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A Damaging Message

Finance Committee’s budget recommendation could hurt the recruitment and retention of good employees.

“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.

Mom in Cascades September 20, 2012 at 12:41 PM
Keep in mind that MANY county RESIDENTS have gone several years with almost no increase in pay, and with significant reductions in benefits (HEALTH) FROM THEIR EMPLOYERS. For years, FAMILIES IN LOUDOUN COUNTY have been asked to “do more with less.” YOU JUST DON'T SEE NEWSPAPER ARTICLES ABOUT IT. BUT THERE ARE PLENTY OF ARTICLES ABOUT THE POOR LOCO EMPLOYEES.
J(not related to Scott) York September 20, 2012 at 01:40 PM
Agreed. However, most residents don't have to depend on tax dollars to fund their employment. So, it is an issue for the public. Loudoun County employees have worked at below market rate of pay with the promise of good benefits. It's been a trade-off that we accepted. However, over the past several years, we not only have gotten no pay increases, we have been burdened with higher benefit costs increasing in excess of the premium increases. And now, the proposal on the docket greatly diminishes the retirement benefits that 20, 25 and 30 year employees (and the current retirees) have counted on. And these cuts are necessary because why??? I don't want the answer to be "an iPad in the hands of every Loudoun student".
Carrie September 20, 2012 at 01:53 PM
My husband and I both work for LOCO Government. Our pay has gone backward every year while we sit and watch school employees that do the same exact job that we do receive hefty increases. MAKE IT FAIR! A secretary is a secretary, just because you work for the school system does not make you more worthy of income to support your family. I pay alot of money to live in LOCO. What percentage of the school employees live in this county??? Every year I pay my taxes knowing that 70% will go to the schools and 30% will go to county programs. I don't want pity, I want equality.
Dave September 20, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Didn't LoCo government employees (outside of the school system) get a 5% increase - yes, I realize it was offset by an increase in contribution to the pension system, but I think it *was* an increase. The "raise" that the teachers got was a $1500 one-time only bonus (not a permanent increase), and I believe their contributions have increased as well, while their step increases have been frozen for something like 5-6 years now. If there is a teacher that can comment (I'm not, but I know a few - and most I know live in the county, with the exception of one that lives in WV, and a few that live in Fairfax) - please do. But, then again, this all should be been anticipated when a very anti-tax BoS was voted in into a fast growing county.... frozen/reduced pay, larger classes, reduced services... predictably, you get what you vote in.
Carrie September 20, 2012 at 02:50 PM
The 5% increase was for VRS (not an increase in contribution, we pay our own contribution now) and actually cost me $100 from my take home pay. That 5% will continue to be pulled as long as I am a county employee. NOT a increase. Ask ANY county employee. The fact of the matter is no one is getting the services that they should be getting in LOCO. I certainly did not vote for this board and from the looks of it there will be no changes any time soon.
J(not related to Scott) York September 20, 2012 at 06:55 PM
It was not an increase. It was a re-allocation. The 5% that had been directly paid - before tax - was eliminated and the 5% was added to our taxable income. Thus, the paychecks went down - again.
J(not related to Scott) York September 20, 2012 at 07:00 PM
Any County employee needs to be aware of the reduction to retirement health benefits that was approved as Item 7 by the Finance Committee on Sept 10th. If the Board approves it, there will be a permanent cap on the amount the County will pay towards retiree health benefits. A retiree will be faced with incurring 100% of benefit increases - on a fixed income. There are also issues with who falls into Groups A, B and C. Your years of service do not make any difference. If you're above 50, above 35 or below 35, you will be assigned a future plan - no matter how long you've served this County. Employees - check out the item that the Board will be voting on.
VA_in_VA September 21, 2012 at 08:01 PM
Too many people in this area think that government is the enemy. They believe that your job doesn't count because it's a government job. Be you a teacher, policeman, social worker, etc... you don't count. If it's paid for by a tax, it's evil by definition. Unfortunately its a mindset that will not change for a while. It doesn't matter that this school district is one of the best in the nation or that Leesburg gets rated as "Best Place to Live" in part because of these great available services. To them it's an evil that needs to severely curtained or cut all together. It's very sad.
Jonathan Erickson September 22, 2012 at 10:06 AM
It has already hurt us cause we got stuck with Ken Reid!
Bob Bruhns September 22, 2012 at 08:01 PM
Well golly gee, does anybody remember that the Loudoun County BOS recently approved participation in the Silver Line Metrorail project, knowing that it would cost Loudoun County $270 million dollars, PLUS $168 million for three parking garages (two at Rt 772, and one at Rt 606), PLUS maintenance bills for the Silver Line estimated at $10 million or more per year? Did you think that would have no impact on your budgets and taxes? Wrong.
BCan September 22, 2012 at 09:17 PM
Oh Please! spare us.
Bob Bruhns September 26, 2012 at 06:52 PM
Hi BCan - aren't you the guy who didn't believe that several pro-rail leaders admitted that mostly airport employees would use the Dulles Airport rail station? You thought I was making that up, but I showed you three quotes - from Stuart Mendelsohn, Sharon Bulova and Sean Connaughton. So maybe you should not be in such a hurry to ignore facts? Maybe? Taxpayers should have paid attention to the near-double prices of Dulles Rail construction, because those costs are headed home to roost. http://www.bruhns.us/civic/DullesRail/Dulles-Rail---Silver-Line-overcost-report---Bruhns.pdf

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