Board works on reducing tax rise to 4 cents

The Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors considered a $158,747 reduction in its proposed $22.5 million budget for 2013-2014 at a work session last Wednesday night (May 15) – cuts that would shave another cent off what would otherwise be a 5-cent increase in the real estate tax rate.

If the reductions are approved, the rate per $100 of assessed value would increase instead by 4 cents – half of that for the county’s share of the school budget (which includes 3-percent raises for staff) and half for increases in the county’s own budget (costs mostly driven by sharply rising demands for social services). This year’s tax rate is 61 cents.

Final approval of a budget is expected at the supervisors’ June 3 meeting.

Last Wednesday, each of the supervisors (except for the absent S. Bryant Lee) had his own suggestions for trims, though one of the most common recommendations was to forego a $16,500 proposed expenditure to support the private cat shelter to be opened in Flint Hill by the RappCats organization.

Both Jackson district’s Ron Frazier and Stonewall-Hawthorne’s Chris Parrish advocated cutting that expense from the budget.

“I’m worried . . . they’re going to need a whole lot more down the road,” said Parrish. “I say we scratch it off for now and give them a year or two to get settled and see how they do.” Parrish added that, as the shelter’s demands became clearer, it’s possible the funding could be added back into future budgets.

“If the county is using them, we need to deal with them in some way,” insisted Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek, referring to cat rescue assistance requests that come to RappCats primarily through the sheriff’s office, where two deputies handle the county’s animal-control cases.

County Administrator John McCarthy pointed out to the board that while RappCats provided a useful service, “finding homes for and rescuing feral cats isn’t legally required.”

McCarthy’s working list of suggested cuts for the supervisors’ session totaled $156,747 (or a penny off the tax rate) and included cutting the proposed $42,000 salary for a deputy county administrator, a request long discussed but placed for the first time ever this year by McCarthy in his budget draft (with funds largely appropriated from the now-gone tourism consultant position). “I’ll just have to hope I don’t die or get fired in the next 12 months,” McCarthy joked.

McCarthy’s suggestions also included the RappCats cut as well as some of the funding for purchasing an emergency generator for the county ($35,000) and a combined $45,000 from the budgets of the treasurer and revenue commissioner’s offices.

That $45,000 was originally budgeted to cover the costs of developing the county’s tax forms in-house with the new cloud-based system both offices recently purchased – and which goes live June 1, two months before taxes are due – and paying RHD Financial Systems to develop the county’s tax forms as a backup plan if problems arose.

McCarthy suggested that the supervisors simply not tax this year for that amount ($22,500 per office budget), instead covering the costs of any tax-form-related problems from surplus funds.

Frazier suggested the board cut the funding ($57,600) it currently provides to the Rappahannock Animal Welfare League’s dog shelter as well, though that suggestion failed to strike a chord with the other supervisors.

Biniek said he believed the supervisors’ printing costs (primarily related to this year’s five-year revision of the comprehensive plan) could be reduced by $2,000.

Parrish also suggested that a county tourism advertising line item of $15,000 could be halved “and we’d never know the difference . . . We’re on the map now.” He also said that the landscaping costs for the senior center ($3,300) could be cut back by a few thousand dollars, and had questions about the sheriff’s proposed budget, which includes funding for two replacement vehicles.

“Whenever people are upset that their taxes increase, they jump up and point the finger at the sheriff’s department,” Parrish continued, referring specifically to the number of new vehicles the department has gained over recent years. “I’m just passing on the citizen input.”

Parrish added that the county may need to provide its own transportation when the regional jail opens and suggested that the board could approve one new car this year (instead of two), “since we’re holding back on the buses for the school.”

Sheriff Connie C. Smith, in attendance at the work session, defended her department’s acquisitions. “If I didn’t need them, I wouldn’t ask for them,” Smith said. “These aren’t like regular cars . . . They’re being run 12 hours a day, sometimes at 100 miles an hour.”

Smith added that it’s not unusual for deputies to travel 100-200 miles per shift. “I already cut my budget by $60,000 . . . I don’t think this is asking too much,” Smith concluded. The sheriff’s office proposed budget this year is $1,101,762 – only about $1,000 more than last year’s budget.

The work session’s other big discussion centered on the acquisition and installation of a portable emergency generator powerful enough to run several rooms in the high school, turning it into an emergency shelter in case of inclement weather (such as the derecho that blew through Virginia last June).

McCarthy budgeted $85,000 to purchase the generator; his suggestion for cuts reduces that amount to $55,000.

Sperryville Volunteer Fire chief and county emergency services coordinator Richie Burke expressed concerns about the county’s lack of an emergency generator, adding that, without one, the county can’t designate a proper emergency shelter, something it’s required to have.

Burke added that he has “exhausted every grant possibility” to help acquire a generator for as little as possible, and could procure additional grants that would help wire the generator into the school’s electrical system.

“We’re taking a roll of the dice that we’re not going to have an emergency,” said Burke. “The need for it is never going to go away.”

“I’m convinced that we need one, but this is a tough year,” said Wakefield district supervisor and board chair Roger Welch. “We’ll have to tax for it,” Welch continued, suggesting that the cost be split up over the next two years to minimize the financial impact.

Parrish suggested striking the funding for the generator from the budget completely, at least temporarily. “I doubt we’ll need it at all . . . I just can’t visualize a scenario where we’d need it.”

Parrish also suggested that there could be other ways to prepare the county for an emergency, such as dividing it into sections with their own, more localized, responses. “That way we could be somewhat more prepared without the expense.”

Ultimately, however, no decisions on the cuts were made, though the supervisors present seemed inclined to follow McCarthy’s recommendations. Though public hearings on the budget are closed, the board will discuss – and vote – on its fiscal-year 2014 budget at 2 p.m. Monday, June 3, at the courthouse.