Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.
The economic crisis is really getting scary. Several people have called me over the past few weeks to talk about the county’s 5-year budget projections. Budget staff estimated a 24 percent increase of a homeowner’s tax bill over five years just to keep the budget as is. But what has not been discussed is that in 2010, there will be another assessment. If all goes as planned, the home and land values are likely to drop in the assessment because that’s what is happening now, and they are falling fast. How much? That’s hard to tell, but you can be certain that the county will not see an increase in property tax revenue for the 2010 year. No one is building houses. The county now expects less than 300 new housing starts, which is more than half less than a year before. Developers can’t sell anything and there is a huge pile of unsold homes that will take years to clear up. This information comes from professionals in that field, not me.
So what happens if housing and land prices fall 15 percent to 30 percent in that assessment year? How much of a tax increase or government cuts will be necessary to make up the losses? As tough a job they have, the budget staff’s predictions on sales, recordation and personal property taxes are off by almost $3 million (these numbers may be off and budget staff asked for more time to collect data). No one is predicting this climate improves any time soon.
So what dire straits will the county be in for the fiscal year of the next assessment? When will this be a part of the budget discussions?
Tuesday night, we saw during a joint work session the School Board–namely School Board Chairman Gil Seaux–give supervisors a tongue lashing about the continued requests to cut their budget. Mr. Seaux spoke for more than 15 minutes, and by the end of his speech, it seemed like Supervisor Hap Connors was going to explode. If you watched the television recording, Mr. Connors takes great offense to anyone insinuating that education is not a top priority in the budget. Certainly, School Board members and Superintendent Jerry Hill were challenging the supervisors on this issue. They constantly referred to the $40,000 citizen satisfaction study the county pays Virginia University staff to conduct that always shows residents’ top concern is education. Connors contends that the same study also shows residents have concerns about transportation and public safety, and it’s the supervisors’ job to balance that act–not the School Board’s.
The broken-record battle centers around this guideline that the schools get 67 percent of UNDESIGNATED FUNDS in the budget. The School Board argues that the county takes general fund money and stashes it in designated funding sources, which reduces the overall pie. Dr. Hill said that results in the schools really getting 52 percent of the county budget. Did anyone catch him disagree that the schools still get a majority of the budget? Whether it is 67 percent of 52 percent, both are a majority of the county funds.
The conservative budget group that studies county budgets argues that the schools budget should be needs-based, not based on a certain level of funding every year.
This battle is like a Cold War.