by Audrey Thomasson
LANCASTER—Salary increases of 3% to 13%, increased spending in public safety, and debt service are the driving forces to a proposed 9% increase in Lancaster County’s real estate tax which would impact December tax bills.
Last week, District 4 supervisor William Lee made a motion to advertise a 5-cent increase in the tax rate. The motion passed on a 5-0 vote. If adopted, the real estate tax rate would increase from $0.54 per $100 of assessed value to $0.59.
Supervisors set a public hearing on the proposed budget for 7 p.m. June 22 in the County Administration Building, 8311 Mary Ball Road, Lancaster.
Over several weeks of budget sessions, supervisors have been pondering funding requests from department and organizations that exceeded projected revenues by $2.1 million for fiscal year 2018.
As of June 1, the county is proposing budget expenditures of $31,060,865, up $254,068 over the current year. The figure is $2,095,216 more than expected revenues of $28,965,649.
According to county Treasurer Bonnie Dickson, the shortfall would require a minimum $0.08 increase in the real estate tax on every $100 of assessed real estate value.
“To maintain the fund balance (reserve) at $3.5 million requires an eight cent tax increase,” said Dickson.
“I have a problem with that,” said District 5 supervisor Wally Beauchamp. “It’s too high. We should advertise five cents, but that gives me heartburn. Advertise five cents…and adopt four cents.”
A four-cent tax increase would reduce the fund balance to an estimated $2.46 million, according to Dickson.
District 2 supervisor Ernest Palin reminded the board they would be looking at funding new schools soon.
“There are many assumptions in that,” replied District 1 supervisor Butch Jenkins. He cited problems in the length of a 40-year loan through the Department of Agriculture’s rural development department to cover the cost of building schools.
District 3 supervisor Jason Bellows said the county’s fund balance has been reduced some $500,000 each year over the last few years, which would be a concern for future borrowing for school facilities and other projects.
Lee noted that while the fund balance can help with the shortfall, supervisors cannot keep taking away from the reserve without putting something back in.
Dickson attributed most of proposed budget increases to salaries. Supervisors have proposed a 3% across-the-board increase to county employees. However, at the request of emergency management services (EMS) chief Terry McGregor, the 15 full-time and 19 part-time paid rescue squad employees will receive between 4% to 13% salary increases, averaging 8%.
McGregor had originally requested up to 20% increases, citing issues with retaining employees due to higher pay scales in neighboring counties.
Dickson reported salary increases will impact the budget by about $300,000, including associated benefits.
Planning and land use director Don Gill said the capital improvement budget of $3,010,893, includes $2.05 million for a proposed EMS building, but only $47,000 has been spent. “There would be a savings of $2 million in fiscal year ’17 if that building is not constructed,” he said.
Supervisors also authorized $116,000 to build a longer jetty and dredge Greenvale Creek, to keep the public boat ramp accessible to the Rappahannock River. It is the third and largest county contribution for keeping the channel open on Greenvale Creek since 2011. The money will come out of public access funds.
As proposed, anticipated revenue from real estate totals $15,883,500, up $62,700; school operating is $4,864,034, down $256,654; state funding is $4,137,786, down $23,884; other local funds are $2,618,206, down $302,994; federal funding of $779,252, up $5,317; school cafeteria at $562,113, up $3,933; and, school textbook funds at $120,758, down $4,984.
The only area showing a decrease in estimated expenditures is the school district at $15,636,286, down $275,756; school cafeteria at $562,113, down $1,702; and the pass through textbook expenditures of $120,758, down $4,984. All other departments increased expenditures.
Public safety at $5,290,981, is up $248,416; health and welfare at $3,029,678 is up $33,908; debt service at $1,984,191 is up $62,013; general government at $1,693,850 is up $124,915; public works at $1,211,671 is up $11,268; courts at $767,755, is up $25,410; community development at $505,862, up $17,280; recreation at $202,595, up $10,000; non departmental at $40,925, up $3,000; and non-public school education at $14,200, up $300.
The biggest challenge facing the county in the coming fiscal year is the nearly $2 million in debt service that must be paid mostly on a $7 million loan in 2014 to finance capital projects. That includes $2 million to replace the emergency communications radio system for first responders; $1.5 million for public access; $712,000 for new school buses over the next five years; and $400,000 for Greentown/Gaskins Road sewer system.
Another large strain is the rising cost of public safety. EMS and the sheriff’s department’s combined budgets have increased over $600,000 over the past five years, with overtime pay taking a big bite out of their funding.
One expense that comes up once every six years is real estate reassessment, also included in the proposed 2018 budget. Reassessments are required every six years by law.