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Supervisors hear varying perspectives on tax hike included in FY19 budget

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In this corner – the crowd awaits the start of the FY19 budget public hearing – the split was about even on a 1-cent real estate tax hike included in the budget proposal. Photos/Roger Bianchini

At a Special Meeting of April 10, the Warren County Board of Supervisors heard from citizens about its Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal – a $107.8-million budget proposal including a 1-cent Real Estate hike. A total of 10 people addressed council – well, 13 if you include all three Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging board members who rose to thank the supervisors for their contribution to help fund services to the community’s less affluent elderly – but we’re not even going to include the trio of Tom Throckmorton, Joe Biggs and Linda Holtzapple because they did not address the overall budget or tax increase proposal.

But for the nine who did, our count was five in favor of utilizing the tax hike to provide necessary revenue to support the budget and four against. Included in the pro side were Sheriff Daniel McEathron, Public Schools Superintendent Greg Drescher and School Board Chair Cathy Bower.

Of the proposed school security funding increase Sheriff McEathron told the board ‘Nothing is more important than to protect the students and staff in our schools.’ School Board Chair Cathy Bower watching from behind, agreed.

All three of those county officials are involved directly or indirectly in support of providing revenue to support expansion of the Sheriff’s Office School Resource Officer program. That expansion at an expense of an additional $326,905 to a total SRO Sheriff’s Office budget of $692,997 will add four resource officers so that each of the county’s nine public schools will have one full-time, on-site SRO on duty during school hours. Currently one SRO circulates between the system’s five elementary schools.

Others speaking in favor of providing necessary revenue included Roger Keys, a volunteer and professional firefighter; and Shenandoah District Planning Commissioner and Shenandoah Farms POA official Ralph Rinaldi. Keys spoke powerfully about the need to provide adequate funding for emergency services staffing to save both property and lives.

Firefighter Roger Keys asked if any supervisors were feeling a little shortness of breath – if so, he asked them to ponder death as the outcome of a cardiac incident if existing EMS staff were already on a call when their call for help was made.

Rinaldi specifically cited support of the requested increases to the Shenandoah Farms Sanitary District budget – $10 to both the improved (from $285 to $295) and unimproved (from $250 to $260) lot fees. Rinaldi also expressed support for the emergency services budget, noting a timely response to a home accident fall several years earlier. He called county services during his 23 years in the community “more than outstanding”.

However, an opposing view was expressed by those opposing the penny hike in real estate tax proposal. Included in those opponents were Dennis Willingham, Steven Schwalb, Jim Bond and Chris Manion.

Schwalb, a military veteran, was particularly critical of the level of services provided by the county. He pointed to personal experiences with both county law enforcement and courts in an attempt to gain restitution from some contracted work that was never performed.

“If you would improve services maybe it would be worth paying the extra taxes,” Schwalb told the supervisors. He said all he was asking for were police and fire services and a court system that worked. Schwalb also called the lack of local support services for veterans “shameful”.

A disgruntled Steven Schwalb told the supervisor to improve the quality of county services to justify any tax increases.

Willingham was critical of what he called exorbitant County administrative salaries. He said he supported pay raises for teachers, but not for already highly-paid administrators across the County departmental spectrum. He also questioned some operational costs. He recalled a time when he said there might be one 4-wheel drive vehicle in various county departmental fleets.

“Now it seems like 90% are 4-wheel drive – I don’t think we need that,” Willingham told the supervisors, adding, “We’ve got to get out from under this spend and tax system.”

Pointing to the high number of home-schooling families in the county, Manion was particularly critical of public school administrative processes and costs. He claimed administrators could not fire bad teachers and that all teachers, even bad ones were earmarked for salary increases. Manion accused the County of treating local tax revenue “like free federal money”.

Bond said he thought the additional funding for the SRO program was worthwhile but challenged county staff to come up with existing revenue streams to fund it prior to implementation. He pointed to County Administrator Doug Stanley’s long experience in budget preparation oversight – “I know you can do it, have at it, Mr. Stanley,” Bond challenged the county administrator.

Following the public hearing’s 25 minutes of comments, Board Chairman Tony Carter noted that the County’s budget process was not a one-night process. He invited citizens to become involved earlier in that process in those months leading up to what is on the table for approval in April. He noted that by state law the board must wait one week to vote on its fiscal year budget. That vote will come at the regular meeting of April 17.

What will be on the table for approval then is a total budget proposal of $107,826,301, requiring $76,251,417 of local revenue. Those numbers are up $2.2 million and $2.3 million, respectively from FY18’s numbers of $105,626,234 and $73,955,107.

Budget dynamics

In addition to the 1-cent Real Estate Tax hike from 65-cents to 66-cents per $100 of assessed value, a 10-cent hike – from $1.95 to $2.05 – is proposed to the Machinery and Tool Tax. Additional revenues from the tax increases total about $575,000. That includes $511,850 on the real estate side – $404,850 from each penny hike, plus another

$107,000 in Real Estate tax-based fees, primarily to Dominion Power – and an estimated $63,000 from the Machinery & Tool tax increase.

That revenue coupled with $1.1-million in cuts to departmental and other budgets, as well as the use of nearly $2-million in General Fund reserves was utilized to balance the FY19 budget proposal.

The proposed real estate tax hike came despite an early budget process commitment by the supervisors to approve an FY19 budget with no tax increases after last year’s divisive 3-cent real estate hike enacted largely to fund operations at the county’s new middle school.

And in this corner – despite initial promises the supervisors seem bound to a 1-cent real estate tax hike to balance this year’s budget.

However, as Royal Examiner reported in the wake of March 23 budget work session discussion a “perfect storm” of financial variables created a need to generate some additional revenue. That “perfect storm” included: employee health insurance rate increases of 12% to about 20%; a public school budget including wage hikes to keep teacher salaries competitive after a decade of floundering to do so and the unanticipated increase in the Sheriff’s Office budget to accommodate additional school security personnel in the wake of the Florida and Maryland school shootings in the last two months; and revenue losses totaling about $1.6 million.

Primary in the negative revenue column was the loss of over $570,000 in tax revenue from the Dominion Power plant due to a pollution-mitigation equipment exemption ruling by the State Corporation Commission and the loss of over $1-million in State Composite Index (which judges a community’s ability to fund its public schools) revenue.

As for that expanding 4-wheel drive vehicle fleet, administrative salaries, and cited County services deficiencies, well …

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