Loudoun County Administrator Tim Hemstreet followed the Board of Supervisors’ instructions and delivered a budget plan for the county government and school system for fiscal 2017 that would hold the property tax rate steady at $1.135 per $100 of assessed value.
But Hemstreet stopped short of recommending the $2.5 billion spending plan, which he presented Feb. 10, saying that it was “not adequate to protect the current level of service in many areas.”
Under the proposed budget, funding for Loudoun public schools would fall $31.4 million short of the school board’s request, and there would be insufficient funding to open county facilities such as the new Sterling Library.
Instead, Hemstreet recommended that the board adopt a budget at a slightly higher tax rate of $1.14 per $100 of assessed value, which would enable the county to open the library and other new facilities, as well as maintain “mandated or critical services, specifically those related to social safety net programs or public safety,” he said.
The Board of Supervisors had directed Hemstreet to present a budget at the $1.135 rate, which would keep the average property tax bill level. However, Hemstreet cautioned the board that a proposed budget maintaining that rate would provide insufficient revenue.
“The county’s current economic situation limits the resources available under the board’s guidance,” Hemstreet said. “Because of these limited resources, I was required to make difficult decisions about what could be included in the proposed budget.”
Loudoun’s economy is languishing, in part because of the lingering effects of federal sequestration, Hemstreet said. Employment growth for Loudoun residents in 2014 was well below the national growth rate, and market appreciation of residential properties last year was “essentially zero,” he said.
Still, the county’s population continues to surge. Over the next four years, it is projected to grow from 364,000 to 416,000, and school officials project an increase of about 2,900 students next year.
The school board asked for an increase of $58.3 million in local funding in fiscal 2017 to meet the demands of the growing student population and to open Madison’s Trust Elementary School in Ashburn. The requested increase also included $9.7 million to raise the number of students in full-day kindergarten from 34 to 75 percent.
A tax rate of $1.15 would allow the county to reduce the gap in school system funding by $10.8 million, Hemstreet said. To give the board flexibility to raise taxes further, he advertised a tax rate of $1.17, which he said would fully fund his recommended budget for the county government, as well as the school board’s budget request.
Vice Chair Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said that the budget process will be challenging, mainly because of the flat assessments.
Buona said that last year he and school board Chairman Eric Hornberger found common ground on recommendations that resulted in full funding of the school board’s budget request.
“Whether or not we get there this year remains to be seen, because . . . it would be a significant tax increase,” Buona said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said in an interview that decisions the board made in last year’s budget process, such as borrowing $11 million from the fund balance, created a wider budget gap this year.
“That put us in a tougher position, when you think about the fact that $9 million will take care of full-day [kindergarten] this year,” she said. “We’re in the hole for more than that already.
“School funding is a problem every year, because the county has grown so quickly over the past many years,” she added. “In my opinion, if we build homes, the kids come, and we’re supposed to educate them.”
Randall said that although schools receive most of the attention, the growing population also creates demands for other public services, including the fire and rescue department, law enforcement and roads.
Public hearings on the budget are scheduled for Thursday, Saturday and Feb. 29. The board will review the budget in a series of work sessions next month and is expected to adopt it in early April.
Barnes is a freelance writer.