economy," Rosenstrauch said, adding that some indicators along with slight positive growth may point to the recession being over, "but it doesn’t feel over."

"The indicators are mixed, and it looks like we’re heading toward modest recovery," said regional economist Sean Lacroix.

In 2002, the county permitted 1.5 million square feet to 2 million square feet of new commercial space, compared to a peak of 7.9 million square feet in 2000. The trend in the late 1990s was permitting 2 million square feet to 3 million square feet of new space each year. "We’re not terribly below the trend," Rosenstrauch said.

In 2000, the local economy showed an artificial jump in growth with the Internet technology boom, becoming "an economy on steroids," as Rosenstrauch described it. "We are returning to a mid-90s growth spurt, which is more real. ... The heavy excess has been squeezed out of the economy."

Even with a delayed sense of recovery, "it’s going to be an exciting year for economic development," Rosenstrauch said. He mentioned business opportunities, including planning tourism and visitors packages for the arrival of the National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at the Washington Dulles International Airport in December 2003; expanding the rural economy in western Loudoun through more than 100 by-right business and agricultural uses; and continuing to develop Loudoun as a small business and entrepreneurial community.

"It certainly is not all doom and gloom," Rosenstrauch said. "Certainly in 2004, we should start seeing very strong signs of recovery."