The county Board of Supervisors has set the stage for a 4-cent tax cut starting July 1.
At their last budget work session for the year Wednesday, supervisors voted narrowly to carve another $4.1 million from the school system’s budget request, for a gap $14.9 million from the School Board’s request.
The school budget will bear almost the entire brunt of that cut. After cutting more than $1.5 million from the county side of County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s proposed fiscal year 2019 budget, supervisors Wednesday added line items for a jail cook, two motorcycle deputies, and four patrol deputies in the Sheriff’s Office and restored funding for two real estate appraisers in the office of the Commissioner of Revenue.
That left less than $8,000 in cuts to the proposed budget; supervisors needed to make $4.1 million to cut the tax rate another half cent.
“There is a check and balance that needs to be done, and this is what local boards of supervisors do across the Commonwealth every year when we do our budget,” said Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian), who proposed the cut to the school budget.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) joined Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and supervisors Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) in opposing that cut. He said the frustration with the School Board’s budget request is that it asks for more than the county indicated would be available, but he would stick by the slightly higher funding rate.
“If you do a real process, where you go through like we do, and you actually attempt to put in at this tax rate what you think you could fund, then the board could see what the impact of their decision is,” Letourneau said. “But it’s very difficult right now to understand what the impact of our decision is, because it’s not up to us, and because we don’t have any insight into really what their thinking is.”
Hemstreet’s proposed budget was short $10.8 million from the School Board’s requested budget; if supervisors make no changes before a final vote April 3, the School Board will have to cut $14.9 million from their $1.202 billion draft budget.
The School Board is asking for an 8 percent increase in funds over the current fiscal year. Superintendent Eric Williams has said more money is needed to open three new schools, serve an additional 1,500 students, provide employees raises, improve school safety, expand full-day kindergarten and hire more psychologists, counselors and social workers to create mental health teams at every secondary school.
Supervisors went into budget deliberations with a 3.5-cent real estate tax cut, from $1.125 per $100 of assessed value this year to $1.09 next year. That was the equalized rate, or the tax rate at which the average taxpayer pays the same dollar figure in taxes, despite growing property values.
Supervisors voted 6-3, along party lines, for the lower tax rate, although Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) expressed reservations before voting yes.
“When I kept saying through the session that’s taking money from the schools, that’s what I meant, and frankly I’d rather have made that school subtraction much less than a lot of the things we voted for during the budget work sessions,” Meyer said. In his previous vote, however, he had also supported taking $4.1 million out of the school request, citing growth in the school budget that exceeds enrollment growth.
But he said he would support the cuts as the best available option to limit tax increases on businesses. The equalized real estate tax rate for commercial properties is higher than on residential properties, and businesses on average stand to see a dollar figure increase in their tax bills.
“This is about keeping our area business-competitive,” Meyer said. “And so, like I said, I’m not satisfied with this budget, I disagree with a lot of the things that have happened during this work session, but I do believe it’s the best we can do to get a majority.”
Randall said there was no reason to cut more from the school request, other than “it’s just so you can say that you can.”
“We ask them, as Mr. Letourneau said, to prepare a budget at that amount, and then we go below the amount. I mean, what are we doing?” Randall said.
And Umstattd pointed to the desire for more mental health support in the schools.
“The students themselves are asking for more guidance counselors,” Umstattd said. “We’re in a difficult situation with teen suicide going up, kids feeling they have nowhere to turn. Many of them want to turn to guidance counselors, there just aren’t enough in the schools because of cuts that have taken place in previous years.”
Cutting that tax rate a half cent will save the average taxpayer $23.16 over the next year compared to the equalized rate, down to approximately $5,071 in real estate taxes for the year.
Changing the real estate tax rate is the biggest tool supervisors use to adjust taxes and revenues year over year. If the board sets the rate in 2019 at $1.085, it will be the lowest tax rate since 2008. But despite fluctuations in the tax rate between a low of $0.89 in 2007 and a high of $1.30 in 2011, the only time county tax revenues have declined in the last 15 years was in fiscal year 2010.
If the General Assembly expands Medicaid in Virginia at its special session beginning April 11, the schools could see increased funding from the state. County supervisors would need to take additional action to raise the spending cap for the schools.