Torn between the competing goals of fully funding the school board’s budget request and avoiding a tax increase, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors settled on a compromise spending plan Tuesday for fiscal 2017.
Three Republican supervisors joined three Democrats to approve a $2.46 billion budget that slightly raises the real property tax rate but falls about $16.9 million short of the school board’s request. The school board is now considering options for closing the gap.
The spending plan includes money to address some of the needs that County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said are the most critical. Those include additional mental health professionals to work with inmates at the Adult Detention Center; an additional maintenance crew for athletic fields; and new staff positions to open the expanded Sterling Library in the fall.
The budget also funds a 2.5 percent merit-based pay increase for eligible county employees.
The board’s plan raises the real property tax rate from $1.135 to $1.145 per $100 of assessed value. The average residential property owner will pay about $25 more in taxes next year as a result, county spokesman Glen Barbour said.
Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said before the vote that three supervisors wanted a lower tax rate, and three wanted a higher one. To reach the compromise, Letourneau and Republicans Ralph M. Buona (Ashburn) and Tony R. Buffington Jr. (Blue Ridge) joined three Democrats — Chair Phyllis J. Randall (At Large), Kristin C. Umstattd (Leesburg) and Koran T. Saines (Sterling) — to approve the $1.145 rate.
Republicans Geary M. Higgins (Catoctin), Ron A. Meyer Jr. (Broad Run) and Suzanne M. Volpe (Algonkian) voted against the budget, saying they opposed raising taxes.
“What I heard consistently [from the public] is that people do value quality services,” Letourneau said. “Perhaps the be-all, end-all for all citizens is not necessarily the lowest possible tax rate.”
Buona said he believed the budget provided sufficient funding to meet the school system’s most pressing needs: keeping up with increasing student enrollment, expanding full-day kindergarten, and improving salaries and benefits for school employees.
“It would be nice for the school board to tell us their priorities, but that never happens,” he said. “They aren’t going to tell us their priorities. It becomes an all-or-nothing proposition.”
Randall said she knocked on doors across the county, and “the vast majority of people . . . talked about funding the school system.” She added that she was not convinced that the compromise budget reflected “the voice of the people.”
The board unanimously approved a $1.8 billion, six-year capital improvement program, most of which will fund transportation and school construction projects. During their deliberations, board members shifted funding to provide money sooner for some projects while delaying others to stay within the county’s debt limit.
“I always say to people, if you’ve got a credit card, you’ve got a credit limit, and so does the county,” Letourneau said.
Among the projects accelerated to receive funding in fiscal 2017 are several new schools in the booming Dulles North and Dulles South areas.
Letourneau said the capital improvement program is probably the part of the budget that is most misunderstood “because it’s not part of the operating budget, and because the funding sources are different throughout.
“So you can’t simply take a road [project] and move that money into a school,” he added. “A lot of times they’re coming from different funding sources.”
On Thursday, Loudoun County Schools Superintendent Eric Williams presented the school board with lists of $6.8 million in recommended budget cuts and $21.7 million in further reductions for the board to consider to eliminate the $16.9 million funding gap.
Among the cost-saving measures under consideration are increasing the average class size by 0.5 in elementary schools and 1.0 in middle and high schools; extending full-day kindergarten to 49 more classrooms instead of 98; reducing the amount of money available to boost the salaries of mid-career teachers; and having health and physical education teachers teach family life education, instead of the specialists who currently teach those classes.
School board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg) raised the possibility of closing several small schools to save money. In a straw vote, the school board narrowly voted to take that option off the table.
The school board is scheduled to hold a public hearing Wednesday and complete the budget reconciliation process the next day.