By the time Monday night’s budget mark-up session was over, several line items in Leesburg’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget had hit the cutting room floor.
Town Council members last week had narrowed their budget debate to a dozen items up for further scrutiny, addition, or possible removal. Several more were introduced by council members Monday night. All the votes taken were non-binding straw votes, meaning even if something was proposed for addition or removal, that can still be changed up to the budget’s adoption, planned for Tuesday, April 4.
In their votes Monday, council members trimmed $87,350 from the proposed $107 million budget, resulting in a potential reduction of the real estate tax rate to 18.48 cents. That’s down slightly from Town Manager Kaj Dentler’s proposal to maintain the current 18.6-cent rate next year.
The largest cut came with the removal of funding to start of a Main Street program in downtown Leesburg. The program, run through the National Main Street Center, would have turned over duties for event promotion and the management of other downtown improvements and activities in the hands of a nonprofit. Dentler had earmarked $110,000 in the budget for the program’s start-up cost, including hiring an executive director and getting office space and equipment, but had emphasized that a community-wide discussion of the proposal was needed first.
In an initial straw vote, council members had voted to keep the funding in abeyance until the business community could work to form a nonprofit. But that motion was later reconsidered at Councilman Tom Dunn’s urging and ultimately the funding was deleted from the FY18 budget completely.
“I feel much better about Main Street being grassroots-run than government-directed,” Dunn said.
He had the support of Vice Mayor Suzanne Fox and council members Ken Reid and Hugh Forsythe in deleting the Main Street allocation.
One downtown initiative that did find majority support on the council was the addition of a holiday decor package, at $85,000. The package includes decorations that can be hung throughout the downtown on public property, such as Mervin Jackson Park and the alleyway next to the Town Hall parking garage. The allocation includes some decorations that can be reused, so the annual allocation following FY18 is not expected to be as high.
Mayor Kelly Burk, Councilman Marty Martinez, Reid, Forsythe, and Fox supported the holiday decor allocation.
Also on the chopping block Monday was a $100,000 downtown parking study proposed by Burk. The money for the study would have come out of the town’s parking fund, which collects money from downtown developers who can’t provide required parking spaces on their own property.
“This will help us meet the future needs of parking as we continue to grow,” Burk said in defending the study. “We cannot continue to do piecemeal solutions. We need to have a broad, comprehensive plan for parking in Leesburg.”
Councilman Ron Campbell made the motion, ultimately passed, to put off the study until a strategic review of the Town Plan takes place.
“I’m not against studies. I’m against studies in a vacuum,” he said. “We talk about a comprehensive plan and it needs to be looked at. I’m asking for the proper conversation in the proper order.”
Fox, Forsythe, and Dunn supported Campbell’s motion.
Spared from removal from the FY18 budget was the town’s contribution to the School Resource Officers in Leesburg middle and high schools. Currently, the seven positions, which include one supervisor, are funded 70 percent by the Loudoun County government, with the town picking up the remaining 30 percent of personnel costs plus all vehicle and equipment costs. Town Council members over the years have asked the Board of Supervisors to increase the financial contribution to the positions, even at one point asking the county to fully fund Leesburg SROs. However, supervisors have remained steadfast that if they were to pick up the full tab for the SROs they would fill the spots with county deputies rather than Leesburg police officers.
Leesburg Police Chief Gregory Brown and Deputy Chief Vanessa Grigsby have been vocal about the importance of keeping town officers in the schools, noting the positive relationships that develop between officers and students have ripple effects that boost community policing efforts. And that sentiment was not lost on the council.
“The SRO program is something you can’t put a dollar figure on,” Forsythe said. “It means a lot to have a Leesburg police officer in the school system. It reaps benefits we will not gain having county personnel.”
Had council members chosen to cut the town’s SRO funding, the net savings would have been a little more than $81,000, with the officers reassigned to other vacant positions within the department. No council member put forward a motion to cut the funding.
Reid was successful in finding support for his motion to place funding for an Interchange Justification Report for the intersection of Battlefield Parkway and the Leesburg Bypass in the Capital Improvements Program for 2020-2021. There is no funding source yet identified for the $2 million study.
“We have to ask for funds and it doesn’t hurt to start early,” said Dunn, who along with Fox and Forsythe supported Reid on the motion. “It’s not too early to at least put it in as a placeholder. It sends a message to Richmond and the other forces that be that it is an important issue for us.”
Town staff had recommended against the inclusion of the study in the CIP, noting that a county project aimed at eliminating a rush hour chokepoint on Rt. 15 north of town could make the study obsolete.
One capital project that got the ax was the construction of a splash pad in Mervin Jackson Park, next to the Town Hall parking garage along Loudoun Street. The $275,000 project would not have used tax funds, as the town planned to use proffer funds from developers to pay for it. Former Town Council member and mayor David Butler had originally introduced the project, but it did not move forward after the Board of Architectural Review recommended that the town first develop a comprehensive plan for use of the entire Town Hall property. That master plan project is expected to kick off this spring.
Martinez and Burk were the only two council members to vote against the splash pad’s removal.
Other items addressed Monday was the capping of money for a consultant to look at Leesburg’s H2 guidelines at $20,000, down from the originally proposed $40,000; the deletion of the Leesburg Listens citizen engagement tool on the town’s website, saving $7,200; a reduction in funding to Visit Loudoun to $60,000, down from the originally proposed $90,000; and doing away with the town’s membership in the Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, at $5,150.
Motions by Reid to cap the pay for performance raises for town staff at 3.5 percent, and to reduce the town’s newsletters from three to two, were not successful. Dunn did not find any council support to eliminate the five staff positions proposed by Dentler as new additions to the budget.
One item that looks to come back up for debate, likely following budget adoption, is the town’s funding arrangement for the Mason Enterprise Center building lease. Campbell noted that some of the original assumptions spelled out in the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the town, Loudoun County, and the Mason Enterprise Center have not panned out, and Leesburg continues to be on the hook for a substantial contribution to the lease. Further scrutiny is needed ahead of the FY19 budget cycle, he said.