No tax increases in 2011 budget

Rappahannock County’s draft budget for the fiscal year starting in July proposes no property tax increase and fully funds the requested $11.6 million schools budget, but leaves open a big question: How to finance about $1 million in repairs and upgrades to the school buildings?

County Administrator John McCarthy, disclosing the draft budget on Monday, said the county’s real estate tax rate would remain at 58 cents per $100 of assessed value, the same as this year. That rate includes 53 cents for the county’s General Fund, and 5 cents for the Fire Levy to support emergency services.

In a generally tight budget reflecting difficult economic conditions, the draft proposes no new positions in County government, and a “net attrition” of one full-time job equivalent that flows from part-time salary and benefit reductions in several offices, McCarthy wrote in an April 2 cover letter to the Board of Supervisors.

The fiscal 2011 county budget proposes total expenditures of $21,043,109, including the $11.6 million for schools. Of the total school spending, $8.5 million comes from county taxpayers — the same as in the current school year — about $2.5 million from Virginia, and $526,985 from Federal sources.

The county expects to collect $8,851,500 in real estate taxes, up very slightly from the current year, $1.4 million in personal property taxes mostly on vehicles, and just $425,000 in local sales taxes. The tax on real estate accounts for 69 percent of all county revenue from local sources.

“There are no wage increases of any sort,” McCarthy’s letter said, but the budget does fund an approximate 8 percent increase in costs of the county employees’ healthcare coverage and a slight increase in retirement costs.

But the big question mark overhanging the budget relates to a $1 million expenditure for repair and renovation of the schools’ lighting, heating and cooling systems, and where and how to find that amount of money.

“I have left a place-marker of $1,000,000 for school facility improvements contained in the Buildings & Grounds category,” McCarthy’s letter said, “but I have detailed no revenue stream to fund it, so it will need to be addressed through a borrowing or a draw-down of surplus or a combination of the two.”

The county recently received a “facilities assessment report” prepared by a Richmond engineering consulting firm that details a wide array of breakdowns, system failures, maintenance mistakes and other problems with the lighting, heating, cooling and related systems in the high school and the elementary school.

Many of the systems and controls are malfunctioning, obsolete or poorly designed and should be replaced, the March 15 report recommended. It outlined a detailed series of repairs and replacements and their costs, including $175,000 to replace all fluorescent lighting in the elementary school, $50,000 for the same in the high school, $65,000 to replace the grade school’s 1958-model boiler, $80,000 to replaced failed radiator control valves in the grade school classrooms, and much more.

In total, the consulting firm’s list of improvements came to $624,250. The county has established a special committee of school officials, supervisors and citizens to consider the needed renovations, which will meet again April 22. Eventually, that committee will recommend a program of repairs and replacements for the Board of Supervisors to consider.

“We are going to have to fix these problems,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Roger Welch, after calling to mind actor William Bendix’s signature quote from the 1950s TV show “The Life of Riley” – ”What a revoltin’ development.”

Just how the supervisors find the money for these renovations is expected to be difficult and possibly controversial. A preview of that issue came during Monday’s Board meeting when Jackson District Supervisor Ron Frazier suggested that the county tap the $1.1 million already collected from taxpayers for the “Bank Road project” — a now-defunct plan to build a new county office building along Bank Road behind Rappahannock National Bank.

That $1.1 million was accumulated over three years through a dedicated add-on to the county tax rate, intended to pay for the new government building. But Supervisors abandoned that project last year, and the funds remain on deposit in the county’s surplus.

“Since the Bank Road project is not viable, maybe we could take that money and use it” to pay for the school facility improvements, Frazier suggested at the meeting. Elaborating on that idea later, Frazier said the idea would be for the county to “loan” the money to the School Board, to be paid back later from funds saved in future school budgets.

Comments made by Chairman Welch and Bryant Lee of Hampton District, however, suggested they may not be enthusiastic about using the Bank Road project money for the school renovations.

Lee suggested borrowing the money elsewhere for the school improvements. “This is a great time to borrow money,” he said, noting current low interest rates. Welch remarked, “Taking it from Bank Road and using it somewhere else eliminates Bank Road for a number of years.”

Frazier succeeded in winning Board support for closing a previous chapter of the schools-renovation issue, under which energy consulting firm Ameresco, Inc., proposed a $2 million “performance contract” that would have involved borrowing from the state and paying off the loan with savings in energy costs.

“We need to move on,” Frazier said. “We are not going to use that plan.” If the county fails to enter the contract with Ameresco, it must pay off about $8,000 owed to the firm for their study of the schools’ energy problems. Frazier made a motion to pay off Ameresco and end that relationship, which was approved on a unanimous vote.

The Board set Monday, April 26 at 7 p.m. at the high school for a combined public hearing on the schools and overall county budget. The Board’s “work session” — open to the public but not a hearing — is 7 p.m. Thursday, April 15 at the courthouse.

This article first appeared on the author’s news and commentary blog, www.rappvoice.com.

About James P. Gannon 21 Articles

James P. Gannon is a retired journalist who lives near Flint Hill. In his newspaper career, he served as a reporter and bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal, as Editor of The Des Moines Register in Iowa, and as Washington Bureau Chief for the Detroit news and a columnist for the Gannett newspapers.