As supervisors approach what is expected to be the most difficult county budget of their term so far, some on the county finance committee are questioning a boon to the school system that has been assumed for years.
For decades, the county has split new revenue growth 34-66—one third for the county government, and two-thirds for the schools. But as the county struggles to find money to catch up on long-neglected salaries and staffing, some supervisors are wondering if that long-standing but unofficial practice still makes sense.
While the school system continues to add thousands of students each year, enrollment growth is slowing.
“Given the current needs today, the percentage should actually by a little higher for the county, and a little less for the schools right, and that could change in the future as things change again,” said Supervisor Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “…Sometimes things need to be broken, and I’m not sure that this is a good practice other than for budgeting convenience. It’s definitely not based on needs.”
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) agreed that “to say that this is written in stone no matter what is happening in the schools… that’s probably not logical.” However, she pointed out that the expected tight county budget this year will affect the school system’s budget request, too.
“I can only vote on what we know right now, and what we know right now is at the equalized rate, the shortfall to the schools would be between $18 and $20 million,” Randall said. “I can’t support that.”
The committee also reaffirmed its guidance on writing the first draft of next year’s budget, directing County Administrator Tim Hemstreet to draft a budget at the equalized tax rate—the rate at which the average homeowner pays the same dollar amount in real estate tax, despite changing property values—and options to cut or add to the budget by 2 cents on the tax rate.
This year, county budget officers estimate each penny on the real estate tax rate is worth $8.6 million in county revenues. The current local real estate tax rate is $1.085 per $100 of assessed value; next year’s equalized rate is currently estimated to be 3.3 cents lower, or $1.05.
“The purpose of the plus and minus is not the end result,” said finance committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “It’s to see what staff’s recommendations are for what they would cut if they could cut something, or what they would add if they could add something,” giving supervisors guidance as they add or take expenses out of the county budget.
The committee was split on that guidance, voting 3-2, with Randall and Supervisor Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) opposed.
“Were this my first year on this board, I would support this with no trouble, but because for the past two years we’ve gone under the equalized tax rate—so it’s not like I don’t have some experience to pull from of what our full body tends to do, and how that looks,” Randall said.