Stafford supervisors will set tax rate during Tuesday virtual public hearing

2020-04-18 | The Free Lance-Star

April 18-- Apr. 18--Stafford County supervisors will dial-in remotely from their homes Tuesday night to hold a public meeting in which tax rates for county residents will be set for the next fiscal year.

The meeting caps numerous budget work sessions over the past several weeks to recraft a once-hefty budget into a more frugal spending plan in line with an expected drop in revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under a booming economy in the early days of March, supervisors voted 5 -- 2 for an advertised 2-cent real estate tax increase to fund a proposed $335.7 million budget, which was nearly $17 million more than this year. They also proposed a 23-cent increase in personal property taxes and a 1.5 percent increase in user fees for county water and sewer services.

That initial proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 included pay raises for teachers and county employees, adding new positions, providing $131 million to schools, $72.8 million for public safety, $543,000 towards a new courthouse, $200,000 for area libraries and $3.3 million for a new high school.

Then the coronavirus took over, bringing an abrupt end to most of the county's ambitious budgetary aspirations. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced residents to quarantine at home, closed businesses and schools, spiked unemployment numbers and left county officials now anticipating a $5.5 million revenue shortfall by the end of June.

"All of the board's initiatives that are driven by the public--especially the overwhelming support for the road bonds--have to be set on the back table right now until our economy recovers," said Supervisor Meg Bohmke. "We have cut all expenses in general government across the board, there are freezes in place, and we are not hiring people when attrition hits."

Bohmke said the public schools will also cut at least $1.5 million this fiscal year.

"The question is, will it be another million?" said Bohmke.

Supervisors are also re-examining tax rates for residents, many of whom are facing their own finance troubles.

Supervisor Tinesha Allen is leaning toward retaining the current real-estate tax rate of $1.01 per $100 of assessed value Tuesday night, but said she'd vote no lower than than $1.

Both would effectively raise most tax bills because of an increase in property values under a recent reassessment. Supervisors would have to lower the rate to 97.9 cents to bring an equal amount of revenue from the higher values.

"I'm not going for the equalized rate," said Allen. "At that rate, we'd be gutting our county and we'd take away all of our leverage to recover. We must take care of our public safety employees and our schools."

Last Tuesday, supervisors met remotely for a budget work session to examine line items that could possibly be cut next fiscal year and other reductions. Those included furloughing some county employees and deferring roadwork and other projects, including renovations at Drew Middle School and a new high school. Supervisors are also considering tapping into $5 million of the county's reserve funds to lessen the financial blow.

Some supervisors are hoping to salvage several board-priority items in next year's budget, including adding a full-time fire and engine crew at the Rock Hill fire station, hiring a cyber-security analyst at an annual salary of $110,247 and providing pay raises for first responders.

Supervisors approved a new pay scale and step system for first responders in December to try to stem personnel losses to higher-paying localities to the north. Supervisor Crystal Vanuch said if the raises aren't included in the next budget, the county risks losing 20 to 30 deputies and firefighters, leaving big gaps in coverage.

"The fact that it's even ... a discussion of whether or not we fund it is absolutely heart-wrenching," Vanuch said.

Vanuch and other supervisors also support a fully staffed fire station in the Rock Hill district. She noted the nearest stations now are on Shelton Shop Road and in Hartwood and the Mountain View area, "resulting in unacceptable response times to emergencies."

A live broadcast of Tuesday's public hearing on the county's budget will be aired on Comcast channel 23, Cox channel 90, and Verizon channel 39, as well as the county's website, beginning at 7 p.m. Residents can submit comments to supervisors regarding the budget ahead of the hearing by completing an online speaker card at staffordcountyva.gov/publichearings. All submissions will be read into the public record during the meeting.

Supervisors will then hold a work session with county staff to reshape the budget before approving it May 5.