With little comment, the Board of Supervisors last night approved an amended fiscal guidance for the FY14 budget to put the school system and county government on equal footing going into deliberations. The effort to keep real estate tax bills level would likely still require significant reductions in the Loudoun County Public Schools' budget put forward by Superintendent Edgar Hatrick.
The board voted 7-1-1, with Supervisor Eugene Delgaudio (R-Sterling) opposed and Supervisor Ken Reid (R-Leesburg) absent, to direct County Administrator Tim Hemstreet to create an FY14 budget that reflected an equalized tax rate—one that would keep the tax bill for the average homeowner flat next year—on both sides of the budget. The current real estate tax rate is $1.235 per $100 of assessed value. Supervisors also directed that the budget presented by Hemstreet be “inclusive of all needs” of the county.
That action backs off the direction from October, when the board directed Hemstreet to develop a FY14 budget that would reflect funding generated by an equalized tax rate for the general county government side of the budget, but directed the school system budget to be based on a 3-cent tax rate reduction. That approach, which would give the schools less local tax funding next year, created an almost $56 million gap between the funding requested by Hatrick to meet needs that include opening two new schools and welcoming 2,000 more students next fall.
The equalized real estate tax rate—now estimated to be $1.23, half a penny less than the FY13 tax rate of $1.235—would still create a gap between the funding generated from that rate and the budget request from Hatrick.
"Under virtually any scenario, the schools would have a very difficult time achieving the superintendent’s budget at that level," County CFO Ben Mays told supervisors.
Mays said the budget being created by Hemstreet would not include any staff or programmatic reductions on the county government side, but that if the board chose to increase the funding allocation for the school system it could create a need for cuts to county government.
As he did during a committee briefing earlier this month, Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) said the change to the fiscal guidance was designed to give supervisors more options when it came time to deliberate budget priorities.
"I have given us as a Board of Supervisors flexibility in the budget discussions to make trade offs," the finance committee chairman said. "That could be between the school budget, cutting tax rate, transportation, public safety. This is just taking the handcuffs off us as a board."
Buona also reiterated that the board's budget calendar does not allow time to readvertise the tax rate, should the board need to adopt a rate higher than the one advertised next month. He said it would be unwise to advertise a tax rate that is too low. "We only get one shot at this."
The only debate last night came when Delgaudio made a motion to add direction that Hemstreet create a budget that reflected a 5 percent funding cut. Delgaudio said he simply wanted to create additional options in the budget, and that he wanted to get his motion on the record.
But none of the other supervisors backed his motion, with most of them saying the time for putting forward that direction was in the fall, not as Hemstreet is putting the final touches on his budget recommendation.
"I am puzzled why now, one meeting before the County Administrator's presentation, we are now having this discussion," Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) said. "This should have been had in October...we had our chance, we didn’t do it, so we lost the opportunity."
Buona called Delgaudio's motion "grandstanding" rather than an honest attempt to discuss a reduced funding level.
The School Board is scheduled to adopt its amendments to Hatrick's budget next week. Hemstreet is scheduled to present his budget to the board Feb. 6, kicking off the FY14 deliberations, which will begin with a series of public hearings.