Loudoun County is headed for the first real estate tax rate below $1 since 2008 after the Board of Supervisors last night wrapped up budget talks that included a federal funding windfall, cutbacks on the school spending request and a closing decision to approve almost everything requested by county department heads.
After their final mark-up work session Wednesday, March 24, the county is set for a real estate tax rate of $0.98 per $100 of assessed value, a 5.5-cent cut from today’s rate of $1.035.
That rate cut was largely made possible by cutting the requested increase in local tax funding requested by the School Board and the receipt of more than $15 million in additional state funding for the schools.
Supervisors cut $17,205,187 from the school system’s budget request, leaving funding, said County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), to still give teachers a 4% raise this year. That will also still meet the minimum raise to secure matching funds from the state to incentivize teacher raises by 5% over two years.
Some supervisors opposed that cut.
“Most of us, maybe we had to socially distance, maybe we have to sit six feet apart on a dais with, you know, partitions between us,” said Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian). “But what our teachers went through this year is not comparable. […]I have full respect for what our county employees have done. I know they’ve had to change and learn different things as well, but I don’t even think it compares what our teachers have had to do, and in our society, it is unique, because our society is built on our schools being our childcare system.”
And some supervisors pushed to cut even more.
“Folk’s taxes are going up in a very hard year,” said Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge). “And what we hear year after year, time after time, every time we ask, is that the school budget is based on enrollment.”
Buffington pointed out that that school budget increases have outpaced enrollment increases, especially this year when enrollment has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is real money to real people, who are the ones who elected us and who are having a very difficult year,” Buffington said.
“If the governor wishes to give teachers a 5% pay raise, then they should do more than fund 28% of what Loudoun County public schools teachers would actually be covered under that,” said Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “[…]“I get tired of the pandering from state politicians on these issues, always shoving it on the counties, always shoving it on the local boards to make us the bad guys, when the reality is, the state underfunds things routinely, and we have to step in.”
“The state should provide that level of funding instead of putting out a press release saying they want everybody to get a 5% raise,” he said.
Supervisors voted 6-2-1 for that cut, with Supervisors Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian) and Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) against and with Supervisor Sylvia R. Glass (D-Broad Run), a teacher, abstaining.
And with the School Board tabling, for now, a discussion on collective bargaining in the school, supervisors carved out another $1.5 million from the school budget request, the estimated cost of staff support for that. Randall said that money could be added back in later if the School Board opts to pursue collective bargaining for its employees. That passed by the same vote.
Supervisors, at Briskman’s urging, did add $810,000 back into the school budget, intended to let the schools eliminate athletic fees entirely, which the school division cut in half last year. Supervisors voted 6-3 in favor, with Letourneau, Buffington and Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin) opposed.
What the School Board does with its $1.4 budget is up to the School Board; while supervisors make their budget edits based on the costs given for specific positions and initiatives, ultimately the county only transfers a lump sum to the schools. The School Board holds exclusive authority on how to spend that money.
But compared to lengthy debates that included School Board Chairwoman Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) and member Jeffrey Morse (Dulles), the discussion around the county government side of the budget was much brief. Supervisors unanimously voted to add $62,480 to increase their district office budgets by 3%, and $160,000 to possibly give their staff aides retirement benefits.
And then Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) made a motion to simply fund everything else that was requested by department directors and made it into the budget document as options for supervisors to consider, but was left unfunded in County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s proposed budget. That amounted to 21 positions at a cost of $2,014,887. That excluded positions cut from the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office request amid supervisors’ concerns about high staff turnover and handling of domestic violence cases.
“We’ve got an opportunity to make history on two counts here, I’d be willing to bet, although I don’t know for sure,” Turner said. “I’m sure there’s some institutional knowledge. We’ve got an opportunity to lower the tax rate by five and a half cents, and fully fund county staff. I bet both of those are firsts.”
Letourneau said the actions would cut into the end-of-year fund balance in a year when supervisors may particularly need it.
“We always have things that we spend that for, and I think we’re going to end up needing it to make up the difference in taxes,” Letouneau said. “So I would before prefer a more surgical approach than just simply doing everything.”
“Right after we reduce the [schools] budget by the amount we did, it’s going to look like we purposely reduced the LCPS budget so that we could use that savings on the government side,” Buffington said. “And I don’t think we should do this.”
“As much as I would love to just fund everything, we have limited resources,” Kershner said. “We have to be responsible with those resources, and we need to send the right message, and I think the right message is, there might be one or two of these particular extra unfunded requests that we need to approach, but just to kind of take a blanket approach I think is a mistake.”
Turner pointed out the additional $2 million would not budge the tax rate, and advocated a more hands-off approach to budget oversight.
“I am very uncomfortable digging down into the bowels of our county departments, with the county staff that I trust implicitly, and saying ‘no, no, you should get your priority four line but not your priority three line.’ Who am I to say that?” Turner said.
Supervisors passed that 5-4, with Umstattd, Letourneau, Kershner and Buffington opposed. Supervisors will now take the product of their budget work sessions to a final vote in April.
Until recent days, School Board members seemed on track for full funding. Their adopted budget had met with the Board of Supervisors guidance, with the amount of additional local tax funding requested actually lower than county leaders had targeted. The School Board plans to meet April 13, following the Board of Supervisors’ final budget adoption vote, to begin the process of determining where it will make cuts.
This article was updated March 25 at 4:32 p.m. to correct an error about teacher raises.