Loudoun County begins budget review

February 13, 2012

Loudoun County’s financial plans for the next fiscal year began to take shape last week, as county administration and the School Board took steps toward defining their budgets.

On Tuesday, Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet presented the Board of Supervisors with a $1.8 billion budget plan, which would not raise property taxes for homeowners.

Hemstreet’s presentation came just hours before the county’s School Board adopted its budget for fiscal 2013. The School Board had previously delayed adoption twice as it searched for ways to fill an estimated $35.7 million gap between the $831.6 million plan proposed by Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III and the county budget presented by Hemstreet, which reflected the supervisors’ desire to avoid raising taxes to fund the school system.

The proposal the School Board adopted Tuesday cut about $11 million from Hatrick’s plan. The school budget will now go before the supervisors.

Hemstreet’s budget included an option to allow a tax reduction of 5 percent. The budget maintained the current division of local tax funding, with 66 percent for public schools and 34 percent for general government, and included a 2 percent performance-based salary increase for government employees.

The plan calls for $18 million more in funding, including $12.4 million in local taxes, over fiscal 2012, Hemstreet said.

But the budget was still lean and focused on core necessities, Hemstreet said. “Eighty-five cents of every local tax dollar goes to fund the schools, debt services and public safety,” he said.

The remaining 15 percent supports health and welfare services, general government, parks and recreation and other community services, according to Hemstreet’s presentation.

Although Hemstreet’s plan requires only a $1.27 tax rate, he told the supervisors that he planned to advertise a tax rate of $1.29, to give the board flexibility as it exams the budget.

“There are several unknowns,” he said. “The Loudoun County public schools have not yet adopted their budget, and there are many aspects of the state budget process that may yet impact the county.”

The School Board adopted its budget later that evening, after a heated debate between new and veteran members about a series of motions and proposed cuts to Hatrick’s plan.

In trimming Hatrick’s proposal, the board abandoned the initial phase of a full-day kindergarten program, reduced the Foreign Language in Elementary Schools program and removed 69 full-time employee positions, among other cuts.

The board also heeded the emotional pleas of school system workers by making no changes to employee benefits. The plan provides a flat raise to most school employees but excludes more than 500 who are already among the highest paid in the system.

Veteran board member Thomas E. Reed (At Large) said the School Board should not be making cuts to programs before the budget is reviewed by supervisors. Some of those cuts had not been reviewed by county staff members, he said, and were proposed without a thorough understanding of what the impact might be.

“This process tonight is horrible, is absolutely horrible,” Reed said.

Vice Chairman Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), one of the board’s six new members, pushed back.

“I think this play back and forth of old board members, new School Board members, it is what it is,” she said. “We are here, we were chosen by the people to be here, and while we may differ on philosophies, my job as School Board member is to represent the people to the schools. It’s not the other way around.”

Sandy Sullivan, president of the Loudoun Education Association, shared the concerns voiced by veteran board members.

“We are aware that, depending on what the supervisors do, there might be even worse cuts,” she said. “But it’s concerning when these cuts are happening before the public has a chance to speak before the supervisors.”

Sullivan said school employees would be closely following the county budget deliberations.

“We’ll need a lot of folks turning up at the public hearings again,” she said. “That will be a really big part of our focus over the next couple months.”

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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