Supervisors have set County Administrator Tim Hemstreet to work writing the first draft of the next county budget, starting with an estimated 3.5-cent real estate tax rate cut.
Hemstreet will write the budget at the equalized tax rate, the rate at which the average Loudoun homeowner pays the same real estate tax dollar amount despite rising property values. He will also present supervisors with options to increase or decrease the tax rate by 2 cents, this year about $8.6 million in expenditures for every penny of the tax rate.
The current rate is $1.085 per $100 of assessed value; the estimated equalized rate is $1.05.
County leaders are expecting this year’s deliberations, the last of the current board’s four-year term, to also be their most difficult. This year, the county is launching in earnest an effort to catch up on staffing levels and pay rate for its employees, after the county government lagged behind the county’s growth.
“The important thing this year is that implementing classification and compensation will put additional pressure on us that we wouldn’t normally have in any other year,” said Management and Budget Director Erin McLellan. “So, while our revenues are strong and we’re trending very much like we were last year, that additional pressure is going to limit what else we can do.”
County staff members estimate this year that will cost about $22 million.
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) opposed the board’s direction to Hemstreet, arguing that cutting taxes below the equalized rate would create too large of a gap in the school system’s funding request. Hemstreet has warned cutting the budget below the equalized rate could mean the county would be forced to cut some services.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said the plan to create options with 2-cent increases or decreases would require the county staff members to show supervisors the priorities for growth or, if necessary, options for cuts.
School Superintendent Eric Williams is scheduled to unveil his proposed spending plan Tuesday, and his staff’s early estimates indicate he could be requesting as much as $116 million more next fiscal year. He’s said the money is needed to cover an increase in enrollment, open and staff two new schools, and cover employee raises and increasing health care costs.
Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) called the school system’s request “quite extraordinary,” as growth in that budget request is expected to once again outpace enrollment increases.
But, Buona—who Randall had earlier remarked “does not play games, you know exactly where he’s coming from,” especially as he enters his final year on the board not seeking reelection—said there is one thing he’s learned in what will be eight years of county budgets.
“It doesn’t matter at this point,” Buona said. “It doesn’t matter. And we go through all these work sessions, and honestly, to me, it doesn’t matter that much, because we all know there’ll be a vote one night, and we’re all going to do what we’re going to do, and we will have suffered through 10 work sessions and three public hearings, and half of the people up here already know where we’re ending up.”
He said the board is unlikely to go above the equalized tax rate budget, but could go below.
“None of it matters until that vote in the first week of April,” Buona said, when supervisors finalize the next fiscal year’s budget.
“I feel like we need a permanent disclosure for 2019, which is that Supervisor Buona is speaking for himself,” remarked Letourneau.
Supervisors voted 8-1, Randall opposed.