2013-01-30 / Front Page

Gecker raises prospect of tax hike

By Michael Buettner

Stegmaier Stegmaier As the county government’s main sources of funds fail to keep up with the cost of providing services, some officials believe it’s time for a conversation with citizens about what they want the government to do and how much they’re willing to pay.

At a meeting last week of the county’s Budget and Audit Committee, County Administrator Jay Stegmaier said that with the outlook for county revenue remaining flat at best, “It will be very difficult to get through without giving up some things we’ve said in the past we want.”

The county is “not at that point yet,” Stegmaier added, but a time is coming when “we’re either going to have to give some things up or find some additional revenue. The public ought to have some input on that.”

Midlothian Supervisor Dan Gecker made similar comments. “This is going to be a conversation about where we’re going as a community,” he said.

Gecker Gecker Gecker said he wants the board to advertise a higher possible property tax rate. When the board holds its public hearing on the tax rate, state law bars it from approving a rate higher than the maximum rate published in the public notice of the hearing.

For the past four years, Gecker noted, the board has advertised the existing rate of 95 cents per $100 of assessed value, which means supervisors can’t give any consideration to raising the rate.

As a result, with the sluggish economy and depressed real estate market keeping a lid on revenue, the county has been forced to balance its budget with no increase in funds. To do that, officials have had to cut employment and salaries, especially in the school system, and reduce services or maintain them at existing levels.

“At what point do we ask the community what level of services they want?” Gecker asked. “I believe a majority of the community would like to see higher service levels” but haven’t had a chance to say so because the board hasn’t allowed for the possibility of raising revenue.

Carpenter Carpenter Patty Carpenter, School Board member for the Midlothian District, agreed that the budget process the past few years “did not allow the public to say, ‘Yes, these are the services we want.’”

Stegmaier noted that county staff has found ways to save money and keep the budget balanced by working more efficiently, reducing energy costs and changing their habits. However, he said, “There have been a lot of discussions we’ve had that do a lot of the balancing on the backs of the employees.”

Gecker noted that the new comprehensive plan approved by the Board of Supervisors last year includes recommendations for revitalization that will require increased spending, especially by the school system.

Holland Holland However, Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland said he was “not committed to spending what the comp plan says. … The comp plan is one thing, the budget is another.”

Still, he added, “I’m prepared to look at opening the gates and look at all the ramifications.”

The flat revenue outlook was underscored by an economic forecast presented to the committee by Matt Harris, senior budget analyst for the county’s Budget and Management Department.

The total assessed value of the county’s residential real estate posted a decline of 1.3 percent in 2012, the fifth annual decline in a row but a better performance than the previous two years, which both saw declines of more than 4 percent.

Harris said he believes the real estate market will continue to rebound in “a slow, gradual recovery” but noted that “prices are usually the last to rebound.”

Given the decline in assessed value, Harris said, the county would need to raise the property tax rate by 2 cents from the current level to reach the same level of revenue this year as it received last year from real estate taxes.

But maintaining the same level of revenue wouldn’t enable the county to keep up with rising costs, noted Budget Director Allan Carmody. Just in the coming year, he noted, the county will be required to spend $37.5 million to start a 15-year program mandated by the federal government to clean up stormwater runoff.

The revitalization recommendations in the comp plan will also require additional spending, and changes in the way the state finances road construction will put a burden on the county to come up with matching funds, Carmody noted.

In addition, Stegmaier said, energy costs continue to rise, as does the cost of providing benefits to county and school employees.

To date, he said, “There has not been a lot of discussion about what we want the government to do. That’s not the same as a budget discussion.”

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