Several members of the Board of County Supervisors said they wanted to lower Prince William's property tax rate more than the 7 cents that County Executive Craig S. Gerhart recommended Tuesday, even as the discussion deteriorated into a prolonged session of name-calling, blame casting and snippy remarks.
Gerhart proposed a rate of $1.16 per $100 of assessed value -- 3 cents lower than his initial spending plan offered earlier this month -- after discussions last week between supervisors and the School Board. The two boards, which have agreed to work together on budget matters, were responding to an outcry from residents angry over a rate that would have driven tax bills up 12 percent over last year. At a rate of $1.16, bills would go up an average of 9 percent.
The fight over the tax cut -- and the tensions behind it -- are a sign of an election year in which both factions of the county board see an opportunity to set the future course of Prince William. It also broke the relative peace that has existed among board members over the last 12 to 18 months, returning the board to the days of constant jabbering, supervisor walkouts and name-calling.
"We didn't have this discussion last year because it wasn't an election year," said Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries), prompting eye rolls from other board members.
Generally, Caddigan, board Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R-At Large) and Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs (R-Occoquan) are aligned against Supervisors John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco), Edgar S. Wilbourn III (R-Gainesville), Mary K. Hill (R-Coles), Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) and Loring B. "Ben" Thompson (R-Brentsville). Thompson switches sides on disputes between the county's Police Department and its sheriff.
An increasingly personal feud has emerged between Jenkins and Connaughton. Jenkins is openly supporting a Democratic challenger to Connaughton, while often criticizing the chairman's ability to lead the board. Connaughton's contempt of Jenkins and his policies has been equally clear.
The heated exchanges began at the start of Gerhart's presentation when Jenkins complained that he had not been told about the talks between the two boards and that he didn't know about them until he read the newspaper. He then criticized Connaughton for striking an agreement without the full consent of supervisors.
"We as a board ought to do this as a board before we put it out in newspapers," Jenkins said.
Gerhart told Jenkins that he left all supervisors a voice mail immediately after the Friday meeting, which included Thompson. Jenkins later challenged whether that was the case, but several supervisors said they had received the voice mail.
Connaughton also told Jenkins that he had sent out a message alerting members to the meeting and asking for input. He said he heard back from several supervisors, but not Jenkins.
Then several supervisors, including Jenkins, said they wanted to lower the tax rate further.
"I think this is a starting point," Wilbourn said. "I don't think supervisors accept this as the bottom line."
Soon enough, Connaughton asked Jenkins whether he remembered what happened in 1987, when the board drastically lowered the rate during an election year. Connaughton chided Jenkins for voting to lower the rate that year by 12 cents, only to drain the county's coffers and raise the rate by 8 cents the next year. Jenkins responded that he was "proud" of his vote to lower taxes.
Connaughton cautioned board members not to do that again, particularly because the School Board indicated it would not be comfortable with less revenue than the $1.16 rate would produce.
Jenkins then declared his support for the school system and told supervisors he was one of the architects of the amicable agreement between the two boards.
That led Caddigan to end the discussion with: "I am going to barf. You know that? I am sick to my stomach."