Tax rate up 3 percent; hearing attendance down 50 percent

Once again, Rappahannock County’s property tax rate appears to be going up, while the number of citizens who attend public hearings on county and school budgets isn’t.

Last year, facing a 4-cent increase in the property tax rate, fewer than 20 people showed up at the final hearing.

Monday night (April 27) at the 350-seat high school auditorium, fewer than 10 members of the public attended the board of supervisors’ hearing on both the school board-approved $12.56 million 2016-2017 budget and the county’s own proposed $22.83 million draft budget — which, if approved in June, will mean a 2-cent increase in that rate (per $100 of assessed value) to 71 cents, a roughly 3-percent overall increase over last year.

The school budget is due for the supervisors’ final approval at the board’s Monday (May 4) regular session, at 2 p.m.

Some of the few who spoke Monday night, however, did not let the lack of an audience affect their performance.

“Every year, and I’ve been out here 31 years, this budget is like a box of chocolates,” said Tom Junk of Sperryville, a perennial advocate of bottom-line-watching. “And who’s going to get the box of chocolates? I guarantee the Rappahannock taxpayer is not going to get the chocolates.”

Junk pointed to the rising school budget, “although a moderate increase,” and the division’s declining-for-a-decade enrollment (now at about 900). In a reference to County Administrator John McCarthy and recently hired assistant administrator Deborah Keyser — whom McCarthy has publicly referred to as part of his “exit strategy” after his 30-plus years in the job — Junk said “and now we have two county administrators.”

“Could you do without, could you pass a bare-bones budget, make this year a no-2-cent tax raise? I think you could,” Junk said, allowing that he “could probably personally afford the tax increase” and guessing that the supervisors could as well. “But there are a heckuva lot of people out there who are hurting and can’t afford it. That’s who I’m going to speak for.”

McCarthy has said half the proposed 2-cent increase would go toward returning the county’s fire levy (which helps fund fire and rescue services) to the 5-cent rate where it stood until several years ago, in part to offset increased costs but also to start to fund the county’s share of its tri-county radio communications partnership with Fauquier and Culpeper.

The other half is to pay for the additional $94,450 in local school funding requested this year, as well as the local share of state-mandated 2-percent salary increases for certain employees and a 4.7-percent health insurance premium increase for all.

Judy DeSarno of Washington rose to say she supported the budget, and in particular the school budget — a part of making the county’s school system “a big draw.”

“I also really believe in transition planning, and it is very wise for the board of supervisors to make certain someone comes in who is thoroughly immersed in the business of the county before we lose our very valuable administrator in John McCarthy,” she said. (McCarthy, with a contract that runs through June 30 of next year, has admitted his own keen awareness of the dual-salary dilemma, which would worsen if and when Keyser is promoted from a roughly $45,000-a-year assistant administrator to the $80,000-plus deputy county administrator post.)

Monira Rifaat of Sperryville rose to ask several questions about rising expenses related to the Rappahannock Shenandoah Warren Regional Jail. Though there’s no part of this year’s proposed tax-rate increase directly related to the RSW Jail, McCarthy told her, the county added 2 cents to the tax rate last year, in part to begin saving for this year’s addition (to its $250,000 share of operating cost) of RSW Jail loan payments (between $200,000 and $250,000, depending on the county’s consistently declining proportion of inmates). He said the possible addition of Page County to the regional jail partnership would mean a further decline.

Karen Ruble of Castleton rose near the end of the public comment period. “Fifteen years ago my husband and I retired and came to Rappahannock to build our forever home. We’re living on a fixed income and we see that the majority the folks who live here are middle-aged, senior citizens and older, and this is where we wanted to retire.

“This continued tax rate is killing us, and frankly, we have to make a decision about whether we can stay in that forever home.”

Her husband, Sam, rose to say he thinks the county needs to have more young people, and if taxes keep rising, younger people will not be able to afford to buy and live in Rappahannock.

Hampton supervisor Bryant Lee and Piedmont supervisor Mike Biniek, both farmers, both pointed out that tax increases impacted them as much as anyone, Lee saying that “if my farm pays for itself at the end of the year, I’m doing good,” and Biniek adding that he believes “you also have to see the need sometimes to cover the cost of services the county needs.”

Stonewall-Hawthorne supervisor Chris Parrish said he was disappointed by the turnout, and is “keenly aware” of the difficulty of those living on fixed incomes amid rising expenses, “not just here but nationwide.”

“The biggest problem we have, as a small county, is the state of Virginia, in an effort to balance the state budget, is pushing some of the responsibility onto the local counties,” Parrish said. “That’s a fairly recent phenomenon. The state is not picking up a lot of expenses it used to pick up. They’re saying we gotta do it, so . . . we’re helpless, in that respect. There are no immediate answers for that problem.”

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