Leesburg Adopts Budget, Tax Rate

By Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009

Two years ago, Leesburg officials braced themselves for the coming economic downturn. The town government froze vacant positions, reduced contracted services and established a rainy-day fund that has reached $1.4 million.

Last week, the Town Council tightened its belt again, adopting a $94 million budget for the next fiscal year that trims government spending at a time of declining tax revenue and bleak economic forecasts.

"We knew this wasn't going to just be a slight economic downturn," Town Manager John A. Wells said Thursday. "We've been ahead of it, and this budget leaves us ahead of it."

On Tuesday, council members adopted a tax rate of 19.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, less than the rate of 21.3 cents that would have been required to generate the same revenue the town received this fiscal year.

The current tax rate is 18 cents per $100 of assessed value. But because of a drop in assessments, the average real estate tax bill will decrease by about 8.6 percent for owners of single-family houses, 21.6 percent for owners of townhouses and 22.8 percent for condominium owners, town officials said.

Council member Kenneth D. Reid moved to keep the rate at 18 cents. He said he was concerned that the town's depressed real estate market was caused in part by buyers reluctant to move into Leesburg because they would have to pay town and county taxes.

Reid's motion failed after other council members argued that a tax rate increase was necessary to maintain revenues in the wake of the falling real estate assessments.

Council member David S. Butler said the higher tax rate would help the town sustain its long-term financial goals.

"I don't want to be in a position in a couple of years where we're stuck, where we're really going to have to cut services to a bone just to make ends meet," he said.

The council approved the 19.5 cent tax rate in a 5 to 2 vote, with Reid and council member Thomas S. Dunn II dissenting. Dunn also cast the only vote against the adopted budget.

Next year's budget is leaner than the current $100 million budget and smaller than the $95.3 million spending plan Wells proposed in February. His proposal, which was based on a 19.75 cent tax rate, eliminated four vacant staff positions and left six others unfilled, provided no raises for town employees and delayed computer upgrades. Wells also recommended delaying the construction of a third recreational field at Ida Lee Park and holding off on the development of the 86-acre Veterans Park, which fronts the Potomac River.

Council members asked Wells to make deeper cuts to get the tax rate down to 19.5 cents. Some of the additional cuts came from reductions in contracted services, delaying repairs to the water plant and freezing two more vacant positions. Other cuts included lopping $100,000 off the budget for resurfacing town streets, which will delay the milling and paving of about 15.5 miles of road.

The council also made some last-minute additions to the budget. They approved $160,000 to fund two additional police officers and restored $16,000 in funding to Dodona Manor.

Council members also approved one-time funding for four cash-strapped nonprofit organizations, noting that the groups have experienced a decline in county support and private contributions. The council provided $12,000 each to Loudoun Interfaith Relief, the Loudoun Free Clinic, Loudoun Cares and Loudoun Volunteer Caregivers.

The council also voted to speed up spending on downtown infrastructure improvements after residents and local business owners pleaded for more immediate funding. The projects are now fully funded at $3.9 million and are spread out over the town's five-year capital improvement program. The planned improvements include streetscape, parking and lighting upgrades.

Local business owner Barbara Williams urged the council to accelerate the improvements, saying that a facelift would breathe life into the downtown area.

Williams, who owns a business on Loudoun Street, said she plans to call downtown Leesburg home one day.

"I live in western Loudoun but I spend more waking hours in this town," she said. "I can't live in a place that's not well lit, in streets that are dirty, in a place that has nowhere I can go shop and eat in a safe manner."

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