The few. The wor­ried. The 2015 budget.

Rappahannock News - - FRONT PAGE - By Roger Piantadosi Rap­pa­han­nock News staff

Slightly less than one per­son per 10 cents of next year’s pro­posed property tax rate — 69 cents per $100 of as­sessed value, should the fis­cal year 2015 budget be adopted as is — rose to speak at Mon­day night’s board of su­per­vi­sors budget hear­ing at Rap­pa­han­nock County High School.

The small crowd of about 20 — only seven of whom spoke — made for an un­ex­pected change in the an­nual civic drama’s mono­logue-af­ter-mono­logue tra­di­tion. Mean­ing: It was more of a di­a­logue.

On the one side of the di­a­logue were tax­pay­ers who, look­ing at what would be the sec­ond year in a row of four-cent in­creases in the property tax rate, voiced con­cern over con­tin­u­ing ris­ing costs — pri­mar­ily of ad­min­is­tra­tion in the schools,

in the sher­iff’s of­fice and other county de­part­ments — and the lack of any sub­stan­tial prospects for ris­ing rev­enue.

Other than property taxes, that is. More on that later.

On the other side were four su­per­vi­sors (Bryant Lee was out sick), who are also tax­pay­ers but who take the task of keep­ing a govern­ment run­ning some­what more se­ri­ously than their coun­ter­parts in Richmond this year, where a state budget re­mains hostage to a par­ti­san Med­i­caid de­bate. And on­stage with the su­per­vi­sors was County Ad­min­is­tra­tor John McCarthy, who nar­rated a sim­ple se­ries of pro­jected slides with the five rea­sons the tax rate needs to go up this year:

• The sher­iff’s tran­si­tion from a lo­cal jail to a re­gional jail and the sur­plus that has to be built up to start pay­ing the county’s share of the Rap­pa­han­nock-Shenan­doah-War­ren Re­gional Jail’s debt in fis­cal-year 2016;

• A gen­eral real es­tate re­assess­ment that must be com­pleted by 2016;

• An in­crease in Vir­ginia Re­tire­ment Ser­vice costs;

• In­creases in county em­ployee health in­sur­ance rates and a 2 per­cent salary in­crease in De­cem­ber;

• and a fire-and-res­cue needs-as­sess­ment study to be per­formed by a third party this year.

There were no an­gry out­bursts; most of the out­bursts were of good-na­tured laugh­ter, as when Sper­ryville res­i­dent and peren­nial budget-watcher Tom Junk rose to tease a pre­vi­ous speaker who’d sug­gested the board sup­port ef­forts to al­ter the state’s Lo­cal Com­pos­ite In­dex (LCI) — the mea­sure of house­hold in­come, property val­ues and other in­di­ca­tors by which the state de­ter­mines a lo­cal­ity’s “abil­ity to pay” for pub­lic school and other costs, an in­dex which in Rap­pa­han­nock is as high as it can get (.8), mak­ing the state’s share of such costs a mere 20 per­cent.

Any al­ter­ation that helps ru­ral ar­eas get a larger share of state funds would come at the cost of less ru­ral ar­eas — ar­eas that send many more rep­re­sen­ta­tives to Richmond — so most po­lit­i­cal ob­servers think the ef­fort is bound to fail. In­clud­ing Junk.

“If you think the state’s go­ing to change the LCI just to help out Rap­pa­han­nock County be­cause we’re just such nice folks out here,” Junk said, “then you need to see some­body, be­cause you need help.

“The only thing we can do in a ru­ral area like Rap­pa­han­nock,” Junk said, “is watch our ex­penses.”

Rap­pa­han­nock’s pub­lic school di­vi­sion’s budget com­prises more than half the county’s $21.99 mil­lion in pro­jected ex­penses in fis­cal year 2015 (which be­gins July 1). The di­vi­sion’s new su­per­in­ten­dent, Dr. Donna Matthews, sub­mit­ted a budget this year that did not call for any in­crease over last year’s lo­cal share. She and sev­eral school board mem­bers sat qui­etly near the front of the au­di­to­rium while oth­ers ques­tioned a hand­ful of other fis­cal is­sues.

Rock Mills res­i­dent David Kon­ick’s ques­tions were the most spe­cific, con­cern­ing as they did the costs of the sher­iff’s of­fice and the county’s build­ing of­fice. He ques­tioned why the depart­ment needed a ve­hi­cle for each of 26 deputies. There’s an ex­pense item in the 2015 budget for $68,000 for two new ve­hi­cles.

“The sher­iff came up with a pol­icy that all the deputies needed to drive a ve­hi­cle home,

in case they needed to re­spond all at once to an emer­gency,” Kon­ick said. “I’ve been here more than 30 years, and I can’t re­mem­ber any time when ev­ery deputy needed to re­spond at once to any­thing.

“There comes a time when you just have to say, ‘Do we re­ally need all this?’” Kon­ick said. “I think you need to look very care­fully at the sher­iff’s depart­ment budget and re­duce it sub­stan­tially.”

Terry Dixon, an Amissville res­i­dent and real es­tate agent, had a sim­i­lar com­ment, al­though his point was that ris­ing real es­tate taxes would have eco­nomic reper­cus­sions, or al­ready do. “I will just say to you gen­tle­men, at some point, we have to say ‘No, we’re not go­ing to raise the taxes.’ Be­cause people can’t af­ford to live here. I have people com­ing all the time who can’t af­ford the taxes. That’s my state­ment. Food for thought. Thanks.”

Demaris Miller of Wash­ing­ton said while she was happy the school di­vi­sion held down costs, she wor­ried that the pro­por­tion of ad­min­is­tra­tors in Rap­pa­han­nock’s school sys­tem was high — larger, she said, than an­other school sys­tem she’d worked for where there were more than 2,500 stu­dents. (Rap­pa­han­nock’s school pop­u­la­tion is less than 1,000, and has been drop­ping slowly in re­cent years.)

“I called the school ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices,” she said, “and just the phone tree list of ex­ten­sions I could dial for people was overwhelmi­ng.”

Sper­ryville farmer Monira Ri­faat said she ap­pre­ci­ated see­ing a budget that of­fered com­par­isons go­ing back four years, be­cause it showed trends — and those trends, she said, in­di­cated that the county needed to watch its ad­min­is­tra­tive costs more care­fully, and work on a “new mar­ket­ing plan” that would bring more in­dus­try, more commercial rev­enue — but “some­thing green” — to the county.

McCarthy noted that Rap­pa­han­nock’s ge­o­graph­i­cal re­al­i­ties — no ma­jor in­ter­states, three

“I’ve had people call me to ask, ‘When do they pick up the trash?’” Welch said, chuck­ling. “I say, ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’”

sig­nif­i­cantly more densely pop­u­lated shop­ping and re­tail ar­eas within 25 miles — made it dif­fi­cult for the county to at­tract more commercial rev­enue.

Af­ter tour­ing the re­gion with county ad­min­is­tra­tors from Rap­pa­han­nock, War­ren and Culpeper coun­ties, McCarthy said, a busi­ness prospect “usu­ally says, ‘Rap­pa­han­nock? I want to live here. But I’m go­ing to put my busi­ness in War­ren County.’”

“Is this model we have cre­ated here — farm­land, but no other in­dus­try — is it sus­tain­able?” Ri­faat asked. “I think we have to keep eval­u­at­ing our model, in view of these ex­penses that are go­ing up.”

“I agree with you,” Welch said af­ter Ri­faat’s com­ments.

Reached by phone later, Welch ex­plained that it was Ri­faat’s sug­ges­tion that the county look at longer-term trends that he agreed with. And the big­gest trend over the last 30 years in Rap­pa­han­nock, he said, has been the change “in people, not pop­u­la­tion.”

“I grew up here, and when there was event at the fire hall, ev­ery­body was there — doc­tors, lawyers, jan­i­tors, teach­ers, ev­ery­one,” Welch said, by way of ex­am­ple. “There was more of a com­mu­nity spirit and more . . . of an ‘all for one and one for all’ feel­ing. Over the years, when, let’s say, a farmer died, an­other farmer didn’t gen­er­ally buy that property. It was gen­er­ally bought by some­one who was com­ing out of a met­ro­pol­i­tan area, look­ing for a part-time weekend home, and the needs of the county changed. They didn’t live here, their kids don’t go to school, they don’t need fa­cil­i­ties — not that we have many. They’re used to hav­ing cer­tain ameni­ties and ser­vices in their com­mu­ni­ties that we don’t of­fer.

“I’ve had people call me to ask, ‘When do they pick up the trash?’” Welch said, chuck­ling. “I say, ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’”

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