It’s a tricky budget season — on Gay Street in Little Washington, and across the state, since Virginia legislators remain locked in a partisan health care-driven battle in Richmond and haven’t yet approved state spending for the budget year that starts July 1.
Here in Rappahannock on July 1, the county will lose a jail and start paying for its share of a new regional jail’s operations (and not long after that, its debt). And while Sheriff Connie C. Smith and County Administrator John McCarthy apparently differ on the number of sworn-officer positions that should remain in the sheriff’s office after the local jail closes, McCarthy has submitted a draft budget that asks the supervisors to approve a tax increase of 4 cents per $100 of property evaluations for fiscal year 2015.
The first public hearing on the county budget — and the final airing of the Rappahannock County school budget, which required no increase in the local funding share this year — is 7 p.m. Monday, April 28 at the high school auditorium.
Coming on the heels of a social-services-driven, 4-cent increase in the 2014 tax rate (to 65 cents per $100), another 4 cents in fiscal-year 2015 would add about $560,000 to the county budget. Half of that increased revenue will go toward rebuilding a general fund surplus — most of it is earmarked to start paying, in 2015, Rappahannock’s share of the debt and operations at Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren (RSW) Regional Jail, which opens July 1 in Front Royal.
McCarthy has said a quarter of the new revenue — 1 cent of the rate increase — will fund the next required general reassessment, which also starts next year, and the the last quarter is meant to fund all the other increases in the county budget — including a 2-percent salary increase for county employees and funding for a half-year ($42,000) of a deputy county administrator’s salary. (The post was removed during last year’s budget-trimming sessions.)
A 4-cent increase in property taxes on a property assessed at $400,000 this year would mean taxes would rise on that property from $2,600 to $2,760, an increase of $160.
In McCarthy’s proposed budget, the costs of the sheriff’s office and the regional jail reflect the projected loss of nine positions at the jail (while the sheriff’s version had projected losing only seven posts), for an overall increase in jail/sheriff costs of $150,000. The sheriff’s version reflected an overall increase of $250,000.
“I’m sensitive to the notion that we haven’t ever done this before,” said McCarthy, referring to closing the local jail and having to transport prisoners to a facility 40 minutes north of here. “There are going to be transition costs.”
McCarthy suggested in a memo to supervisors that the two-cent jail-focused tax rate increase could be used to fund the sheriff’s “transitional costs” as well as the coming regional jail debt service. Rappahannock’s share of the jail’s costs are based on its share of inmate population, which has fallen from 12 percent to 7 percent in just the three years the regional jail authority has been in place.
“I realize that in the year that we’ll be transitioning, we can’t really say we’ll need nine fewer officers. Or maybe we’ll need seven fewer at the beginning of the year, and nine less at the end,” McCarthy said.
According to the annual crime statistics report issued by the Virginia State Police — the most recent available is for calendar year 2012 — the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office did have the highest number of sworn officers per resident of all its neighboring counties: one officer per 288 residents. (Rappahannock’s 2012 population estimate is 7,456, the RCSO reported having 26 sworn officers in 2012, and that appears to be the same number employed today.)
Madison County, with a 2012 population of 13,200, reported 19 sworn officers — or one for every 694 residents. (Madison does not operate a jail.) Culpeper County had 115 officers in its sheriff’s office (which does operate a detention center) and in the Culpeper Police Department, for a ratio of 1-to-416. In Warren and Fauquier counties, which operate their own jails but send many prisoners to regional jails, the ratio was about 1-to-475.
Sheriff Connie C. Smith did not respond to requests Tuesday and Wednesday for an interview on the subject.
Although the largest portion of the proposed $21.99 million fiscal-year 2015 county budget did not go up this year — the local share of public school costs stands at $12.40 million, actually $70,000 less than last year — other rising costs include:
• An additional contribution to the county’s volunteer fire and rescue services, a cost likely to be more than offset by what’s estimated to be $300,000 in new revenue this year from the emergency-service insurance billing program that started up in January.
• A 2-percent salary increase for county employees effective Dec. 1.
• An increase in employee health insurance of 3.2 percent, which McCarthy’s budget proposes to cover completely for employees (while passing on to the employees a similar increase in coverage costs for any dependents).
• An average increase to Virginia Retirement Services pension contributions of about 3 percent.
• The addition of a deputy county administrator, an $84,000-a-year position McCarthy has requested for years, although he only added it to a draft budget for the first time last year.
• The addition of a full-time county building maintenance position ($38,000).
• An increase of 25 cents in the personal property tax rate to $4.25 to cover the elimination of county decals. For those who own a vehicle worth $20,000, the annual cost would be about the same as the $25 now paid by everyone regardless of the vehicle’s value.
In next week’s paper, we’ll publish a more detailed account of the costs and fiscal consequences of the county’s transition to a regional jail, as well as a breakdown of the county budget by department and compare it to budgets for neighboring jurisdictions.