Loudoun supervisors on March 4 nudged the expected real estate tax rate up a half-cent by adding two fire-rescue service positions to County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s proposed Fiscal Year 2022 county budget.
One of those is a new Fire Marshal’s Office supervisor, at an overall cost of $259,554 including $124,875 of one-time costs. Fire Marshal Linda Hale said the current fire inspections supervisor is overburdened, and that the department is getting to only a fraction of the annual inspections that are required.
“We have an inspection rate of 14% of all of the structures that we’re able to inspect, so that means that there are 86% that we are not getting to,” Hale said. “That 86% we have tried to prioritize to the best of our abilities, but it does include things such as hotels that don’t have a ballroom [or] place of assembly, some of the hospitals, some of the rehab facilities, the large big-box stores, and much of the fast food restaurants that don’t’ have an occupancy that is 50 or more.”
System Chief Keith Johnson pointed out that that office also does more than inspections, also handling things like reviewing plans for new developments for fire safety. According to the Loudoun County Combined Fire-Rescue Service’s budget request, it would be appropriate for each Fire Marshal’s Office supervisor to oversee three to five people directly. Currently, there are three supervisors in the office, two overseeing shift work and a third responsible for more than 20 functions and directly overseeing 10 people.
“The supervisor that currently supervises these people is beyond capacity, and this is really a stopgap,” Johnson said. “We could ask for probably 50 inspectors, and we wouldn’t even catch up, but we’ve got to chip away at this one year at a time.”
That convinced five supervisors, with the staff expansion passing on a 5-4 vote. County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) and supervisors Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) and Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) opposed the change.
“I think this is one of those things that if something happens, we might go back later and regret that we didn’t have enough people doing inspections in the county,” Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) said.
Supervisors also added a delivery driver to keep 20 fire-rescue stations and worksites supplied, rather than splitting that work among other personnel as available. That workload has increased significantly with the increased need for personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the department, the number of items delivered more than tripled from Fiscal Year 2019 to Fiscal Year 2020, from more than 24,000 to more than 65,000. The position is expected to cost $75,946.
That, too, passed by a 5-4 vote, with Randall, Buffington, Kershner and Supervisor Sylvia Russell Glass (D-Broad Run) opposed.
The department could be due for even more help; Vice Chairman Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) said he would ask the board to revisit a request for more staffing in the 911 call center later during budget deliberations. The department is expected to add four uniformed fire officers to the dispatch center, to fill a gap in the center identified after the drowning of Fitz Thomas and the delayed response to that incident. The department has also asked for three more dispatchers.
With those positions added, the provisional real estate tax rate sits at $1.01 per $100 of assessed value. The board typically adjusts its tax rate by half-cent steps. Supervisors are now $4.6 million from another half-cent tax increase, and would have to find $335,500 to trim from the budget to bring the rate back down.