The school budget and supported employment for adults with disabilities dominated the discussion during three public hearings on the county’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget.
Loudoun teachers and members of Loudoun Education Association asked supervisors to adopt a tax rate a half-cent above County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s proposed $1.135 rate, as county supervisors wrapped up their budget hearings Saturday.
This year, there is relatively small $3.5 million gap between the school district’s funding request and the county administrator’s proposal. In recent years that gap has been as much as ten times that. A $1.140 tax rate, which still would be a half-cent below the current rate, would close that gap.
The last time the Board of Supervisors met the school board’s full request was 2015.
Sterling Middle School teacher Corey Griswold acknowledged that the county has no control over how the school board spends the money it is allocated, but told supervisors to “dream big” in Loudoun’s strongest budget in years.
“Efficiency has been demanded of us due to budget constraints, but don’t fool yourselves,” Griswold said. “We have not done more with less, we have done less with less. Our budget is people. That half-cent in the tax rate is not a statistic. It’s my coworkers who help improves the lives of our children.”
LEA President David Palanzi told supervisors, “You know first-hand that education has been an investment for you and your family.”
“One half-cent to increase full-day kindergarten,” Palanzi said. “One half-cent to improve mental health safety for our teens. One half-cent to improve transportation. One half-cent to invest in our future.”
Supervisors, especially board finance committee Chairman Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), have warned the school board that, although the county is enjoying a relatively flush budget year, much of that revenue growth will have to go to catching up long-neglected county government agencies, too.
Jobs for Disabled Adults See Surge of Support
Speakers for adult supported employment organizations like Every Citizen Has Opportunities made a strong showing at all three hearings—including several adults with disabilities and the businesses that employ them speaking from their own experiences.
David MacDonald, senior vice president of operations at Leesburg-based medical device company K2M, said his company has partnered with ECHO for 10 years.
“These folks perform valuable services at K2M and have become an important part of our company,” MacDonald said. “They look forward to coming to work each day and working side-by-side with our employees. The sense of self-sufficiency and self-worth these individuals gain as a result of our partnership goes a long way towards them becoming viable, contributing members of the Loudoun community.”
Although ECHO currently helps provide supported employment to more than a hundred people with intellectual and physical disabilities, it has a waiting list of 28 people. Some of those, according to ECHO program coordinator Alice Morales, have been on the waiting list for two years.
Patrick Cox is the interim executive director of Legacy Farms, which provides support services and agrarian-based training and work for adults with disabilities. He said lagging funding for programs like his will start to affect the people it helps.
“Now, instead of providing services and getting reimbursed, we will have to start charging, something we never wanted to do,” Cox said.
Jennifer Alves, who works at Paxton Campus in Leesburg, said she is a person with a “hidden mental complication.”
“Today, I am a very independent adult, but I still need a little assistance,” Alves said. “Many children, youth, and adults full of potential in Loudoun County are losing out on life day after day, year after year, because the accommodations and assistance they need is not available.”
Peter Ippoliti, of Purcellville, said he has obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger Syndrome. He said he has had a variety of jobs in his life. “Finding a job can be hard enough, but for someone with a disability, keeping a job can be even harder,” he said.
“I am very aware that I do not always meet the expectations of my employers,” Ippoliti said. “I know I get distracted easily, do not always work as quickly as others, and generally can be difficult to work with. Knowing this causes me a lot of stress and frustration because I give 100 percent every day.”
Among the unfunded additions listed as “critical needs” in the proposed budget is $1 million more for employment and day support contracts. That comes in just over the $978,868 that remains unallocated in the proposed budget.
County Employees: Budgets Balanced ‘On Our Backs’
Hemstreet’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget includes significant growth in county staffing—something members of the local chapter of the Service Employees International Union said was long overdue.
“The people you see before you are not merely employees with position numbers,” said Carol Taylor, standing in front of a group of purple-clad SEIU members and supporters during the Feb. 28 hearing. “Nor are they social workers, nurses, mechanics, or teachers. They are people. They are servants of the public and they work for the taxpayers of Loudoun.”
Taylor, a former Loudoun County employee who has since started working at Fairfax County, said county employees have faced years of dramatic healthcare cost increases and short staffing while pay lagged behind both the private sector and cost of living increases.
“It is people like me who have been dedicated employees to local citizens, people like me who have had budgets balanced on our backs,” Taylor said. She asked supervisors to “invest in Loudoun.”
Affordable Housing as Economic Development
Windy Hill Foundation Executive Director Kim Hart asked the board to fund an idea which appears far down a list of needs that didn’t fit into Hemstreet’s proposed budget: two new employees that the county staff say will be necessary to move affordable housing development and regulation out of the Department of Family Services.
Hart said there has been a “big change” in affordable and workforce housing in recent years.
“For the first time, workforce housing is being seen as being connected to and important to economic development,” Hart said. He pointed out that affordable housing “as a means to support a vibrant economy” now appears in the county’s strategic plan.
Supervisors, particularly Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian), have pushed hard to tackle Loudoun’s lack of affordable housing, and have already made some changes to the county’s Affordable Dwelling Unit program to open it up to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Virginia Housing Development Authority grant funding. Supervisors are now discussing moving its affordable housing program under the purview of the Department of Economic Development.
Hart said those two new county positions are important.
“First, it is an advocate inside the county to help this whole process move along,” Hart said. “Second, it is someone inside the county staff that can write the policies necessary to make this all work. But third, and most importantly, you have to have staff that know what they’re doing to run the big housing trust fund.”
The county has a $24 million housing trust fund, and it would not be unusual, according to Hart, to leverage that grants and other funding by as much as 20-to-1.
“If you even get 10-to-one leverage on $24 million, that’s $240 million,” Hart said, with which he said the county can do a lot.
The board is expected to make a final vote on the budget Tuesday, April 4.