Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.
Sheriff Smith’s concerns
I’m pretty observant at board meetings. My eyes wander all over the place; at residents, constitutional officers, school board members, supervisors and staff.
Last night, my eyes were fixed on Sheriff Howard Smith because I noticed he had his head in his hands and just appeared to be looking off into space. I knew what the problem was. He just finished hearing a majority of supervisors say at a public meeting that they are unsure they want to increase the personal property tax rate—or equalizing the rate.
I approached him and asked if he is concerned. He said he is because he doesn’t think there is a majority yet on the board convinced that Interim County Administrator Doug Barnes came up with the best budget proposal. Supervisor Gary Jackson even brought up cutting government spending even more, after Supervisor Hap Connors mentioned almost $30 million has been cut from the county’s budget in two years.
By equalizing the rate from $5 to $6.33 cents per $100 of assessed value at 50 percent of the property value (don’t ask me why they do it this way because it seems completely backwards), the county will bring in the same amount of tax revenue it is now. No more. No less. Without the increase, the county would have to cut $9 million from somewhere, and the two biggest chunks of the budget are the schools and public safety.
Smith said if his budget is cut anymore, he will have to layoff deputies. School Board Chairman Gil Seaux, who sat in front of the sheriff last night, told me he fears school resource officers would be on the chopping block. But what I did not get to ask them is if either of them thought this was the worst of the budget woes.
But what I did not get to ask them is if either of them thought this was the worst of the budget woes.
The discussion sort of came up last night, and I have been wondering about this since the assessments finished last year. What if the economy picks up, and the housing prices begin to increase by the middle of the year, and by November the housing market is getting back on its feet. Some supervisors doubted that, while others thought it was on the horizon. Commissioner of Revenue Debbie Williams said she will be able to grab sales deep into 2009, although she has yet to show proof that her office has this capability. She also recently criticized this newspaper for reporting that Stafford County can, and does, reach into December to pull in sales reports for the assessments there. She said she doubted the report.
But, one thing is for sure: if the housing market continues its decline and prices plummet, the county is in a world of trouble for the fiscal year 2011 budget. The debt load will be approaching the 12 percent limit very soon if they continue on as is. The largest chunk of revenue, the real estate tax, could decline as much as 30 percent. And the goal for that reassessment year is to equalize the tax rate. Just contemplate that scenario for a few minutes and then debate what you think 2010 will be like.
That means a rate of .62 cents per $100 increasing to .78 cents per $100, based on current projections. A penny is worth about $1.5 million. A penny on the personal property tax rate is worth about $66,000.
I guess I am just trying to put this all in perspective. The current proposed county budget does have job elimination. But the next one could be a lot worse.