Slightly less than one person per 10 cents of next year’s proposed property tax rate — 69 cents per $100 of assessed value, should the fiscal year 2015 budget be adopted as is — rose to speak at Monday night’s board of supervisors budget hearing at Rappahannock County High School.
The small crowd of about 20 — only seven of whom spoke — made for an unexpected change in the annual civic drama’s monologue-after-monologue tradition. Meaning: It was more of a dialogue.
On the one side of the dialogue were taxpayers who, looking at what would be the second year in a row of four-cent increases in the property tax rate, voiced concern over continuing rising costs — primarily of administration in the schools, in the sheriff’s office and other county departments — and the lack of any substantial prospects for rising revenue.
Other than property taxes, that is. More on that later.
On the other side were four supervisors (Bryant Lee was out sick), who are also taxpayers but who take the task of keeping a government running somewhat more seriously than their counterparts in Richmond this year, where a state budget remains hostage to a partisan Medicaid debate. And onstage with the supervisors was County Administrator John McCarthy, who narrated a simple series of projected slides with the five reasons the tax rate needs to go up this year:
• The sheriff’s transition from a local jail to a regional jail and the surplus that has to be built up to start paying the county’s share of the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail’s debt in fiscal-year 2016;
• A general real estate reassessment that must be completed by 2016;
• An increase in Virginia Retirement Service costs;
• Increases in county employee health insurance rates and a 2 percent salary increase in December;
• and a fire-and-rescue needs-assessment study to be performed by a third party this year.
There were no angry outbursts; most of the outbursts were of good-natured laughter, as when Sperryville resident and perennial budget-watcher Tom Junk rose to tease a previous speaker who’d suggested the board support efforts to alter the state’s Local Composite Index (LCI) — the measure of household income, property values and other indicators by which the state determines a locality’s “ability to pay” for public school and other costs, an index which in Rappahannock is as high as it can get (.8), making the state’s share of such costs a mere 20 percent.
Any alteration that helps rural areas get a larger share of state funds would come at the cost of less rural areas — areas that send many more representatives to Richmond — so most political observers think the effort is bound to fail. Including Junk.
“If you think the state’s going to change the LCI just to help out Rappahannock County because we’re just such nice folks out here,” Junk said, “then you need to see somebody, because you need help.
“The only thing we can do in a rural area like Rappahannock,” Junk said, “is watch our expenses.”
Rappahannock’s public school division’s budget comprises more than half the county’s $21.99 million in projected expenses in fiscal year 2015 (which begins July 1). The division’s new superintendent, Dr. Donna Matthews, submitted a budget this year that did not call for any increase over last year’s local share. She and several school board members sat quietly near the front of the auditorium while others questioned a handful of other fiscal issues.
Rock Mills resident David Konick’s questions were the most specific, concerning as they did the costs of the sheriff’s office and the county’s building office. He questioned why the department needed a vehicle for each of 26 deputies. There’s an expense item in the 2015 budget for $68,000 for two new vehicles.
“The sheriff came up with a policy that all the deputies needed to drive a vehicle home, in case they needed to respond all at once to an emergency,” Konick said. “I’ve been here more than 30 years, and I can’t remember any time when every deputy needed to respond at once to anything.
“There comes a time when you just have to say, ‘Do we really need all this?’” Konick said. “I think you need to look very carefully at the sheriff’s department budget and reduce it substantially.”
Terry Dixon, an Amissville resident and real estate agent, had a similar comment, although his point was that rising real estate taxes would have economic repercussions, or already do. “I will just say to you gentlemen, at some point, we have to say ‘No, we’re not going to raise the taxes.’ Because people can’t afford to live here. I have people coming all the time who can’t afford the taxes. That’s my statement. Food for thought. Thanks.”
Demaris Miller of Washington said while she was happy the school division held down costs, she worried that the proportion of administrators in Rappahannock’s school system was high — larger, she said, than another school system she’d worked for where there were more than 2,500 students. (Rappahannock’s school population is less than 1,000, and has been dropping slowly in recent years.)
“I called the school administrative offices,” she said, “and just the phone tree list of extensions I could dial for people was overwhelming.”
Sperryville farmer Monira Rifaat said she appreciated seeing a budget that offered comparisons going back four years, because it showed trends — and those trends, she said, indicated that the county needed to watch its administrative costs more carefully, and work on a “new marketing plan” that would bring more industry, more commercial revenue — but “something green” — to the county.
McCarthy noted that Rappahannock’s geographical realities — no major interstates, three significantly more densely populated shopping and retail areas within 25 miles — made it difficult for the county to attract more commercial revenue.
After touring the region with county administrators from Rappahannock, Warren and Culpeper counties, McCarthy said, a business prospect “usually says, ‘Rappahannock? I want to live here. But I’m going to put my business in Warren County.’”
“Is this model we have created here — farmland, but no other industry — is it sustainable?” Rifaat asked. “I think we have to keep evaluating our model, in view of these expenses that are going up.”
“I agree with you,” Welch said after Rifaat’s comments.
Reached by phone later, Welch explained that it was Rifaat’s suggestion that the county look at longer-term trends that he agreed with. And the biggest trend over the last 30 years in Rappahannock, he said, has been the change “in people, not population.”
“I grew up here, and when there was event at the fire hall, everybody was there — doctors, lawyers, janitors, teachers, everyone,” Welch said, by way of example. “There was more of a community spirit and more . . . of an ‘all for one and one for all’ feeling. Over the years, when, let’s say, a farmer died, another farmer didn’t generally buy that property. It was generally bought by someone who was coming out of a metropolitan area, looking for a part-time weekend home, and the needs of the county changed. They didn’t live here, their kids don’t go to school, they don’t need facilities — not that we have many. They’re used to having certain amenities and services in their communities that we don’t offer.
“I’ve had people call me to ask, ‘When do they pick up the trash?’” Welch said, chuckling. “I say, ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’”
The supervisors will adopt the school division’s portion of the budget at their regular meeting Monday (May 5). They have until June to adopt the overall county budget, and McCarthy said other public work sessions will be announced as they’re scheduled.