Pr. William officials propose divergent budgets

April 23, 2013

It’s early in Prince William County’s budget season, but an analysis released last week shows that different plans recommended by county supervisors would produce starkly different results.

A proposal by Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) calls for a flat real estate tax bill, which would require millions in cuts to a county budget slated to grow because of inflation, rising population and other factors. A plan by Supervisor Peter K. Candland (R-Gainesville) would cut the tax bill and county budget even more significantly.

Supervisors Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge) and John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) have proposed tax increases along with more program funding and new government positions.

Once supervisors come to some agreement about how to proceed, county officials will build the budget based on their proposal.

Several supervisors have indicated a preference for keeping taxes flat this year, as outlined by Stewart. His proposal, officials estimate, would cut $9.2 million from the county budget and $12.7 million from the school system. Among other things, it calls for the elimination of about 24 county positions, $520,000 from the police department and $360,362 from county libraries and significant cuts to health services, totaling $3.6 million.

Under Stewart’s proposal, the average real estate tax bill would remain $3,304, about the same as this year.

Stewart’s approach singles out underfunded state programs that the county has supplemented in the past, such as the health department. Stewart said in a letter to fellow supervisors that “uncertainty created . . . at the federal and state levels,” including possible tax increases and cuts in defense spending, mean Prince William must rein in its budget so residents do not face a tax increase.

The proposal has drawn concern from the county’s Health District director, Alison Ansher. “The health department will not be able to protect the residents of Prince William County,” Ansher has said.

Candland’s proposal would go further, the county’s analysis shows. He has proposed cutting $21 million starting next year and $207 million over five years, but funding for schools would remain steady. Also, Prince William would need to cut about 192 positions, the analysis shows.

The bulk of the program cuts, however, have not been identified. Average real estate tax bills would remain about $3,300 over five years under Candland’s plan.

Candland said he thinks supervisors should be more involved with the school budget, which is nearly 57 percent of the total each year. That percentage is automatically allocated to the schools each year, and school officials determine how to spend it. Candland said schools should have to justify their budget to the county.

Candland said that Prince William is the only jurisdiction in Northern Virginia to have such a policy and that the county should do away with the contract with the school system, known as the revenue sharing agreement.

“I take money out of [taxpayers’] pocket. . . . I need to have visibility into what’s going on,” Candland said. “To blindly sign over a check and say, ‘We’ll let them deal with it,’ . . . that’s not where we need to be on the Board of County Supervisors.”

Other supervisors have resisted calls to do away with the agreement in the past, saying the majority of decisions about school management should be left to the elected School Board.

Jenkins’s and Principi’s proposals call for tax increases. Principi’s calls for $22 million for “unmet critical needs,” which have previously been identified by the county. They include $6.4 million more for the regional jail and about $3.2 million each for the police and fire departments. The proposal would add about 93 county positions and $28.6 million to the school system, the analysis shows. Under the plan, average real estate tax bills would increase by $447 to $3,751 next year.

Jenkins’s proposal calls for similar increases.

The school system is preparing for possible cuts, depending on which budget is adopted. School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns (At Large) said cuts to state and local funding have made for an increasingly difficult budget.

Last year’s budget “barely allowed preservation of key educational programs,” Johns wrote. “Consequently, parents should be prepared for cuts we may be forced to make.”

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