The Loudoun Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a $3.64 billion fiscal year 2019 budget that includes a 4-cent real estate tax rate cut.
Adopted with the first unanimous budget vote of the board’s term, the final spending plan is less than $8,000 below that proposed by County Administrator Tim Hemstreet in February, although county supervisors shifted just over $1.5 million in proposed funding increases away from human services, county administration, parks and recreation, and the Commissioner of the Revenue, sending much of that to the Sheriff’s Office. Supervisors added line items for a jail cook, two motorcycle deputies, four patrol deputies and another school resource officer in the Sheriff’s Office.
Almost all of the actual cutting supervisors did during a month of work sessions came from the school system’s budget request. Supervisors carved $4.1 million from Hemstreet’s proposed budget, bringing to total allocation to $14.9 million less than the School Board’s requested budget. That still leaves the school system with $49.5 million more in local dollars than the current fiscal year.
Supervisor Ron A. Meyer Jr. (R-Broad Run) pointed out that the board’s action deviated from the usual policy of dividing budgets cuts and increases between the county and schools, with approximately one-third of each revenue increase or decrease going to the general county budget. But he, nonetheless, celebrated the budget and its increase in how much the county spends on average per pupil—providing about $600 more per student.
“I think it’s a quality budget this year,” Meyer said. “It certainly may not be perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Supervisors also voted unanimously to adopt a resolution stating that if the state, which has not yet passed its budget, finishes up its special legislative session setting aside more money for schools than the county’s estimates, they will allocate that money to the school system. Hemstreet confirmed that’s something he would have done anyway, but said the vote is an “affirmation” from the Board of Supervisors of that intent.
Randall said she wanted it “on the record” that the board could take up state funding for the schools again.
“I hope that this will give some message to Loudoun County Public Schools, to the parents, that we are trying to make sure that the schools have the money that is required,” Randall said.
“Essentially, what we’re doing is saying, if the General Assembly gives us more money for the schools, then we’re going to give it to the schools,” said board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn), who helped create the motion. “Why wouldn’t we do that?”
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said he didn’t believe that vote—which does not actually bind the county to allocate that money, only sets up a vote to do so—was necessary, but said he supported the idea.
“I would be in complete support to allocating all the funds that come dedicated for the schools to schools, in light of the fact that, as I mentioned during the straw vote, I thought that we did go a little further than I would have liked on the reduction of the school budget,” Letourneau said. He was the sole Republican to vote against carving an additional $4.1 million out of the school budget request to achieve an additional half-cent tax rate cut.
Counting on the state for an increase in school funding more clearly ties that money to the possibility of expanding Medicaid in Virginia. The most likely source of a significant increase in state education funding would be a vote by the General Assembly to expand Medicaid in Virginia, the issue that deadlocked the legislature’s budget process during its regular session. State lawmakers will meet again in a special session beginning April 11.
A 4-Cent Cut
The county’s new real estate tax rate of $1.085 per $100 of assessed real estate value is the lowest since 2008, the last time the tax rate was below a dollar.
Supervisors began budget talks with a 3.5-cent real estate tax cut, from $1.125 per $100 of assessed value this year to $1.09 next fiscal 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. The county’s budget growth is buoyed in large part by other taxes, such as property taxes on data centers and new construction.
Cutting another half-cent out of that tax rate to $1.085 carved $4.1 million out of the budget, almost entirely taken from the school system’s budget request. That will bring the school system’s total appropriations for next fiscal year’s operating budget to about $1.187 billion, $797.4 million of which is from county tax dollars.
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 an average of approximately $5,071 in real estate taxes for the year.
The School Board had asked 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.
On the county side of the ledger, two of the positions cut from the Department of Family Services were from a new four-member Housing Policy Division, which is meant to house the expertise to put together financing agreements for affordable housing projects.
Supervisors kept funding intact for a half-million dollar program to set up a behavioral health program for career and volunteer fire and rescue first responders. That proposal includes hiring a new behavioral health coordinator, trained in psychology or a related field, to focus on developing the behavioral health program and daily support. It would also include contracting for regular behavioral health training for first responders.
That program saw vigorous support from the public and first responders in budget public hearings.
County staff members will also see pay raises as Loudoun works to catch up to other Northern Virginia salary scales. $8.2 million will go into a 3 percent across-the-board raise to all positions starting July 1, and another $8 million will go toward a 3.5 pay increase in September for employees rated “fully successful” in their annual performance reviews.
The state legislature’s deadlock over expanding Medicaid and resulting inability to pass a budget by the end of its 2018 regular session is not expected to negatively impact the county budget, according to Hemstreet. This year, the county’s budget includes more than $86 million from the state—about 5.7 percent of the county general fund—plus nearly $346 million for the schools. Next year’s budget does not assume Medicaid expansion in Virginia, and both chambers’ budgets include the amount of state funding projected in the current draft of the county budget—meaning the county does not expect to get less than what it budgeted.
Changing the real estate tax rate is the biggest tool supervisors use to adjust taxes and revenues year over year. 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 past 15 years was in fiscal year 2010, in the teeth of the last recession.