2018-04-11 / Front Page

Priorities shift in $711 million budget

Supervisors focus on safety first, education second
By Jim McConnell

Nobody in Chesterfield got exactly what they wanted from the county’s newly approved $711 million fiscal year 2019 budget.

Local public education advocates won’t be satisfied with 2 percent salary increases for teachers, and the school system still has a long list of deferred building maintenance projects, but it got millions in additional funding to replace five aging schools and fix a failed custodial outsourcing program.Citizens protest the Board of Supervisors plan to reduce the property tax by a penny during a meeting in January. Photo by James HaskinsCitizens protest the Board of Supervisors plan to reduce the property tax by a penny during a meeting in January. Photo by James Haskins

Supporters of mass transit will be disappointed to find no funding for new bus lines, particularly in the county’s less affluent areas, but there is more money for alternative transportation and a pilot program to continue assessing the needs of citizens who can’t afford their own vehicles.

And while Chesterfield’s increasingly vocal contingent of liberals take issue with the Board of Supervisors’ decision to reduce the county’s property tax rate by a penny this year, there are conservatives who say the board didn’t do enough to offset the impact of rising residential property assessments on local taxpayers.

But as they convened Wednesday evening to vote on the county’s general fund budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, the five supervisors appeared to be satisfied with both the outcome and the occasionally contentious discussions that led them there.

Clover Hill District Supervisor Chris Winslow, one of four Republicans on the board, called the budget “balanced” and “reflective of the needs of the community.”

“Citizens have had ample opportunities to come out and ask questions and make recommendations for the budget,” added Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland, the board’s lone Democrat. “It has been an excellent process.”

From its initial community meetings on the budget last fall, the Board of Supervisors made it clear that increased funding for the county’s three public safety agencies – police, Fire/EMS and sheriff – would be the top priority in fiscal year 2019.

That’s both a reward for those departments waiting patiently while the vast majority of post-recession local revenue increases were allocated to the school system over the past six years, and an acknowledgement that more needs to be done to help them attract and retain a quality workforce.

The sheriff’s office has hired 155 new deputies over the past five years – a 66 percent turnover rate for sworn personnel during that period. Seventy-four percent of the employees who left did so voluntarily, resulting in significant costs to recruit, hire and train their replacements.

Effective July 1, the starting salary for new sheriff’s deputies will be increased from $38,012 to $40,500.

The budget includes funding for career development in all three agencies, as county leaders hope to incentivize police officers, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies to stay in Chesterfield and work their way up through their respective organizations instead of leaving for higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

There’s also money to hire additional staff and provide adequate police and fire/emergency coverage in a large, sprawling county.

School Board Chairman John Erbach questioned the Board of Supervisors’ focus on public safety earlier this year, suggesting it was “inconsistent” with results of a citizen survey that indicated education was the top local priority.

But County Administrator Joe Casey pointed out that emerging demographic trends are altering both the makeup of the local population and the types of services citizens are demanding from their government.

Student enrollment in county schools is growing – it crossed the 60,000 threshold for the first time last year – but at a rate slower than the county’s overall population.

On one end of the spectrum, young people are waiting longer to get married and have children. On the other end, seniors are living longer than ever before. As a result, the county’s demographics are shifting. Today, only about one-third of Chesterfield’s households have school-age children. It was two-thirds as recently as 20 years ago.

“We are not necessarily the bedroom community of yesteryear,” Casey said last month.

The school system is still getting $283 million from the county – $8 million more than it received in fiscal year 2018 – and that doesn’t include millions in additional capital funding to replace, rather than renovate, Crestwood, Ettrick, Harrowgate and Reams elementary schools and Manchester Middle.

Each of those buildings initially were targeted for revitalization with proceeds from the 2013 bond referendum. Instead, school officials decided it made more sense over the long term to build replacement schools using new cost-saving prototype designs.

The School Board’s overall $647 million budget, more than half of which comes from the state, represents an increase of $25 million from the current fiscal year and includes funding to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio for special education classes and implement school start time changes by the start of the 2018-19 school year.

Still, some citizens and elected officials thought the Board of Supervisors should allocate additional funding to the school system instead of cutting the real estate tax rate.

“When you talk about the changing demographics of the county, one of the things we’re not doing a good enough job of as a school system is talking about the changing demographics of the student body,” said Midlothian School Board representative Javaid Siddiqi during a meeting of the audit and finance committee last Tuesday.

The tenor of Siddiqi’s remarks was far more conciliatory than when he publicly questioned the wisdom of the tax rate reduction earlier this year.

“We have to talk about poverty. We have to talk about how our [non-English-speaking] population is growing. We have to make sure we are clearly articulating what that is doing to the teaching workload,” he added. “It all puts a strain on resources. Being a third-grade teacher in Chesterfield today is different than being a third-grade teacher five or 10 years ago.”

Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick, who has called the tax rate reduction “long overdue,” defended it again at last week’s board meeting.

“I don’t want to forget the most important people in this process, and that’s the taxpayers,” he said. “As I listen to all of the back and forth during the budget process, it strikes me that some don’t even consider the folks who make this all possible, and I find that sad.”

Even with a 1-cent rate cut, rising assessments will fuel a $15 million increase in local real estate tax collections this year.

In the end, the board approved a budget that funds programs to address the county’s rapidly growing senior population, the popular Access Chesterfield transportation service, new sidewalk construction, dedicated local road funding, the county’s coordinated response to the opioid epidemic and major maintenance of public facilities, among many other items.

It also provides for a 2 percent salary increase for school employees and a 2.3 percent raise for county government employees. County employees who earn $40,000 or less annually will get another 0.7 percent for a total of 3 percent.

“When you look at developing a budget, it’s really a balancing act,” Elswick said. “This board has a responsibility to consider all county activities when we allocate available funds. We always get more requests for revenues than we can fund, given that we don’t have a printing press in the budget office. In the end, this is a good, well-balanced budget.”

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