2013-11-20 / Front Page

Now comes hard part: Cut your own budget

Postelection, county seeks feedback
By Michael Buettner

With a meals tax off the plate, the Board of Supervisors plans to give itself more time next year to think about the county’s real estate tax rate and get more input from the public before making a decision on how high it should be.

The board has asked County Administrator Jay Stegmaier to begin advertising a public hearing on the property tax rate in early February instead of late February, to allow more time for discussion and citizen feedback.

When the board gives notice of its public hearing on the tax rate, the rate included in the notice is the highest it can consider. The current rate is 95 cents per $100 of assessed value.

In the meantime, county Department of Budget and Management staff have been asked to look into what it would take to set up a website where residents can play the role of budget director and crunch the numbers for themselves.

The county’s actual budget director, Allan Carmody, told the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Audit Committee last week that balancing the budget next year will be challenging.

Carmody noted that about 40 percent of the county’s revenue comes from the real estate tax, “and you all saw the effects over the last five years” of the downturn in the housing market.

The local real estate market has improved in the past couple of years, and the county expects to see an overall increase in assessed values this year for the first time since 2009. However, Carmody said, “There has been some firming in real estate and also some counteracting softness” in revenue from the sales tax and personal property tax.

One reason for the economic sluggishness is the fact that while the local unemployment rate has fallen from its highs of a couple of years ago, total unemployment – the standard unemployment rate, plus underemployed and discouraged workers – “has remained very static” at nearly 12 percent for the past three years, Carmody said.

As a result, county revenue isn’t expected to post strong growth next year. At the same time some added costs are looming ahead, including millions of dollars to meet new federal requirements for storm water management, millions more to bring the teacher pension plan up to fully funded status, and potentially millions more to meet requirements for employee health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

On top of those things, the county faces the potential cost of paying the interest on $353 million in bonds that were approved in the recent election in which voters rejected the meals tax that was intended to finance the bonds.

One possible message from the election, Carmody suggested, was that residents “are willing to make the trade-off in service levels in order to finance these projects” – in other words, to cut existing services and use those funds to pay for the new public safety radio system and school upgrades that voters approved.

Midlothian Supervisor Dan Gecker said some residents may not understand how complicated and sometimes wrenching it can be to cut spending.

“It’s clear that if you’re going to pull $6 million out of the operating budget, it’s not just going to be Parks and Recreation, it’s also going to be Social Services,” he said. “We’re not going to get there without affecting some of the most vulnerable populations in the county. It’s easy to pull the heartstrings, but are we going to be the county that strips Parks and Recreation, the county that cuts Mental Health Services, the county that eliminates Drug Court?”

One way to find out is to give the public a chance to see for themselves how those kinds of choices play out by using an online tool of the kind already available in other localities around the country.

Budget Department analyst Megan Bourke gave a presentation last week to the School Board/Board of Supervisors Liaison Committee on some of those tools, including one used this year by Virginia Beach.

Committee members generally liked the idea of setting up a similar site for Chesterfield but stressed that in addition to allowing residents to share their ideas about spending priorities, it should also educate them about the restrictions county officials face and the amount of spending they have no control over because of state and federal mandates.

Staff members are talking with a number of the companies that have created this type of website in order to get one that meets county leaders’ requirements. It’s hoped that Chesterfield’s version can be put online by the end of the year.

In the meantime, residents can get a detailed list of the services the county currently provides, along with information about the cost of each service and whether the service is mandated, on the Budget Department’s website (www.chesterfield. gov/budget/); click on “Program Services Inventory” on the left-side menu.

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