The Leesburg Town Council adopted a 19.2-cent real estate tax rate after a meeting that went on for four and a half hours Tuesday night, a surprise final decision that was hastily discussed and decided on in about five minutes.
In the days and weeks before Tuesday's meeting, it appeared council's decision was between the 19.5-cent rate advertised in Town Manager John Wells' proposed budget and the 18.9-cent equalized rate council members asked Wells to present to them at their last meeting.
When Wells reconfigured the budget with the equalized rate, he was able to find alternate revenues to almost make up for the approximately $360,000 difference between the two rates, including money from the Virginia Department of Transportation and rent from the Mason Enterprise Center.
However, the council was divided down the middle on which was better for the town. Mayor Kristen Umstattd and council members Kevin Wright and Katie Hammler supported the equalized tax rate and praised staff for working to make sure there was no dropoff in service. Vice Mayor David Butler and council members Marty Martinez and Kelly Burk supported the 19.5-cent rate, citing economic uncertainty and the lack of funding for the in-town bus system from the federal government.
Councilman Tom Dunn supported a lower tax rate than even the equalized rate, suggesting the town could lower it to 15 cents per $1,000 of property value, but proposing 18.75, which drew no support.
Compromise between the two was made even harder based on the law that states the tax rates needs five votes on the seven-member board. The votes are conducted in roll call format, and the 18.9-cent rate and the 19.5-cent rate were both brought up, and shot down with three votes apiece.
"It is feasible we will not get any tax rate passed tonight," Umstattd said. "We have three of our folks that have made strong and credible arguments for 19.5, two who have made equally strong arguments voting for 18.9."
Umstattd expressed her concern that the only other opportunity the council would have to pass a tax rate would be at the following meeting—which Wright told this reporter earlier Tuesday he wasn't sure he'd be able to attend—and said if the council could not pass a tax rate, the town may have had to borrow money.
Immediately after Umstattd raised that concern, Hammler sprung into action, proposing a "right down the middle" compromise of 19.2 cents.
"I think it’s absolutely critical this body finds a way to set a tax rate tonight," she said. "So many people are plain tired of government bodies that can’t come together."
Hammler, Umstattd, Butler, Martinez and Burk approved the rate, while Dunn and Wright were left shaking their heads. Wright said he "didn't see a compelling reason" to have a tax rate higher than the equalized 18.9 cents, and it's his personal policy to not enforce a tax rate higher than that unless there was a necessity.
Dunn spoke ad nauseum during the deliberations, more than any other council member, about the waste he feels the town has in its budget, particularly in the services it provides. He highlighted the Thomas Balch Library's staff and the brush pickup as two areas that he thinks money is wasted.
Umstattd and Martinez fired back at Dunn, defending the services the town provides and highlighting that those services are what has turned Leesburg into a desirable place to live.
"If you look at any service that any local government provides, every single citizen of the town is not going to use every service that is provided," Umstattd said. "But I think we do a very good job providing quality services to a large portion of our population."
Dunn did not relent. He was the only member of council to vote against the budget, and held his hard line again in the adoption of the tax rate.
"I can appreciate those whose beliefs are look for more revenue versus looking for cuts," he said. "This is not an effort to make Leesburg look like a bad place, it’s just an effort to fix what I perceive as bad policy. I have a right to that opinion. I think we can make additional cuts, still provide services, give people a reasonable tax rate and still meet the needs of reasonable citizens."