Following a deadlocked committee vote on how to prepare the first draft of next year’s budget, the full Board of Supervisors on Thursday approved slightly unusual instructions County Administrator Tim Hemstreet.
In years past, the board has usually directed the county administrator to prepare a draft budget at the current year’s real estate tax rate. The draft budget would come with options to cut it to the equalized rate, the rate at which the average property owner would pay the same dollar amount in taxes, despite appreciating values and inflation. The board would then add to or chip away from Hemstreet’s proposed budget before a final vote.
This year, with the board expected to face a tougher budget with several new big-ticket expenses on the table, supervisors have instead instructed Hemstreet to propose a budget at the lower equalized rate, with options to increase the budget to this year’s tax rate.
Currently, the projected equalized tax rate is $1.11 per $100 of assessed value. That’s a penny and a half lower than the current rate, $1.125.
Even at the current tax rate, the county is facing a projected shortfall of nearly $95 million to meet what it needs to pay for employee raises, growth in county departments, the first year of fixing the county’s classification and compensation system, and an expected $100 million increase in the funding request from the school system. At the equalized rate, the county is projected to fall short $107 million.
While those preliminary projections are intentionally conservative, Hemstreet has warned the board that the county is unlikely to close that gap between now and the board’s deliberations on the next budget in March.
This year, supervisors are facing a study of county employee pay scales that shows Loudoun behind other Northern Virginia jurisdictions, the job of shifting the county government to a more reliable cloud computing infrastructure, staffing up the Fire-Rescue department to modern standards, long-understaffed county departments, and the oncoming costs of Metrorail.
The board arrived at those directions after competing motions both above and below those rates. County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) offered a motion, supported by the board’s three Democrats, to prepare a budget at $1.130 with options to cut it to $1.110.
“I have heard like four different people talk about things they want to do with [year end] fund balance money,” Randall said. “Everyone wants to do something, and nobody wants to pay for it.”
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) offered another motion, supported by Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin), to prepare a budget at the equalized rate with options to cut the tax rate to a penny lower than that, casting maintaining the current tax rate as raising taxes.
“I don’t think we’re in a budget crisis to the point of where we need to consider raising taxes,” Meyer said.
His proposal drew a strong response from other board members.
“While I appreciate the sentiment, it’s ridiculous,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “We’re never going to be able to do that without completely gutting everything.”
“I’m just going to call it for what it is—it’s political pandering,” said Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “It will be on Facebook before the gavel is hit to adjourn the meeting, that we went against some other Republicans up here. I’ve seen this movie before, I know where this goes, and I’m not playing this game.”
With those proposals dead, Higgins offered the idea to reverse the boilerplate instructions and start at the equalized rate. His idea won support from the board’s six Republicans.
Buona said with an unusually large increase expected from the school board, supervisors will have to question that request.
“Somewhere along the way, we need to reverse this process and deal with the 800-pound gorilla early, and then we know what room we have left for the county,” Buona said.
And Randall, who worked for Prince William County in her former career, made a plea for Loudoun’s government workforce.
“If you’re the county employee, adding that position to that office means you get to go home at night at a decent time and tuck your kids in bed,” Randall said. “If you’re a county employee, it means that you’re not spending your Saturday morning here.”
Hemstreet will prepare a draft Fiscal Year 2019 budget to present to the board in February. The board will deliberate the budget in March.