About 40 residents weighed in on Prince William County’s proposed $967.4 million budget Tuesday night at the McCoart Administration Building, most of them telling the Board of County Supervisors that the county needs more robust programs and not the cuts some supervisors are mulling.
Supervisors have, thus far, been split on the proposed real-estate tax rate and whether to enhance or cut county programs. Many residents who spoke Tuesday said that cuts to the blueprint laid out by County Executive Melissa S. Peacor would be harmful. Peacor’s budget provides funding for additional police and firefighters, upgrades school fields, buys voting machines and hires school resource officers to safeguard middle schools.
Supervisors have advertised a real estate tax rate of $1.196 per $100 of assessed value, which is slightly below Peacor’s recommendation. At that rate, the average household in Prince William would pay $3,647, a 3.59 percent increase over the current average taxes. Per state law, the board can only lower that advertised rate.
Further cuts could hit social service programs, including those for the disadvantaged. Several senior citizens said that the Bluebird bus program, which serves seniors who cannot drive, should be spared. Others said that the county is already lacking in social service programs and should not cut further.
“Many, many single adults still struggle . . . because they’re living outside with no place to call home,” said Sandra Eichorn, who works for the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit mental health organization.
Mary Agee, president and chief executive of Northern Virginia Family Service, attended the hearing and said that area homeless shelters don’t have enough beds to meet demand. Further cuts to those social service programs could harm an already strained system, she said.
“Prince William is a really
under-resourced community,” Agee said in an interview. “It has not kept pace with the demand, and it’s very discouraging.”
Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) has offered a plan that would cut social services programs significantly to achieve an average flat real-estate tax bill. Other board members, including Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge), want to enhance county programs and hire more firefighters in the eastern end of the county.
Principi has raised the issue of several fires along Route 1 in which the first responding units were from surrounding localities because the county lacked adequate staffing to send its own units. Although Prince William has most of the equipment necessary to respond to blazes, there often aren’t enough volunteer firefighters, who work primarily nights and weekends to supplement career crews, to staff them, Principi has said.
Police and firefighters also fought Tuesday for more robust benefits, after their benefits were cut during the housing recession. As the economy recovers, so should those programs, they said.
Paul Hebert, who heads the Prince William County Professional Firefighters, which advocates for career firefighters, said the county should reinstate annual merit pay increases. This year, the county budget calls for a 2 percent cost of living adjustment, he said, but no extra pay for good performance.
“We compete with Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria . . . and we need to stay competitive with salaries,” Hebert said in an interview.
Perhaps the night’s most impassioned plea came from Jim Livingston, president of the Prince William Education Association. He said that because the school system had planned for Peacor’s proposed budget — schools receive an automatic 56.75 percent share of county revenue — they have cut more than $5 million from their plan.
“Every school in Prince William County will feel the effect of those reductions,” Livingston said. “Other reductions will be catastrophic.”
Supervisors are expected to adopt a final fiscal 2014 budget April 23.