“If you think things are bad now, get used to it. They’re not going to get any better for the next few years.”
They may not have intended it, but that’s the message the Board of Supervisors’ Finance, Government Services & Operations Committee sent to employees of the Loudoun County government and school system last week.
By a 4-1 vote, the committee recommended that the budget for next year, Fiscal Year 2014, be prepared at a tax rate three cents below the equalized rate, which would keep property tax bills level for the average homeowner. All cuts resulting from the three-cent reduction below the equalized rate would occur on the school side of the budget.
The committee’s recommendation is expected to go to the full Board of Supervisors for a vote in October.
Under such a budget, the county employees could, at best, hope for a 3 percent pay increase and not much else in the way of funding for operations.
The school employees could fare much worse, with a shortfall of as much as $68 million below what the school system said it needs for FY 14, when it will be opening two more schools and adding 2,500 students.
Keep in mind that county and school employees have gone several years with almost no increase in pay, and with significant reductions in benefits. For years, the employees have been asked to “do more with less.” Meanwhile, the county and school populations have continued to soar.
Several employees have told me that, after years of belt-tightening, they don’t have adequate resources to do their jobs properly. Some have already decided to leave their jobs with the county.
Now, the economy is improving. Unemployment in Loudoun County is just 4.1 percent. Highly performing county and school employees have more opportunities to look for jobs elsewhere. And many are doing so. But the board appears to be locked in a cutback mindset.
Board Chairman Scott York understands the problem. York, who voted against the Finance Committee recommendation, exhibited his obvious frustration during the meeting.
“We have bent over backwards to keep the tax rate low, but at some point you’re doing damage,” he said. “You’re a part of what has occurred over…four or five years, [when we have been] holding to the minimum.”
“I am getting very concerned that every time we turn around it seems like we’re losing good people,” York continued. “And there simply comes the effect that we’re just not being very marketable anymore.”
Most of the committee members apparently believe that the School Board still has not tightened its belt enough. This vote may have been an early signal that board members want the school system to get serious about cutting costs.
There is a certain amount of posturing that takes place at this point in the budget process. Revenue forecasts are always conservative, and there is usually a big gap between projected revenues and what the county and school system say they need.
A gloom-and-doom scenario at this point in the process forces the county and school staff to look seriously for ways to reduce costs. It can also prepare the public for the possibility of tax increases.
Last year, the board asked for budget scenarios that would allow for a range of options, from a 5 percent funding reduction to a 5 percent increase. But this year, the Finance Committee is signaling that a tax increase is off the table.
The committee is justified in sending a strong message to the School Board to find efficiencies and cost reductions that do not hurt the quality of education.
But the committee also sent a message to the county and school employees – a message it may not have intended. If approved by the full board, the budget parameters would remove any hope for the county and school employees that things would get much better next year.
And with three years remaining on this board’s term, it’s hard to glimpse any light at the end of the tunnel.