The Board of Supervisors’ finance committee has recommended against approving any of the School Board’s supplemental funding requests as it works to allocate money left over in the fiscal year 2016 budget.
The county is in a better financial position than early forecasts suggested, now estimating $55.7 million left over from last year’s budget to be used for one-time expenses or push down next year’s tax rate. The finance committee on Tuesday made recommendations from a wish list for expenses that could be paid from that pot.
Some of the requests that didn’t make the cut: new bookshelves at Cascades Library, body-worn cameras for the Sheriff’s Office, and new buses, turf fields, and textbooks for the schools.
All of these items can come up again during regular budget deliberations next spring and the School Board has said that it will ask for all of those in its fiscal year 2018 budget.
Some supervisors repeated their concerns that the School Board doesn’t have an adequate plan in place to handle recurring costs, such as replacing aging buses and books. Committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) pointed out the schools do have a plan to replace its bus fleet, but does not receive its full budget request from the county and diverts funding away from new buses to other priorities.
Committee members also worried that proving money for more artificial turf fields would allow the School Board to use crumb rubber infill. Citing health concerns, supervisors are pushing for the School Board to use different materials for any new fields.
“If the board appropriates funding right now, and the money is simply transferred to LCPS, then they will decide what to use it for, and they very well may decide to do rubber crumb,” Letourneau said. He said “given all the progress we’ve made on this” and that county staff are now looking again into alternatives to crumb rubber, he would like to preserve the county’s ability to push for an alternative.
The crumb rubber infill in many artificial turf fields, made from recycled rubber, has been at the center of a long-running debate between the two boards. Some parents and supervisors worry it may pose a health risk to student athletes, although no concrete health risk has been established. An Environmental Protection Agency study on long-term health effects is ongoing but not expected to be complete for years. The School Board blocked a county request to test three artificial turf fields for levels of arsenic, lead, and other potentially hazardous substances unless the county also paid to test three natural grass fields.
The county, in turn, has balked at funding artificial turf fields at the four high schools that do not have them unless the School Board to uses something besides crumb rubber. Letourneau has asked county staff to take a second look at some alternatives to crumb rubber, which in the past were more expensive, but which he said may have come down in price.
“I think the message is obvious, we don’t want to do crumb rubber, but right now that’s what they would probably do,” said County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).
Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) voted to provide money for the fields and allow the school system to move ahead regardless. And Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin), who is not a finance committee member but sat in for the meeting, said voting down the field funding was a step backward.
“I feel like what you all are going to be doing is akin to the motion that failed before the whole board, and that was to hold up these fields until the School Board to agreed to test them,” Higgins said. Previously the finance committee recommended the county refuse to provide funding for turf fields unless the School Board to allowed existing fields from three different manufactures to undergo health-risk testing, but the full Board of Supervisors backed away from that position.
“We’re basically holding the fields hostage until we get that information, and we don’t know how long that’s going to be, and we really don’t have any guarantees from the School Board to that they’re going to go along with it anyway,” Higgins said.
The committee voted 4-1 not to send the schools money for the fields, with Saines opposed, and voted unanimously not to send money for school buses and textbooks, preferring to take those up during the regular budget discussion.
The committee also voted unanimously not to buy more body-worn cameras for the Sheriff’s Office yet, worrying about possible additional unforeseen costs, such as the burden on the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office reviewing hours of footage or the cost of fulfilling Freedom of Information Act requests to see the video. Supervisors were nonetheless positive about the idea of body-worn cameras in the future.
“I think right now, this year, we can’t afford it,” Randall said. “I certainly hope in years to come we can afford it.”
The Sheriff’s Office has already deployed a pilot program with 42 body-worn cameras assigned to patrol, traffic, and correctional deputies. Sheriff Mike Chapman had hoped to add 77 cameras this year toward a total goal of 350 in fiscal year 2019.
The committee recommended spending general fund balance on several projects, including $2.4 million for new restrooms at Bolen Park and $1.3 million to complete the county’s comprehensive plan review. In all, the committee recommended spending $14 million in fund balance this year, reserving $3.6 million toward a possible reduction in the property tax rate, and forwarding $38 million to the fiscal year 2018 budget.