Less than eight months after approving a spending plan for the next five years that envisioned increasing residential property tax bills by an average of 4 percent annually, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors signaled that it might be changing course.
The board voted, 4 to 3, on Dec. 16 to direct County Executive Melissa S. Peacor to present a budget for fiscal 2016 that would limit increases in residential tax bills to 1.3 percent, based on the Consumer Price Index. Supervisor Peter K. Candland (R-Gainesville) proposed that the tax increases be scaled back in the 2016 budget, citing a sluggish local economy.
Candland contrasted the economy in Prince William with Fairfax and Loudoun counties, using a series of slides that showed Prince William lagging behind its neighbors in measures such as per capita income and average weekly wages.
“The tax . . . burden that everyone is facing in Prince William County and the spending trajectory is just not sustainable, because of the federal spending cuts, because of the shift away from those high paying jobs, the . . . flat per capita incomes and the low average weekly wages,” Candland said.
Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) agreed. “I think it’s actually good guidance . . . and it is just guidance,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea.”
Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) opposed Candland’s motion, saying that the five-year plan had projected specific dollar amounts for Prince William schools and that the school board had recently asked the supervisors for predictability and consistency in budget planning.
“It seems very unreasonable to, a week ago having heard [the school board’s] pleas for consistency, to then vote on something . . . that doesn’t comply with that request,” Nohe said.
Candland said that the Board of Supervisors and school board would have to look at their budgets and make “some serious decisions” regarding priorities.
“It might require that the school board go back and reevaluate the price tag on the last high school, not putting in the two pools,” he said. “It might require the Board of County Supervisors to go back and reevaluate $11 million to bury power lines, whereas we could put that money towards our schools.”
Supervisors John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) and Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge) joined Nohe in opposition.
School board Chairman Milton C. Johns (At Large) characterized Candland’s reference to the new high school’s swimming pools as “a classic red herring,” saying that the $10 million cost of the school’s aquatic center will be spread out over 20 years.
“The debt service on the pool for this year is about $750,000,” Johns said in an interview. “It’s not like we write a check for $10 million for the pool.”
County schools spokesman Phil Kavits said in an e-mail that the fiscal guidance would cut funding for the school division by about $11 million for each year of the five-year plan, based on the revenue-sharing agreement between the county and the school system. This would result in a total reduction of $45 million from what had been projected for the remaining four years in the plan, he wrote in the e-mail.
Johns said that the reduced funding would make it difficult for the school board to achieve its main objective: reducing class sizes. It costs $15 million to reduce class sizes by one student across all grade levels, he said.
“It’s perplexing to me that many supervisors have expressed their concern that overcrowded classrooms is their number one priority, but yet we haven’t seen any commitment to fund a revenue stream that will support that additional class size reduction,” Johns said.
“We should say our number one issue is taxes,” he added. “And if it’s really our number one issue, which this tax guidance seems to indicate, then as a school board we are going to have to make significant cuts in other areas to make up for this . . . shortfall that the supervisors told us to plan on.”
Principi issued a statement Dec. 23 that was critical of the board’s budget guidance.
“None of those who voted in favor of the motion had the courage to tell Ms. Peacor what they would like to see cut to balance the budget,” he said.
“It continues to be board policy to kick the can down the road year after year, in order to tell our residents we are pushing tax rates lower,” Principi said in the statement. “The reality is that the quality of life in Prince William County continues to decline with higher classroom
sizes, increased traffic congestion, and more and more residents not getting the human services they need to survive.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.