Supervisors largely stuck to County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s draft Fiscal Year 2022 county budget, deciding on Monday, March 1 during their first budget work session to stick to plans for expanding the drug court, body-worn cameras program, and preparing for collective bargaining among county employees.
The budget is proposed based on direction and priorities from the Board of Supervisors, and the first work session touched on several of those priorities.
Citing a tight budget year, Republican supervisors pushed to remove five positions and $966,263 from the budget that county staff members have said would be necessary to handle formally recognized unionization. Assistant County Attorney Milissa Spring said the office is working with a consultant on three possible ordinances—no collective bargaining, meet-and-confer, or full collective bargaining—as well as examining an ordinance suggested by the Service Employees International Union, which represents some county government employees.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) pointed out that the board hasn’t yet decided what form collective bargaining, if any, will pursue.
“The concerns that I have are actually less about money and more about work rules and flexibility, and the ability for the board to be adaptable and maintain what I think is a core principle that we’ve had in Loudoun County since I’ve been on the board, that we established, which is a merit-based system of compensation,” Letourneau added.
“We’ve given our staff lots of pay raises since I’ve been on this board, we’ve given them lots of benefit increases,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge). “I think the board and county leadership has taken good care of county staff, and right now at this moment I don’t think we have a need to implement collective bargaining in Loudoun County unless we want to spend more and do less.”
But they were voted down along a 6-3 party-line vote, with every Democrat voting to keep that money in.
“This is particularly important for our county, and it’s one of the best ways that we can honor the workers in our county who have stepped up in this pandemic and really have saved lives,” said Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian).
County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said the debate is “literally just an issue of what you believe is important.”
“Really the arguments for and against are literally the exact same arguments, that wages increase and benefits increase,” Randall said.
Supervisors were more unanimously behind expanding the drug court program from 25 participants to 50, at a cost of $140,000 and hiring five new positions.
Department of Community Corrections Director Jim Freeman pointed to the success of the program, and the need for more help. He said currently the county’s probation and parole program has 312 felony drug offenders under supervision, half of whom entered the program through probation violations. In 2020, there were more than 400 visits to Loudoun emergency rooms for drug overdoses, and in the past three months, three probationers have died from overdosing on fentanyl, a powerful opioid.
Meanwhile, only three people have been booted from the drug court program for repeated noncompliance, with person one already graduating from the program an several more planned in the next few months.
“We have got to stop looking at mental health and substance abuse as something that should be incarcerated or something that should be stigmatized,” Randall said. “We’ve been doing it for years, and it has not worked. Treatment works, prevention works, drug court works.”
And a proposal to phase in 365 more body-worn cameras in the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office over three years, bringing the total to 439, at a cost of $2.3 million in the next budget, $1.3 million more in the second year, and just under $1 million in the third year has support not only from supervisors but also from the Sheriff’s Office. That would also involve four new positions at the Sheriff’s Office and seven new positions for the Commonwealth’s Attorney Office.
Supervisors will continue their work on the $3.3 billion budget March 4, aiming to wrap up budget deliberations by March 18. Currently the budget is expected to be funded in part by a $1.005 real estate tax rate, a three-cent cut from today’s tax rate.