The Board of Supervisors will take up the first step in writing next year’s budget without a recommendation from its finance committee.
With finance committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) absent from the Oct. 10 meeting for medical reasons, the panel split 2-2 on two separate motions steering County Administrator Tim Hemstreet toward a real estate tax rate in proposing next year’s budget.
The county is facing a more difficult budget than last year as it tries to catch up on years of recession-era growth, during which the county’s budget and government did not keep pace with its population. Last year, supervisors found room for a two-cent real estate tax rate cut to $1.125 per $100 of assessed value.
This year, supervisors are grappling with a study of county employee pay scales that shows Loudoun far behind other Northern Virginia jurisdictions, shifting the county government to a more reliable cloud computing infrastructure, staffing up the Fire-Rescue department to modern standards, understaffed county departments, and the oncoming costs of Metrorail.
At the current tax rate, preliminary projections from the county budget office show Loudoun coming up $94.8 million short of 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—at which the average homeowner would see the same dollar amount on their tax bill despite climbing property values—the county will fall short $106.9 million.
Often, early projections of the county’s budget situation are conservative by design, and some budget shortfalls close significantly by the time supervisors begin budget deliberations in March. But Hemstreet, who will prepare the first draft of next year’s budget for supervisors, said the gap will probably too large to fill this year without either a higher tax rate or cutting out some of the county’s priorities.
“My priority, absent additional resources, is going to be to put as much money as I can towards increasing compensation and benefits for staff,” Hemstreet said. “That does mean that there will be an impact to the amount of additional things that can go into the budget.”
Finance committee Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) and Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. (R-Blue Ridge) pushed to direct Hemstreet to prepare a budget at the current tax rate, with options to cut it down to the equalized tax rate. Buona said that motion—boilerplate from previous budget years—gives the board flexibility. He also agreed that the emphasis should be on raising pay for county employees. But he said preparing a budget “will be much more of a challenge than it was last year.”
“Last year the sun and the moon aligned, but this one, this is a big gap,” Buona said.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) instead argued that the board should direct Hemstreet to prepare a budget at a $1.135 tax rate—a penny higher—with options to reduce it to $1.125.
“If we even want to start talking about taking care of the employees, we cannot start with a motion that will actually shortfall the government on the government side by that much money, let alone talking about what we do on the school side,” Randall said.
She said with a budget that doesn’t keep up with growth in the county and school system, any county goal like competitive employee pay full-day kindergarten “stops in its tracks.”
“I’d rather set an expectation, especially to the school side, that they need to come in with a reasonable request,” Buffington said. Buona agreed that the preliminary school request is “quite extraordinary this time around.”
Neither motion was successful. The question now goes to the full Board of Supervisors without a recommendation from the finance committee. The full board will then give Hemstreet direction on preparing draft budget, which supervisors will then revise to their liking.
“Welcome to the budget season,” Randall said.