With the adoption of the county’s budget for Fiscal Year 2013 (FY 13), the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors answered some questions about its priorities. It also left a lot of uncertainty about what is in store for the county government and school system.
There clearly were some positive outcomes of the budget process.
First, the board lowered the tax rate to $1.235, well below the $1.27 rate that would have kept property tax bills level for the average homeowner. Setting aside the impacts from the reduction in revenue, lower taxes are good news for property owners.
The board provided funding to complete and open the Gum Spring Library. This is great news for residents of the Dulles South area, where the new library branch is scheduled to open this winter.
The board also addressed a structural problem with the county’s finances by requiring employees to pay their share of their contribution to the retirement system. In recent years, the county has paid both the county’s share and the employee’s share of the retirement contribution. This gave the impression of an overly generous benefits package for employees.
It’s always bad when good employees lose their jobs. As a result of FY 13 budget decisions, some staff members are likely to be unemployed, including those who staff the urban horticulture and drug court programs.
As someone who has faced the Board of Supervisors more than once in public budget meetings to describe his job, and then watched as the board voted on whether to continue to fund my position, I feel empathy for any staff member who is put in that position.
The process was especially excruciating this year for the urban horticulturalist, who sat and watched as the board narrowly voted to eliminate her position, then waited through weeks of uncertainty as the board revisited its vote and ultimately reaffirmed its decision to eliminate her job.
Still, it is the responsibility of the board to decide what services are worthy of taxpayer funding, although I feel that some board members overused the term “core government services” to explain and defend their decisions, as if there were a clear dividing line between core and non-core services.
If I had a vote, I would have voted to keep both the drug court and the urban horticulturalist. But there is plenty of room for reasonable people to disagree as to whether these programs are cost effective, or whether they benefit a broad enough segment of the public to warrant taxpayer funding.
More troubling was the decision not to give employees a raise in take home pay. The board did approve a 5 percent pay increase for employees, but that will not even entirely offset the contributions to the retirement system that employees will now be required to pay. In his newsletter, Dulles District Supervisor Matt Letourneau said that “the net result is a slight reduction in take home pay.”
Last year, the county workforce received a 3 percent pay raise, its first increase in three years. Now, even a slight reduction in take-home pay as the overall economy is improving must be demoralizing for the county staff.
To Be Determined
The biggest decision the board made was to grant the school system an increase of $58.7 million in funding for its operations. That sounds like a lot, but it is $22 million less than the school board said it needed.
Some board members said that their counterparts on the school board have assured them that they can “find” $22 million to cut without damaging the quality of education.
The board also made a major statement when it added more than half a million dollars to the budget of the Department of Economic Development to hire three full-time salespeople who will try to attract more business to the county. This board will be judged in part by the degree to which this initiative succeeds.
One of the biggest uncertainties is how the board’s budget decisions will affect the morale and productivity of the county government and school employees, and those organizations’ ability to retain and attract good employees.
Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio’s remark that “we have only just begun,” which made the headline of Leesburg Today’s budget wrap-up story, no doubt sent shudders through both workforces.
To varying degrees, the outcomes of these decisions will be hard to measure. But they form the foundation of this board’s record, on which it ultimately will be judged when the next election rolls around in 2015.