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Stafford facing possible shortfall

MORE: Read more Stafford County news

Early budget estimates show Stafford County could face a $8.4 million gap in the upcoming fiscal year, largely because of state and federal requirements such as providing retirement benefits to teachers and staff.

Supervisors took their first look at the fiscal 2015 budget last week, but gave little indication of what they’ll do in the coming months.

County staff stressed that the numbers discussed are all estimates at this point, and the board will continue to work on the budget through April and possibly later.

Using the current year’s $255 million budget as a starting point, staff project a revenue increase of about $7.5 million.

But faced with $15.9 million more in costs, Stafford has to balance the $8.4 million “challenge,” the board learned at its annual retreat, held Tuesday evening at the Riverside Center. The projected expenditure increases from state and federal mandates total $7 million.

Topping the budget list are lingering debt service to pay off county and school loans at a cost of $4 million, and $4.6 million for the school system’s contribution to the Virginia Retirement System.

Supervisor Cord Sterling said the school system didn’t seem to cut its budget like the county did during the recession and after, when faced with new mandates. That produced an exchange between new Falmouth Supervisor Meg Bohmke, a former School Board member, and Aquia Supervisor Paul Milde.

“Most of that [increase] they can’t help,” Bohmke said of the schools.

“Get that out of your head, Meg,” Milde said.

The county has to make room for mandates, too, he noted.

“We don’t have enough money to do what we need to do without raising taxes or cutting something,” Milde said.

Tensions and poor communication between the School Board and Board of Supervisors have hung over budget discussions for years. Supervisor Gary Snelling hopes 2014 will be different.

“Last year was a disaster,” Snellings said. “They ambushed us with this budget. School board members were out there stirring people up.”

Then-Superintendent Randy Bridges had asked for an increase of at least $18 million—and up to $40 million.

This year, Chairman Jack Cavalier said he’s hoping to hold monthly meetings with the chairmen of both boards, along with County Administrator Anthony Romanello and the superintendent. An interim superintendent is filling in until Bruce Benson, who was hired in December, starts April 1.

Also troubling to the supervisors is an increased cost for stormwater management, based on federal and state requirements. Some members asked if a portion of county tax or utility bills can be listed separately so residents know what that money is specifically going toward—and that the cost is out of the hands of county supervisors.

Stafford faces $44 million worth of stormwater work over the next 14 years.

Every locality is feeling the pain, noted Romanello.

In total, these mandated increases—including for the retirement program, health insurance and stormwater management—come to about $7 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“There’s a sense of resignation across the state that this is inevitable,” Romanello said. “It’s a federal and state mandate.”

If the board wanted to fight back, he suggested asking the state for relief on just one thing, rather than on multiple mandates.

Budget director Nancy Collins told the board that early estimates show a growth in the county’s real-estate tax base, based on the biannual reassessment. That means there could be more houses and businesses, assessed at higher values, that’ll pay taxes, bringing in more revenue to the county.

Initial numbers show about an 8 percent increase on the residential side, with an overall increase of about 5 percent for the total tax base. Commissioner of Revenue Scott Mayausky is expected to present more details to the board soon.

While Romanello asked for direction from the board as he prepares a budget proposal to present March 4, chairman Cavalier said he wasn’t ready to decide on a tax rate just yet.

The overall sense, though, was that no one wanted to raise the rate, which is now $1.07 per $100 of assessed value. Once a rate is advertised and presented at a public hearing, it can be lowered but not raised.

Supervisors voiced their goals for the next two years at the close of the meeting.

They mentioned finishing projects in the works, such as the technology and research park, as well as improving the county’s bond rating again.

Snellings said he wants the county to better educate residents on business issues, through public relations campaigns and social media use.

New Garrisonville Supervisor Laura Sellers suggested planning more community events, so that schools aren’t the only neighborhood centers.

Also Tuesday, supervisors saw a design of the proposed memorial for armed services that could be located at the government complex. A committee will look at more details soon.

The board also heard an update on urban development areas—mixed-use projects once mandated by the state for areas of high growth—from Planning and Zoning Director Jeff Harvey.

But the Planning Commission’s recommendation was deemed “a major overhaul” by Milde. The board informally asked the commission to scale back its suggestion and simply address what to do with the urban development areas. A formal request will be considered at the regular meeting Tuesday.

Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975

kthisdell@freelancestar.com

TENTATIVE BUDGET CALENDAR

Budget discussions in Stafford County began last week and will continue for the next few months.

Tax rates, salaries and projects will not be set in stone until the Board of Supervisors approves

a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins in July. A preliminary calendar sets adoption for mid-April, but board Chairman Jack Cavalier said he doesn’t want to be bound to the timeline—such as authorizing a public hearing by March 4—presented by county staff.

“We’re focused so much on a date that we have to mail out [real-estate tax] bills. Years ago, we had more flexibility with that,” Cavalier said at the board’s annual retreat. “If we didn’t have a budget, we didn’t have a budget. … The budget needs to be right.”

Here’s the proposed schedule:

Jan. 28: School superintendent proposes a budget to the School Board.

March 4: County administrator proposes fiscal 2015 budget and 10-year capital improvement program to the Board of Supervisors. The board authorizes a public hearing.

March 18: Board of Supervisors holds a work session.

March 25: School Board considers and approves school budget.

April 1: Supervisors hold a work session.

April 8: Supervisors hold a public hearing on the budget, tax rates and CIP at a special meeting.

April 15: Supervisors vote on all parts of the budget.

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