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Leesburg Set to Trim Tax Rate

Homeowners' Bills Would Still Rise

By Lila de Tantillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page LZ01

Leesburg is poised to lower its property tax rate for the first time in 15 years -- by a half-penny, to 21.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.

"The votes are there to lower the tax rate," Town Manager John A. Wells said last week. The Town Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday.

Last month, Wells proposed a $109 million budget for 2005-06 that held the tax rate steady at 22 cents, although rising assessments meant homeowners would still face significantly higher tax bills. Tax bills would still go up, even with the half-cent tax rate reduction, just not as much. Town Budget Officer Michael Freda said that the average bill will be $941, up from $777 last year.

Wells said he did not have to trim his budget to accommodate the tax rate cut because Leesburg's financial picture has improved. In particular, its bonds have sold well, he said, bolstered in part by the town's recently improved credit rating.

Council Member Kathryn S. "Katie" Hammler said at a budget hearing Tuesday that the tax rate should have been reduced to 18.7 cents. She said she was disappointed by what she said was the Town Council's failure to scrutinize the budget and turn down some proposals, particularly the hiring of new employees.

"It's the 'do-nothing' approach -- we're not making any difficult decisions," she said. "Right now we keep taking money from the pockets of homeowners."

Hammler proposed reducing the town staff by 5 percent and dropping plans to hire six new police officers.

After the meeting, Council Member Susan B. Horne said Hammler's proposal was "outside the realm of reality."

The extra revenue generated by higher assessments was necessary to complete drainage and sidewalk projects and to deal with the town's traffic problems, Horne said.

"We live in a community that expects a lot," said Council Member C. Kelly Burk. "We're no longer a small rural town."

For the reduction to pass, it needs the support of four of the seven Town Council members. Hammler, Horne and Burk were the only members present at the meeting. Mayor Kristen C. Umstattd arrived as it ended after presenting the town's transportation agenda at a public hearing before the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

"My hope had been that we would cut a full penny off the tax rate," Umstattd said.

She said this would have meant dropping plans to hire an additional transportation planner, a second urban forester and a full-time archivist for the Thomas Balch Library, a position that is now part time, and tabling part-time security for the Ida Lee Recreation Center.

"We need to make sure we don't have too much debt," she said.

Leesburg has improved its bond rating by bringing down its percentage of debt as part of the budget, she said. Leesburg's last tax rate reduction was in 1990, a 1-cent cut from 18 to 17 cents, Freda said.

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