2017-04-05 / Featured / Front Page

Penny politics: Budget hearing highlights shift


County teachers rallied to oppose a potential tax cut prior to the Board of Supervisors' budget hearing March 29. Photo by James HaskinsCounty teachers rallied to oppose a potential tax cut prior to the Board of Supervisors' budget hearing March 29. Photo by James Haskins

As he distributed paper replica pennies – a reference to the one-cent reduction in the county’s property tax rate under consideration by the board – Chesterfield Education Association President Don Wilms exhorted the roughly 50 teachers in attendance to make their voices heard.

“Don’t ever allow yourselves to be silenced,” he said. “You have the right to speak up.”

Several of them did just that during an occasionally contentious three-hour meeting that once again illustrated Chesterfield’s growing philosophical divide on taxes and government spending.

The Board of Supervisors is expected to vote on the budget at its April 26 meeting.

“There’s no question we need to balance the needs and wants of all citizens – that’s what the public hearing was designed to help us do,” said Chris Winslow, supervisor of the Clover Hill District. “Our job is to put together the best list of local priorities we can.”

Winslow, one of four Republicans on the five-member board, campaigned in 2015 to succeed Chesterfield’s longest-tenured supervisor (Art Warren) and build on the county’s reputation for conservative fiscal policy.

Following the November 2015 election, in which all five winning School Board candidates also carried endorsements from the Chesterfield Republican Committee, many local GOP loyalists hoped it was a prelude to a reduction in the county’s property tax rate.

The Board of Supervisors raised the rate by a penny in 2014, with Republican Dorothy Jaeckle (now the board’s chairwoman) joining Democrats Dan Gecker and Jim Holland to provide the decisive third vote.

The drumbeat to cut the rate has grown only louder with the recovery of the local housing market. Since the recession that began in 2007-08, the average residential property assessment has recovered 97 percent of its 2008 value.

For elected leaders, though, the calculus on taxes and spending has shifted as Chesterfield becomes increasingly diverse ethnically, socioeconomically and politically.

According to U.S. Census data, the county’s white population fell from 78 percent of the total to 68 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the black population rose from 18 percent to 22 percent and the Hispanic population more than doubled from less than 3 percent to just over 7 percent of the total.

The number of Chesterfield residents living below the federal poverty threshold has grown by 107 percent since 2000.

Last November, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by less than 4,000 votes in Chesterfield – a comparably razor-thin margin considering that Barack Obama lost the county by more than 12,000 votes in 2008 and more than 13,000 votes in 2012. It may be too soon to suggest the county, like Virginia, has gone from red to purple electorally, but it’s certainly not the fire-engine red it was 20 years ago.

There was light applause from the audience last Wednesday after Matoaca resident Fred DeMey noted that both the county and school system’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budgets far exceed the 2016 inflation rate.

“That is simply not fiscally conservative by any stretch of the imagination,” DeMey said. “With four of you supervisors being Republicans, pledging to uphold the Republican creed, which states that fiscal responsibility and budgetary restraints must be exercised at all levels of government, Chesterfield taxpayers expect you to do your utmost to keep your promises to the people who elected you and control government spending to keep taxes from spiraling out of control.”

DeMey argued that even if it reduced the growth in the county and schools budgets to match the rate of inflation, the Board of Supervisors would be able to cut the property tax rate from its current 96 cents per $100 of assessed value to 94 cents.

Because of rising property assessments, the county has acknowledged it can collect the same amount of revenue this year as it did last year with the rate set at 94 cents. But DeMey and other conservatives found themselves vastly outnumbered at the public hearing by teachers and other citizens demanding that the Board of Supervisors keep the current property tax rate and “fully fund” the school system’s $621 million budget.

“We know that to have great schools, county parks, plus support services and first-responders, you must help pay the bill. I have never thought of them as taxes for me and my family, but as an investment,” said Nancy Rader, a third-grade teacher at Swift Creek Elementary.

Cody Sigmon, who teaches at Carver Middle, argued that instead of cutting the level of funding for county schools, elected officials should focus on paying teachers a more competitive salary.

Sigmon noted that he holds degrees from The College of William & Mary and Stanford, but still struggles to pay off his student loans.

When Freddy Boisseau, a member of the tea party-affiliated Chester Patriots, suggested that “if you love your job, you shouldn’t be concerned with how much you get paid,” teachers in the audience loudly jeered him – prompting Jaeckle to admonish them.

“This is a public hearing where people are allowed to speak,” she said. “Teachers especially, I expect you to behave the same way you would expect your students to behave if somebody in your class was speaking. Please allow the people to speak without heckling or making fun of them.”

Boisseau later attempted to clarify his remarks, insisting he was not attacking teachers.

“I was merely pointing out that we all make choices and we suffer from those choices,” he said. “Our teachers get a bad [deal] when they’re convinced to go to schools like William & Mary and Stanford, take out student loans and then realize they can’t repay them on a teacher’s salary. Our teachers get a bad [deal] when administrators leave this county with gorgeous benefit packages for just a few years of work.

“But the taxpayers of this county have gotten a bad deal, too. Something is wrong here and we need it to be found.”

Sheila Bynum-Coleman, a Chesterfield resident who unsuccessfully challenged Riley Ingram for the 62nd District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2015, challenged the Board of Supervisors to move beyond simply upholding the Republican creed.

“You represent the constituents in your district,” she said. “The responsibility you have is to represent all citizens, whether they voted for you or not. You have to listen to everyone.” ¦

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