County supervisors cut back plans for the body-worn cameras on Sheriff’s Office deputies, who are already using outdated technology, during their first budget work session Monday night.
Supervisors were surprised to learn that the Sheriff’s Office, which only began its three-year project to deploy body-worn cameras last year, is burning the recorded video from those cameras onto discs when it comes time to hand those recordings off to prosecutors. Other departments—including the Leesburg Police Department—handle that transaction online using cloud storage.
Undersheriff Col. Mark Poland defended that decision arguing it is a question of security and chain of custody.
“The sheriff has control, and he’s essentially the records keeper for all data regardless of what it is—the in-car camera system, the body-worn camera system,” Poland said. “I think there’s only about 20% to 25% of that that actually goes further for prosecution, so there’s this vast amount of data that contains juveniles, that contains personal information, that we have to safeguard theoretically. So, to put limitations and restrictions on that, it’s critical.”
Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Shaniqua Clark Nelson pointed out that most of her office’s county-issued computers don’t come with DVD drives, and the office must use external drives to watch the recordings provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said spending more money on the program “is almost like we’re throwing good money after bad, because we need to look at another system altogether.”
“We’re not going to always do it this way. At some point we are going to update the system,” she said.
But supervisors only trimmed part of that budget proposal, reducing requested additions to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office by one lawyer. Under state standards for the ratio of body-worn cameras to attorneys—one attorney per 75 cameras—they also reduced the number of cameras added this year from 122 to 104. That trimmed $130,180 from the budget, plus the cost of those cameras which was not immediately available. Supervisors Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge), Caleb E. Kershner (R-Catoctin) and Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) had pushed unsuccessfully to pause the program’s expansion altogether for a year for a savings of $1.3 million.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj pointed to body-worn cameras as one of the greatest workload problems her office faces.
“One case, two charges it’s got like 15-20 discs. That’s one case,” Biberaj said. “… Almost every traffic stop might have two to three officers. So every case now is about two or three hours on the light side, so it’s not that body-worn cameras aren’t an appropriate measurement of our time, it’s how much it’s costing us,” Biberaj said.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Barry Zweig, the supervising attorney in the office’s Special Victims Unit, brought stacks of discs to the meeting as an illustration.
“I don’t take as many cases as everybody else in my office. I brought three cases with me today that are live cases right now that I’m handling—38 discs in one, 16, discs in another, I think 30 in this one,” he said, holding up handfuls of discs. “I have to view all this. I can’t hand this off to somebody else to watch it for me.”
Biberaj and her staff are expected to return to a future budget work session to answer more of supervisors’ questions.
“It’s also hard to ignore that there have been some things that happened that definitely shouldn’t have happened in the county over the past couple of months. And if it’s an issue of, y’all didn’t have the staffing you need, we need to know that,” Randall said. “If something else happened, we need to know that, too.
Supervisors also trimmed the request for a new executive assistant position from the Sheriff’s Office’s budget, to save another $134,755, citing a tough budget year.
Hemstreet said roughly $4.1 million of county government budget proposal that would have been funded in his proposal were axed to try to accommodate the school’s growing budget request, which was higher than the county’s guidance. Those included positions like a compliance auditor in the Commissioner of the Revenue’s office, additional staffing in the Special Victims Unit, and more traffic deputies.
Equalized Rate Even Further Away
Supervisors also found out how much harder it will be to get the real estate tax rate near the equalized rate if they are to stick to their plan to rebalance their sources of income.
This year, they are starting budget deliberations with possibly the largest real estate tax rate cuts ever—but also one of the largest gaps between that rate and the equalized rate, the rate at which the person with the average property value pays the same dollar figure despite climbing property assessments. Although the starting-point real estate tax rate of $0.895 per $100 of assessed value is significantly lower than the current $0.98 rate, county budget officers estimate it’s still five cents above the equalized rate. For a homeowner paying the tax on the average residential property, this year valued at $636,200, that would amount to a $257 increase to $5,694 in 2022.
And supervisors are considering cutting the personal property tax rate for the first time since it was changed set in 1987. Hemstreet has proposed cutting that rate by five cents beginning in 2023, to $4.15 per $100 of assessed value.
That is part of an effort to balance the overall revenue stream, which county budget officers say has become too dependent on the revenues from the tax on the equipment inside data centers. That can make county revenues harder to forecast because they are based on a more volatile market. That vulnerability was demonstrated last year when it became evident that the county’s revenue projections on that tax had been off amid supply chain issues and computer chip shortages—causing the county to carve $80 million out of its budget.
The server racks inside data centers depreciate quickly, Hemstreet said.
“Forget about increasing or expanding—just to maintain the same value of computer equipment one year to the next, thousands and thousands and thousands of servers have to be replaced. So if those servers don’t get replaced, you see a depreciation in that source of millions of dollars, which is what happened to us this year,” Hemstreet said.
This year’s proposal, he said, offers an incremental start to a 10-year plan to balancing those revenue streams. However, it also means to work toward that balance, if supervisors cut their real estate tax, they will have to scale back property tax revenues too, amplifying any cuts they hope to make to their budget. Each penny of real estate tax is estimated to be worth $11.8 million to county revenues—$59 million in cuts would be needed to trim 5 cents from the real estate rate and reach the equalized rate. To prevent personal property taxes from further outpacing the real estate tax, they would have to cut those too—to the tune of trimming $108.5 million from the county budget to maintain that balance.
Car Tax Could Fall
Another property tax stands to be cut even sooner: with car values showing unprecedented growth, Commissioner of the Revenue Robert S. Wertz Jr. has recommended this year taxing them at an assessment ratio of 80%—essentially, taxing them based on only 80% of their fair market value. That could reduce what might be painful car tax bills this year.
Supervisors were scheduled to vote on that proposal March 1. The county board will hold their next budget work session Monday, March 7.