Supervisors officially adopted next year’s $2.5 billion budget on Tuesday, and despite repeated efforts by the board’s Democrats, it leaves the School Board $5.5 million short of its request.
The budget includes a 2-cent tax cut from this year’s real estate tax rate, down to $1.125 per $100 in assessed value.
During the meeting, County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), along with Supervisors Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling), made repeated attempts for last-minute changes to the budget, and were repeatedly shut down from even discussing their motions by the Republican majority.
The night’s debate began with the version of the budget hammered by unofficial straw voting over the past several weeks.
“I know there are some folks who might want to do supplemental motions and see if moving this or moving that, but I truly believe, and I have told residents in my district, we are done with this process and have had our discussion,” said Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian), before calling the question, meaning there would be a vote before any other supervisors, besides Randall, had an opportunity to speak.
That prompted Saines to vote against the budget in protest, the lone dissenting vote.
“There are a lot of people in the county who wanted to hear from the Board of Supervisors as to why they voted the way they voted on the budget, and that was taken away from us,” Saines said during a break in the meeting.
Randall, too, showed her pique, commenting before the vote, “With no discussion? Really?”
Volpe also started to ask if that vote would preclude other motions on the budget, but Randall replied that she had consulted with county staff and it would not.
Among the ideas that were shot down was digging into the projected county’s general fund balance for additional $1.9 million to buy 16 more school buses. School Board members had asked supervisors to reconsider their straw votes and find more money for buses.
Supervisors were already planning to allocate money for 44 of the 60 buses the School Board says it needs. One new school bus costs about $120,000.
Randall argued in favor of funding the additional 16 buses, saying that the board had already allocated more than $5 million from fund balance for school buses in this budget, and that doing so would not affect the tax rate.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said the board was already cutting more into the fund balance than county staff members recommended. The county administrator generally advises supervisors to maintain a cushion of $35 million to $40 million of unspent fund balance in an annual budget. He also said that cutting into the fund balance, which carries over from one year to the next, would affect future budgets.
“Pay me now or pay me later, but either way, it’s not free,” Letourneau said. “So it’s really not accurate to talk about this year’s tax rate in a vacuum, because it’s true this may not affect this year’s tax rate, but it could affect next year’s.”
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) pointed out that the schools are getting the vast majority of their request—99.5 percent of their total budget, including state and federal funding—and one of the largest increases in the past decade, a 7.7 percent single-year increase in local funding.
He said there are people in Loudoun who struggle to pay their real estate tax.
“Trying to find a balance between making sure an elderly person can pay their real estate assessments, and making sure we’re investing the right amount in schools, is what our job is,” Meyer said.
Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) called for an immediate vote, without further discussion.
Umstattd also attempted to send the schools $1.5 million more to buy textbooks, and to allocate $400,000 to meet the $1 million request for day support services contracts such as with Every Citizen Has Opportunity (ECHO) Inc. Both of those requests were also knocked down.
The textbooks idea was shot down along party lines after another motion to close discussion by Letourneau. Higgins moved to close debate on the day support services funding, over the objections of the board’s Democrats and Meyer. It was voted down 7-2, with only Umstattd and Saines supporting it. Randall had pointed out that, as an annually recurring expense, the contracts would be an inappropriate use of fund balance, which as a best practice is only used for one-time expenses.
After the vote, Letourneau said as finance committee chairman he would be happy to bring the Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services in later in the year to see how the reduced contract budget expansion was affecting services.
Randall was critical of some supervisors’ approach to budgeting.
“I thought that the effort to get down to a certain tax rate is not really the way to go about the budget process,” Randall said. “I believe that when the staff comes before us, we should listen to each department and judge them on the merit of what they’re asking for, and not so much put a tax rate in our heads and even to some degree advertise that they’re going to get down to that tax rate, and then make every effort to get down to that tax rate, no matter what is presented before us.”
Early in the budget work sessions, Meyer announced he would work to get the tax rate down to $1.125, from the $1.135 County Administrator Tim Hemstreet had proposed. Meyer, Letourneau, and Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge) later presented a hypothetical plan to fill the school budget gap by giving teachers slightly lower raises. Supervisors, however, have no control over how the School Board spends the money the county sends it.
“Frankly, we had supervisors up here starting from the point of saying, ‘I will fully fund the School Board’s budget no matter what it is,’” Meyer said. “My question is, then why have a Board of Supervisors?”
Letourneau, too, argued that supervisors were being asked to “rubber stamp” the schools’ request.
Both Randall and board vice chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said they believed everyone’s intentions were good, even if they didn’t agree.
“The budget process is never simple,” Buona said. “I’ve said before, this was my sixth one. It was actually the easiest one of the six. Budgets are a little easier in good times than they are in hard times.”
Fiscal year 2018 will begin on July 1.