Supervisors have wrapped up straw poll votes, and unless unforeseen changes are made before their formal adoption vote Tuesday, Loudoun has its fiscal year 2018 budget in hand.
The Board of Supervisors is set to adopt a real estate tax rate of $1.125 per $100 of assessed value, a 2-cent tax cut from this year. At the same time, the county’s operating budget grew by $126.7 million, or 7.9 percent, over last year, to $1.728 billion.
That means the annual tax bill for a home assessed at $400,000 will be $80 lower at the new rate.
County leaders have attributed the revenue growth in large part to surging business investment and commercial taxes. County Administrator Tim Hemstreet noted that growth in computer equipment tax revenues alone has brought in more than $154 million, an increase of 15 percent over last year, mostly thanks to the continuing data centers boom.
So what does that buy?
The Schools’ Budget
Supervisors will send the public schools 7.65 percent more in local tax funding than last year, $5.5 million less than the School Board asked for.
The $5.5 million cut was the largest part of a $7.6 million budget reduction needed to bring the real estate tax rate down another penny. Supervisors had been working from a $1.135 tax rate, a 1-cent tax rate below this year.
The board’s three Democrats, County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and supervisors Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) and Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) voted against the school funding reduction.
That brought the county’s total transfer to the schools to $748 million. The total schools’ budget—counting some funding for school buses, which will come from the county’s capital budget instead of from the schools’ budget to allow some financing flexibility—comes to $1.119 billion, 99.51 percent of its $1.124 billion request, and 88.5 percent higher than the current year.
The budget for the county’s school system is a contentious issue almost every year.
Some supervisors have cast the county board’s budget direction as a historic increase for the schools’ budget. Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) said he was “disappointed” in how the budget was covered in the press.
“We’ve gotten some praise from some folks saying this is one of the smoothest budget years that they can remember, and I agree,” Meyer said. “It’s nice when you can deliver the second highest increase in more than a decade to the school system while also giving some slight relief to the taxpayers.”
“What we received from the schools is not a budget, it is a request, and they are very different things, because a budget has fiscal restraint,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “What we received from the schools is, if we could have everything we would like to have, here’s what it would cost.”
“The schools got 99.9 percent of their request, the biggest increase in years, way above their growth, and we cut taxes,” Buona said. “How often can you say you did all that in one budget?”
But other supervisors defended the school system’s request.
“Over the last five years, we have seen cuts in the requested school budget of over $117 million, and when you have significant cuts like that over a period of five years, you need to start fully funding a school budget to make up some of the ground lost,” said Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg).
“It’s who said potato or po-tah-to,” summarized Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe (R-Algonkian).
More County Employees, Services
This year’s budget represents a major investment in county government staff. Department heads have complained for years that their workforce had not increased alongside Loudoun’s population, in large part because of sagging recession-era revenues coinciding with meteoric population growth.
County Administrator Tim Hemstreet proposed adding 188.67 full-time equivalent employees, a budgeting term used to track the equivalent number of full-time positions among a staff of full- and part-time positions. Supervisors then tacked on another 23.86 FTEs, for a total of 212.53 FTEs.
These positions increase the county workforce, not including schools, by about 6 percent, from the current year’s 3,827.22 FTEs.
The biggest increases were in the Departments of Fire, Rescue, and Emergency Management; Parks, Recreation and Community Service; and Library Services.
Parks and Recreation alone absorbed new 63.9 FTEs, all for the expanding Dulles South Multipurpose Center. That center will soon open its recreation and senior centers. The first will include an aquatics center, fitness rooms, a running track, and gymnasium; the senior center will host social events, recreational programs, trips, and fitness classes, and will also serve as a distribution point for the Congregate Meal Program and the Home Delivered Meal Program. That center will also mean a new position in Human Resources and three more in the Department of General Services to keep up with its staffing and maintenance needs.
The Fire and Rescue department will add 40.27 FTEs to man the new Kirkpatrick Farms station when it opens. It will also bring in two new inspectors in the Fire Marshal’s office, additional dispatchers, and training academy staff.
The third big-ticket item is the Brambleton Library, which will need 34.56 FTEs to staff. When it opens, the Brambleton Library will be the 10th branch of the Loudoun County Public Library.
The remaining 66 FTEs come mostly in the form of one or two additions to one of the county’s 30 departments and constitutional offices. They include funding to keep open the Crisis Intervention Team Assessment Center, a partnership between the Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services; additional staffing for both adult and child protective services; and a variety of other positions like a civil engineer for the Department of Transportation and Capital Infrastructure, a recruiter for Human Resources, and a budget analyst for Management and Budget.
None of those, of course, include the largest single employer in the county—the school system.
“We finally, after many years, are starting to catch up, seriously catch up, to critical needs on the county side of the government,” Buona said. “We have been pouring so much money into our schools over the last few years that the county was still running at recession-level staffing.”
The Board of Supervisors is expected to take an official vote on the budget and tax rate Tuesday.