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County wants to add to savings in hopes of improving its bond rating

BY KATIE THISDELL

Achieving a higher bond rating is one of the factors driving Stafford’s long-term budgeting, as well as for the upcoming fiscal year.

The county Board of Supervisors met early Saturday morning to plan the fiscal 2014 budget, which kicks in July 1. Local governments work for months on each year’s budget, normally finalized in late spring.

“We think we’re on the road to AAA, but it’s probably seven years out,” County Administrator Anthony Romanello told the board. Currently, Stafford has AA ratings from various agencies. The better the rating, the less it costs to borrow money for projects.

The county’s rating improves partly based on how much money it’s able to sock away in savings and how much it’s able to contribute to post-employment benefits programs, so Stafford hopes to increase its contributions to both those funds.

But the biggest hurdles the board faces are funding what state lawmakers mandate, as well as covering other increasing costs. Board members criticized the unfunded mandates, particularly for local schools and the regional jail.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has recommended a 2 percent raise for school employees, but the state would fund less than half. The county is not required to contribute since it already exceeds the local funding amount, leaving it up to the School Board to decide if it could fund the raises. It must do so to receive the governor’s money.

Another increased expenditure for fiscal 2014 would go toward the Rappahannock Regional Jail. Chairman Susan Stimpson said she was shocked at how few guards there were during a recent tour.

“That’s an issue with the state,” she said, noting a possible $40,000 increase in the county’s $4.8 million bill for operating costs. Other jurisdictions also contribute various amounts.

Stafford also will face rising health care costs. The county has traditionally not provided health care to part-time employees, but the new federal health care law requires counties to offer coverage to any employee working at least 30 hours a week. Romanello has asked department heads to look at employee hours, and to recommend possible cuts.

“The incremental cost of keeping someone for a few extra hours a week and adding health insurance isn’t going to be cost effective,” he said.

What the school district spends to refer some special-needs students to private day schools may also rise by $1 million, Romanello said. This year, about 60 students have been served, at a total cost of just over $3 million.

“There are many of these children we cannot focus on in the school setting, under any circumstance,” Romanello said.

That said, the county and the school system need to work together to provide the best academic setting for those students that’s also the most cost-effective, Romanello said.

Early forecasts for fiscal 2014 show an increase in tax revenue to the county, primarily from growth that would result in more personal-property taxes. Last year, the board knocked a penny off the county’s residential tax rate, to $1.07 per $100 of assessed value.

For the owner of a home valued at $248,000, that meant an annual property tax of $2,678.

Other possible additions to the budget:

$600,000 for employee salaries.

$400,000 to pay for six student resource officers to work at the elementary schools full time.

$600,000 to the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.

$4.8 million to the Other Post-Employment Benefits fund or OPEB.

$300,000 for operating costs for the Civil War Park and Chichester Park.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975

kthisdell@freelancestar.com

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/newsdesk/2013/01/19/county-wants-to-add-to-savings-in-hopes-of-improving-its-bond-rating/

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