Following two consecutive years of 4-cent increases in Rappahannock County’s property tax rate, early signs point to an annual local-government budget season this spring that might offer taxpayers a break from bad news.
A level-funded fiscal 2016 budget — with no increase over last year’s $21.99 budget or tax rate of 69 cents per $100 of assessed value? “That would be nice,” said Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish this week, apparently getting as close to fortune-telling as he felt comfortable. “Let’s hope we can do that.”
County Administrator John McCarthy, who’s responsible for building the budget that the board of supervisors will approve by early June, also declined to make predictions. He did outline some of factors, including budget-related developments in Richmond this winter session, that he’ll be closely monitoring, including:
• Debt service on the county’s share of Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail. At least half of last year’s 4-cent tax rate increase was earmarked for the county’s general fund — in effect, saving up for the loan payments that begin July 1, when the fiscal year starts. The county cut back on sheriff’s office personnel and expenses to cover the operational expense of the new regional jail (Rappahannock’s annual share coming to about $225,000).
McCarthy hopes that the county’s declining percentage of the new jail’s more than 300-inmate population, and the fact that the jail this year can start accepting paying inmates from other jurisdictions, will keep the operational costs down.
• A school budget that neither McCarthy nor the supervisors had yet seen this week (see the story on the superintendent’s first-draft budget on page 1) — but which appears headed for no unexpectedly large increase in local funding beyond the current year’s cost to the county of $9.09 million.
• Increases to state-funded local position salaries in both the governor’s and the General Assembly’s version, currently proposed at 3 percent (though still under negotiation). “There’s always a cost to the county for salary changes in positions the state doesn’t fund completely,” McCarthy says, citing examples from sheriff’s deputy posts for which the state pays 100 percent of salary but nothing toward benefits, to the staffs of the treasurer and commissioner of the revenue offices, where positions are funded at 50 percent by the state. “But until Richmond gets in agreement on what that [salary increase] number is, it’s a moving target,” McCarthy said. The governor has also proposed a similar increase for certain school positions.
• Increases in emergency and fire and rescue funding. “Last year we gave them [the Fire and Rescue Association] a little more money, mostly for equipment-cost reimbursements, without raising the fire levy,” McCarthy said, referring to the portion of the property tax rate specifically earmarked for emergency services costs. “This year, we’re likely going to have to pay for an upgrade to the Culpeper Fauquier Rappahannock radio system. Hopefully we can spread that out over, say, three years, without having to raise the fire levy rate.
• Richmond’s improving tax-collection picture, characterized last fall as unexpectedly down (by almost $2 billion in a state that manages a $40 billion budget), but since much improved.
• Another Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposal this year in Richmond — mandated replacement of touch-screen voting machines (with newer models that record each vote individually, for backup record-keeping) — has since died, but the General Assembly is still considering a similar measure that would give localities three years to phase the project in. “That’s going to have a cost,” said McCarthy, noting that each of Rappahannock’s five voting districts has one of the older touch-screen devices. “It would obviously work better if we could spread the cost over three years.”
On March 16, the supervisors and school board hold a joint public hearing on the school board’s final proposed budget, 7 p.m. at the high school auditorium. The county’s proposed fiscal 2016 budget will be public a few weeks thereafter.