The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is poised to adopt a fiscal 2014 budget that would lower the real estate tax rate and force the public school system to make an additional $16 million in cuts to its proposed spending plan.
At a final budget work session Monday, Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) issued a stern warning to the School Board and its administration, and to School Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III in particular, about the need to adapt to a new reality.
“Change is good,” York said. “And my words today to the School Board: Change needs to happen at the top of the administration. Dr. Hatrick has served this county well for many years, but we are now in the 21st century. Many things have to change, and unfortunately sometimes in order for change to happen, change has to first happen at the top.”
When Hatrick presented his $876.4 million budget proposal to the School Board with in December, he said it was already lean, included no new programs and requested the minimum amount needed to keep pace with rising enrollment and the opening of two elementary schools.
Still, the School Board trimmed almost $17 million from the budget before forwarding an $859.7 million spending plan to supervisors for approval. The proposal seeks more than $30 million in additional local funding. The county budget prepared by Loudoun Administrator Tim Hemstreet included only a $12 million increase over the schools’ fiscal 2013 funding.
In February, Hemstreet presented supervisors with a proposed $1.8 billion county budget, based on an advertised tax rate of $1.23. The $1.23 rate was previously assumed to be the equalized rate, meaning that average taxpayers would not see a change in their tax bills. But Hemstreet told the board that new fiscal data showed the rate would actually raise most tax bills by about 1 percent.
That increase would provide about $15 million in additional tax revenue, Hemstreet said. That left supervisors with a choice: Use the funds to fully fund the School Board’s requested budget, use it for other purposes or return the money to taxpayers.
At Monday’s work session, the supervisors chose to give county taxpayers a break.
The board voted, 5 to 2, to direct county staff members to prepare a budget based on a real property tax rate of $1.20 per $100 of assessed value, a rate that would lower property tax bills by about 2 percent. Average taxpayers could expect to see their bills reduced by about $80, said Ben Mays, Loudoun’s chief financial officer.
Supervisors Suzanne Volpe (R-Algonkian) and Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) voted against the $1.20 rate, saying that even deeper cuts were needed. Supervisors Kenneth D. “Ken” Reid (R-Leesburg) and Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling) were absent for the vote.
If supervisors finalize a tax rate of $1.20, the schools would receive about $553 million in county funds. With about $2 million in unanticipated state revenue added, the school system would be left with a roughly $16 million shortfall.
Buona said the School Board should find additional savings to relieve pressure on residents who face financial challenges of their own, including furloughs and unemployment.
“There are a lot of people hurting in the community. A lot,” Buona said. “We’re going to slam some people if we don’t bring this [spending] back in a little bit further. We know the cuts are there, I think we need to look for them.”
Volpe seconded Buona’s push for deeper cuts to the school budget, but they were ultimately overruled by other members of the board who said that the reductions had gone far enough.
At the end of the work session, York scolded school administrators for failing to work with the county Government Reform Commission to “find ways that we could save money” by identifying overlapping functions and efficiencies.
York said he was “very disappointed” with the lack of cooperation. “I just think enough is enough,” he said.
The board also made adjustments to the school system’s proposed Capital Improvement Program, cutting an allocation of nearly $9 million for the installation of artificial turf on high school fields and delaying the relocation of the planned Monroe advanced technology academy until fiscal 2018. The schools Capital Improvement Program also includes money for the construction of two elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school, plus renovations and additions to other school facilities.
There are no further budget work sessions planned. Supervisors are scheduled to adopt a fiscal 2014 budget at their meeting April 3.