It’s official: taxes are going up.
Loudoun supervisors cast their final vote on the fiscal year 2017 budget Tuesday evening, setting in stone a 1-cent increase in the real estate tax rate.
This brings the rate to $1.145 per $100 of assessed value—an increase of $47.46 per year for a home worth Loudoun’s 2014 median home value.
In total, the budget comes to $1.6 billion, including $1.06 billion for public schools, a $475.14 million for general government operation, and $8.99 million for the Children’s Services Act Fund. About 69 percent of local tax revenues next fiscal year will go to the school system.
The vote was 7-3. Supervisors Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin), Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run), and Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian) voted against the budget.
Reading from a prepared statement, Volpe said that even at the equalized tax rate, many people in her district would see tax increases, and she could not in good conscience support this budget.
“Expansion must be moderated by restraint, and there must be a balance between growth and affordability,” Volpe said. “It’s the board’s duty to provide for this in a steady and deliberate way.” She also said that the “process by which the School Board generates its budget is incompatible with our [the Board of Supervisor’s] process.”
Meyer agreed that residents in his district, especially elderly people on fixed incomes, would see their taxes go up even without the rate increase, and have asked for tax relief. He worried that the board would get into the habit of what Higgins called “incrementalism,” or raising the tax rate by small amounts each year.
“I think it’s unfortunate that we can’t have a better discussion with the school system, and have an honest discussion about needs and prioritizing needs,” Higgins said. He argued that the schools could have been adequately funded without a tax rate increase by phasing in the expansion of full-day kindergarten over two years instead of one.
“I think it’s fair to say that when it came to the final analysis, there were roughly three members of the board who wanted a lower tax rate and three members who wanted a higher tax rate, and here we are at $1.145,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “So maybe there’s something just right about that number.”
He said he would support the higher tax rate and sought value for money. “What I’ve heard consistently is that people do value quality services, that perhaps the end-all be-all for all citizens is not necessarily the lowest possible tax rate.”
Boosting the tax rate allowed the county to increase its school funding by $58 million, leaving a $16.9 million shortfall in the School Board’s requested budget. It also makes room for $4.5 million in new county government spending, including community resources and juvenile/sex crimes deputies, a senior medical position in the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management, new mental health providers in the adult detention center, and a bigger facility and longer hours at the Sterling public library.
Even so, the board approved slightly less than half of what county departments had requested.
Supervisors reflected on the new board’s first budget after straw voting ended, while the staff prepared the final budget document for a vote.
“We certainly didn’t fund everything that the county was asking for, but if you looked at where most of that money was going, in a lot of cases, it was just things that had we not spent the money on it, it would have cost us more in the long term,” said Letourneau, chairman of the board’s finance committee.
Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (R-At Large) said the tax rate was below what she has heard Loudouners ask for. She said constituents overwhelmingly asked her to fully fund the school budget request.
“We find a reason to discount the voice of the people when it comes to the schools,” Randall said. “Every year we do, and we decide that the people don’t know what they’re talking, don’t know what they’re asking for.”
However, she said, the timbre of the new board’s first budget debate was “very respectful” and that the discussion was “civil and substantive.”
“I know that in the past I’ve heard people who have come to speak called puppets, called minions, called sycophants—all kinds of names, just because people come out and speak,” Randall said. “And this year, those names and name-calling did not happen, and I was very pleased with the tone.”
Despite friendly overtures between the Board of Supervisors and the School Board, old frustrations over communication returned. Some supervisors repeated that although the county board provides funding to the schools, it has no control over how that money is spent.
Higgins reiterated a common board frustration about communicating with the School Board.
“It doesn’t seem like we can have an honest discussion about the school budget,” Higgins said. “They throw out what their needs are, and then … we don’t get credit for what we fund, we get credit for what we didn’t fund, and we can’t get into this conversation with them about priorities.”
Higgins, a former School Board member, argued the board has only fully funded the school system’s budget request twice in the past 17 years, and that this year the board funded 98 percent of its request.
The board adopted the Capital Improvement Program unanimously.
Among the changes in that program, is that HS-9 would get design money in fiscal year 2018 and construction in fiscal year 2019. ES-31, which does not yet have a site, would be pushed back to fiscal year 2018. Overcrowded Dulles-area schools are given first priority in the plan. Countywide classroom additions are pushed back from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2021, while accelerating Dulles-area classroom additions from fiscal year 2019 to fiscal year 2017.
The plan provides funding to begin work on three Dulles Greenway alternatives: Shellhorn Road, Westwind Drive, and Prentice Road. The extension of Shellhorn Road, Meyer’s (R-Broad Run) signature campaign topic, runs parallel to the Dulles Greenway. Westwind Drive connects Loudoun County Parkway to Rt. 606, linking Brambleton residents more directly to Rt. 28 and taking them off congested Waxpool Road. Prentice Road runs parallel to Shellhorn Road further north.