The Purcellville Town Council opened its fiscal year 2023 budget season last night as Town Manager David A. Mekarski urged an investment in the staff and efforts to promote long-term fiscal stability.
He proposed keeping the town’s 22-cent real estate tax rate despite calls from several councilmembers to cut at least a penny from the rate in response to high growth in property values over the past year.
Mekarski said holding the current rate, when combined with the average 11.72% increase in assessments, would cost the average homeowner $50 next year while adding $405,000 to the General Fund.
The town levies a separate 3-cent tax for its Parks and Recreation Fund, creating an effective real estate tax rate of 25 cents per $100 of assessed value.
While the council will be debating areas of the proposed budget over the next several weeks, it is scheduled Tuesday to set the tax rates, a requirement to meet the deadline needed for the county government to prepare tax bills. The town this year is joining the cooperative agreement with the county under which property owners receive combined bills for county and town taxes.
To reduce the tax rate to 21 cents, the council would have to reduce the proposed $12.8 million General Fund budget by $174,000.
Mekarski is proposing $919,000 to increase town staff pay, including a 6% cost of living increase, a pool for performance incentives of up to 5%, and pay band classification adjustments based on years of service. The town has 86 staff positions. The town manager is seeking to add one full-time member, an IT systems analyst to help move to the town to cloud-based services and spearhead cybersecurity efforts in all departments.
While the pay increases comprise the bulk of the $1.25 million in new initiatives Mekarski is proposing, his budget identifies $1.1 million in additional departmental requests that were not recommended for funding in FY 2023, including five new staff positions.
Among the unfunded positions, Mekarski highlighted the need for an economic development specialist whose mission would be to recruit new businesses and help existing businesses stay in town and expand—efforts he said would be critical to achieve long-term sustainability of the town’s fiscal position.
He said one goal was to achieve a better balance between revenue coming from homeowners and commercial sources. Today, about 83% of revenues come from residential sources. He said a goal should be 70% residential and 30% commercial. Mayor Kwasi Fraser strongly criticized that metric, calling it poor justification to seek a staffing increase. Vice Mayor Christopher Bertaut and Councilman Tip Stinnette joined in discounting the value of that target.
Councilwoman Erin Rayner said she strongly supported hiring an economic development staffer to focus on filling empty commercial spaces in town. Fraser and Bertaut said that no new personnel or marketing studies were needed; instead, they said, businesses would best be supported by ensuring transparent and predictable government operations.
Water and sewer service rates are proposed to increase by 3% and 5%, respectively.
Although no councilmember questioned the proposed utility rate increases, Fraser requested a confirmation from Mekarski and the town staff that the town’s rates were not set “artificially low.” The town manager said the rates follow a recommendation of the town’s consultants. Under repeated questioning from the mayor, staff members acknowledged the council has broad leeway to set rates and has done nothing improper or illegal. However, staff members said, the current rates do not cover the full cost of the utility systems.
“I don’t think it is for staff to say whether it is artificially low,” Treasurer/Director of Finance Liz Kerns said.
Questioning during the more than two-and-a-half-hour budget presentation session offered a likely preview of future council deliberations.
There remains support among some members to reduce the real estate tax rate. Stinnette suggested that simply accounting for staff savings that occurred from having vacant positions throughout the year could cover $150,000 of the $174,000 needed to adopt a 21-cent rate.
Councilwoman Mary Jane Williams was among the council members worried that inflation could hit the budget hard, which she said could make a 22-cent rate the more prudent option.
The council also asked Mekarski to set priorities for the two dozen departmental requests for which he did not recommend funding.
Following the March 22 vote to set the tax rates, the council is scheduled to hold an April 12 budget public hearing.