Supervisors Brace for Tough Budget Choices

County supervisors have issued the first guidance on what is arguably the biggest vote they take each year: the county budget. And this year, they expect to have to make some tough choices.

The board’s finance committee unanimously recommended county budget staff return to supervisors with spending recommendations based on the equalized real estate tax rate—the tax rate, usually lower, at which the dollar amount paid on the average Loudoun home remains the same despite fluctuating home values—along with options for a two-cent rate increase or decrease.

This year’s real estate tax rate is $1.085 per $100 of assessed value. At this point, county budget staff has estimated next year’s equalized real estate tax rate will be $1.065. That number often changes between preliminary estimates and the time of the board’s budget vote in April after assessment changes are finalized.

But particularly in the capital improvement program, the part of the county budget that includes major construction projects like new roads and schools, Loudoun’s coffers have increasingly felt the strain of rapid growth in one the most expensive areas in the country. Already, many projects come in over-budget, in part because of a saturated construction market driving contractors’ prices up even faster than expected.

Director of Management and Budget Erin McLellan said it would be “a very challenging year” for the capital budget. Loudoun supervisors will have little room for accelerating projects without pushing something else back.

“We are basically maxed out on our [debt] capacity, so any movements are probably going to require a trade-off,” McLellan said.

That could be particularly difficult as the School Board, seeing slowing growth overall but faster-than-expected growth in southeastern Loudoun, is expected to ask to move up some new schools in the construction schedule.

“This year maybe a little bit different, where an acceleration may actually cause us to have to look at county projects in order to accommodate it,” McLellan said.

But the operational budget—which covers everything from gas for county cars to paychecks for employees—could feel pressure as well. That budget grows every year as a natural result of pay raises, growing staffing numbers, and growing county departments as the population itself continues to grow. But the county is also continuing work to update its job descriptions and pay scales after finding itself understaffed and its employees underpaid.

Finance committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said that project needs to be first priority.

“That may come at the expense of some other things, but I think that that really needs to happen more than anything,” Letourneau said.

Other supervisors agreed.

“I would obviously hope that we do not sacrifice other county programs or positions, because I think that our staff is already understaffed and overstretched and too thin,” said County County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large).

But board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) also expressed skepticism about early projections of the school board’s budget request.

“Their increase is as much as the request they made last year, but I will say their enrollment growth is significantly less this year based on the new counts than it was last year,” Buona said. “So they’re going to need to tell us why they need as big an increase going into next year as they asked for last year.”

“Coming into this budget cycle, I hear what staff is saying,” Letorneau said. “We can’t do all these things and then expect to not have to pay for them.”

The finance committee’s recommendation now goes to the full Board of Supervisors.

rgreene@loudounnow.com

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