County’s $22.2 million budget holds the line
No property tax increase required, hearing Monday
Faced with a number of challenges, Rappahannock County’s supervisors and staff have built a draft fiscal-year 2017 budget that is distinctive for several reasons, including:
• For the first time in several years, the $22.273 million budget would not require an increase in the property tax rate — which would remain at 70 cents per $100 of assessed value (that’s a $2,100 tax bill on a property worth $300,000).
• The draft document — open to public comment at a joint school board/supervisors’ budget hearing 7 p.m. Monday at the high school auditorium — reflects a total of almost $500,000 in relatively small reductions. These are the result of a line-item-by-line-item review of the county’s budget, first by Deputy County Administrator Debbie Keyser and Treasurer Debbie Knick and other department heads, and then by the supervisors themselves, several of whom — most loudly, Jackson District’s Ron Frazier — have called for such an annual line-by-line review every spring for the past several years.
“The goal,” says chair Roger Welch of Wake- field district, “was to not raise the tax rate. What’s better about this is — it’s not an election year.”
Election or not, the budget essentially postpones what many believe is the largest fiscal challenge facing the county over the next few years: Maintaining the health of its all-volunteer fire and rescue services, in particular emergency medical services that are increasing as an already older-than-average county ages and a costlier-than-average county tries to recruit and train younger volunteers.
At the supervisors’ budget workshop in March, Keyser had proposed a contingency fund be in-
cluded in the budget, which she said could allow the county to hire EMS professionals on an ad hoc basis, or as needed, rather than start down the tricky road of managing both paid and volunteer responders, as surrounding jurisdictions (and most of those throughout Virginia) have done.
That contingency fund did not make it into the budget.
Frazier pointed out that the county’s sale earlier this year of the former Aileen plant — realtor Alex Sharp paid off a mortgage that was held by the county since three years earlier, when the former buyer defaulted and he agreed to take it on — infuses the general fund with some $266,000, and allows some “breathing room” for the county to deal with any such “contingencies” in fiscal year 2017. (The fiscal years starts July 1.)
Also not in the budget: funding for a deputy county administrator. Keyser had proposed a half-year’s salary, or $44,000, be included to pay for the position that, in February, both County Attorney Peter Luke and County Administrator John McCarthy strongly urged the supervisors to fund, primarily to focus on zoning issues. ( McCarthy trades titles with Keyser on May 1 and officially retires July 1 after 30 years as the county’s chief executive.)
In part to compensate for the added zoning-related burden on Luke, the draft budget includes a pay raise, from $56,300 to $70,300, for the county attorney. Working nearly full time in what is officially a half-time position, as Stonewall-Hawthorne District supervisor Chris Parrish said at the board’s April 8 budget workshop, “Peter has done an awful lot for the county over the last several decades, and he’s been really thorough and he never skimped on anything. And so I think it’s appropriate.”
By cutting back on other parts of the county attorney’s $108,000 budget, though, the increase overall for the expense category winds up being just .14 percent.
Luke’s increase is the only increase in the budget for a county employee — other than adding $1,000 to the county’s $8,000 annual supplement to the Registrar of Voter’s salary, determined by the state to be a part-time position.
Employee health care costs — an expense that is primarily out of the county’s control — will rise 9.6 percent in fiscal year 2017.
Virginia’s General Assembly has yet to decide on possible wage increases for the county’s constitutional officers, including the sheriff, commonwealth’s attorney, commissioner of the revenue and others — but these are paid, for the most part, with state funds.
The sheriff’s department, according to the draft budget summary, appears to have the largest overall funding increase, about 9 percent, among the county’s departments — this owing to the reinstatement of $145,000 of an apparently erroneous reduction of $155,000 in the department’s budget last year.
The largest line-item decreases were in the Board of Assessors/Equalization, reduced 84 percent (or $80,950) and the planning commission budget (reduced 61 percent, or $47,033).
The school division — the largest chunk of the county’s budget, accounting for about half the county’s total expenses — had approved a budget that requested no change in fiscal year 2017 to the county’s share ($9.139 million) of its $12.7 million proposed budget. The supervisors, who vote on the school budget total at their monthly meeting May 3, decided to cut out another $50,000. The school budget included in the county’s draft budget is $12.65 million.
The school division is to receive an additional $187,449 in allocations from federal and state sources over last year, said Superintendent Donna Matthews on Tuesday, due to a recent decrease in the county’s Local Composite Index.
At the same time, how- ever, Matthews said, the county school division will lose an equivalent amount in supplemental basic aid, having reached a cap set by the general assembly in 2008; the division had been using those funds to pay for a cooperative program with Madison County’s school system.
Several supervisors credited Keyser and Knick — and the county’s recently upgraded accounting and bookkeeping software — with making it easier to track revenues and expenses, and to find specific areas where the county could save money.
The school division — the largest chunk of the county’s budget, accounting for about half the county’s total expenses — had approved a budget that requested no change in fiscal year 2017 to the county’s share ($9.139 million) of its $12.7 million proposed budget.