Loudoun residents weigh in on budget concerns

(Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post) - Rust Library in Leesburg. Residents at budget hearings reminded supervisors of the many ways that libraries help the community.

At the first public hearings on Loudoun County’s fiscal 2013 budget, dozens of residents told the Board of Supervisors what they think the county’s financial priorities should be.

The board heard pleas to protect nonprofit groups and libraries from cuts, to ensure that public schools are fully funded and to provide relief to homeowners struggling with the county’s rising cost of living.

More than 60 speakers appeared before the board Tuesday during two public input sessions in the afternoon and evening. It was the first opportunity for residents to address supervisors before the board begins its review of the proposed $1.8 billion fiscal 2013 budget this week. Final budget adoption is scheduled for early April.

County Administrator Tim Hemstreet has presented the board with two fiscal plans: One would keep property tax rates flat for residents; the second would lower the average homeowner’s tax bill by 5 percent. The reduction would be made by eliminating programs, removing salary increases for county employees and trimming millions more from the public schools budget, among other cuts.

During the afternoon session, a majority of speakers advocated on behalf of county libraries and numerous nonprofit organizations vulnerable to budget cuts, including the Loudoun Museum, Blue Ridge Speech and Hearing, La Voz of Loudoun and Friends of Loudoun Mental Health.

Jeff Baldwin, a member of the Middleburg Library Advisory Board, asked supervisors to consider the ways that libraries help all members of Loudoun’s community.

“Our library staff helped people look for jobs and helped them do their jobs. Students used computers to do their work. If you want to use a computer in one of the western county libraries, chances are you’re going to have to wait in line,” he said. “I urge you to fully fund our county libraries.”

Patti Maslinoff of Leesburg spoke on behalf of Friends of Loudoun Mental Health, which would not receive county funding under the proposals. She told supervisors that financial support for people struggling to regain their independence is a necessity.

“Every penny of county money will go toward helping people recover from mental illness and to gain their independence,” she said. “I have struggled with mental illness for almost 40 years. I am doing fairly well right now, but that hasn’t always been true. There were times when I worried about being able to live on my own. . . . For someone with mental illness, it is a critical part of recovery to be able to live on one’s own.”

Several speakers talked about the importance of maintaining the county’s energy plan, which could be reduced or eliminated if more budget cuts are sought.

Carol Kearney of Momentum Realty told the board that her company has participated in Loudoun’s Green Business Challenge since its launch in 2010.

The contest “is one of the few partnerships between [the Loudoun Chamber of Commerce] and the county, and it’s a very successful one,” Kearney said.

She noted that Loudoun has received national recognition for its leadership in energy conservation.

“Why would you even consider eliminating a program that pays for itself, costs us nothing . . . increases the county’s revenue, is great for the environment, is great for public relations and is morally the right thing to do?”

Although some residents asked supervisors to remember their campaign promises of fiscal responsibility and low taxes — urging them not to increase the financial burden on homeowners in tough times — the evening hearing was dominated by speakers supporting full funding of Loudoun’s public schools.

Among the parents and school employees who stepped to the podium, several voiced concern over the budget cuts made by the School Board in recent weeks. On Feb. 7, the board adopted a $822.1 million budget after cutting $11 million from the plan proposed by School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III. The following week, the School Board unexpectedly reopened its budget discussion in the late hours of a meeting, cutting an additional $2.4 million and removing 40 additional positions from the spending plan.

Patricia Lockwood, a teacher at Sterling Middle School, said she was dismayed by the School Board’s actions.

“I can see that there is a seismic shift in the way education is viewed in Loudoun County. I no longer feel heard nor think that any of my concerns are the concerns of the majority of the current School Board,” Lockwood said. “I can only hope that you vote your conscience. Please do not attempt to achieve [lower taxes] at the expense of the public schools.”

Her views were echoed by Stone Bridge teacher David Palanzi, who reminded the board of the county’s mission statement, which includes the phrase “to invest in tomorrow.”

“I’m concerned that if the richest county in the country cannot invest in public education, its tomorrow, then our great county is doomed,” he said. “Please tell me how increased class size, overcrowded schools and underpaid teachers and staff are an investment in tomorrow? . . . If you fail our children in this, then your mission statement is worthless.”

Loudoun residents can submit comments to the Board of Supervisors by e-mail at loudounbudget@loudoun.gov, by calling 703-777-0115 or by writing to the Board of Supervisors, P.O. Box 7000, Leesburg, Va. 20177.

 
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