In the hours before county supervisors cast the final vote adopting their Fiscal Year 2022 budget on Tuesday evening, dueling demonstrations called for them to fund more positions under Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj—or to strip local funding from her office altogether.
During budget deliberations this year, Biberaj’s was the only county office not to see its funding request fully approved, amid concerns over her handling of domestic violence cases.
Although Biberaj, as a constitutional officer, is an elected official who does not answer to the Board of Supervisors and manages her own budget, the majority of her office’s budget comes from the county board. Biberaj, who began her first term in January 2020, has been pushing for increases in staffing since partway through the year, and County Administrator Tim Hemstreet’s proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget included 12 new positions and more than $1.6 million in additional funding for the office. Supervisors gave Biberaj a more limited increase in funding, approving only four new positions,totaling $478,806.
Biberaj on Tuesday held a press conference flanked by her staff outside the old courthouse in downtown Leesburg, arguing that her office is comprised of only 19 prosecutors who each have hundreds of cases on their plates, making it impossible to meet the needs of the community. Biberaj also noted that there are more than 100 trials in the pipeline in Circuit Court. She said it was “not sustainable” to keep operations at current levels.
Biberaj said the board’s decision was placing the community at risk, noting that the lack of funding to hire more staff members—prosecutors, paralegals and legal services assistants—means her office is unable to meet with victims, witnesses and law enforcement officers to prepare cases.
Biberaj asked supervisors to reconsider their decision so her office can continue to serve the community “with safety and justice always at the forefront.” She said that if the board does not acquiesce her office’s request, she would “look elsewhere” for the funding.
She asserted that her office was not interested in seeking convictions for the sake of getting convictions. Rather, she said, her office is interested in justice.
But at a competing demonstration in front of the Loudoun County government center less than half an hour later, protestors criticized Biberaj’s time in the office, accusing her of not supporting prosecutions, including in domestic violence cases.
“Imagine if it were you who had to go to court and face an attorney after you had been abused years and years by your spouse or significant other, and then you’re told by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office that you should have more concern and more empathy for your abuser? That you should consider lessening the sentence? Because guess what—that’s what Ms. Biberaj does,” said Brenda Tillet of Fairfax, founder of Stand Up Virginia, a group criticizing local commonwealth’s attorneys who joined a group called VirginiaProgressiveProsecutors for Justice.That group was formed to back criminal justice reform proposals such as ending the death penalty, mandatory minimum sentences and cash bail, with 11 commonwealth’s attorneys from some of the state’s most populous jurisdictions signing on.
Tillett characterized them as “rogue prosecutors,” and said she has letters from domestic violence victims complaining about the treatment they have received from Biberaj’s office—an assertion also made by some supervisors.
Both she and staff members from Biberaj’s office also went to the Board of Supervisors meeting to address supervisors directly—an unusual step for employees of a constitutional officer, who passionately defended the office’s work.
But supervisors ultimately made no last-minute changes from their budget work sessions during March. And Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) pointed out the CA’s office’s budget in fact has grown significantly over the past two years—from 36 full-time equivalent positions in Fiscal Year 2020, to 48 in the newly approved budget, with a 43% increase in funding.
“There is no entity in the county—the school system, any of the constitutional offices, or anything that has anything to do with the county—that’s seen a 43% increase in two years, so it’s a little disconcerting for me to hear a point of view on this that is that the board is not investing in public safety or that the board is under funding public safety and the commonwealth’s attorney,” Letourneau said.
The newly approved county budget totals about $3.3 billion for the county government and schools operations, funded by a real estate tax rate of $0.980 per $100 in assessed value, 5.5 cents lower than the current tax rate.
That provides for a 7.2% increase in local tax funding for the school system, about $68 million over the previous budget; a $12.4 million boost in employee compensation, which includes a 3% merit increase and a step increase for public safety employees; the addition of 168 positions in 20 different county departments; and an increase of $45.3 million to fund debt service and capital needs for the county government and schools.
And, although supervisors had their differences on the details of the budget, they voted to pass it unanimously.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles), who leads the board’s finance committee, said the board could have gotten the tax rate a half-cent lower to the equalized tax rate for homeowners “without too much pain,” but defended the budget overall—including cuts to proposed local funding for the schools.
“The reality is, the schools will receive a 7.9% increase in their budget in this fiscal year, which is quite frankly remarkable considering the difficult times that we have and the fact that student enrollment is only projected to grow by 0.1%,” Letourneau said.
“I want to strongly encourage the schools and School Board, when they do their reconciliation, to please use the $810,000 that we added to the budget for the intent that the motion was meant for, and that is to eliminate athletic fees for students across the board,” said Supervisor Juli E. Briskman (D-Algonkian). “Like I said during our budget work sessions, I do view that as a critical equity issue.”