No tax increases as new school highlights proposed budget

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: March 4, 2020 | 12:30 p.m.

PRINCE GEORGE – Tax rates remain level in the county administrator’s proposed budget as Prince George prepares to embark on a $30 million-plus elementary school construction project and funding a number of new positions to support growing demand on county services.

Tuesday evening, Prince George County Administrator Percy Ashcraft presented his $129 million proposed FY2021 budget to the board of supervisors with a recommendation that the county’s real estate tax rate – currently at 86 cents per $100 of assessed value – remain unchanged in next year’s budget.

That rate, if affirmed by the board later this spring, would see Prince George remain mid-pack when compared to its neighboring communities. According to data presented during last Tuesday’s budget presentation, the county’s 86 cent real estate tax rate ranks fifth out of nine surrounding localities.

Sussex, Surry, and Dinwiddie carry the top 3 lowest rates at 58, 71, and 79 cents respectively, while Chesterfield’s rate is ten cents higher than Prince George at 96 cents. The Tri-Cities of Hopewell, Colonial Heights, and Petersburg all carry real estate tax rates that exceed $1 per $100 of assessed value.

During his nearly hour-long presentation, Ashcraft said the decision to not recommend an increase in the county’s real estate tax rate is due to expected growth in that revenue stream to the tune of $1.9 million, or eight percent over the current fiscal year. In addition, Ashcraft said, “Other revenue sources, including machine and tools taxes and meals taxes are also projected to increase.”

Ashcraft’s proposed budget totals $129.7 million, up 5.4 percent over the current-year budget, while the general fund budget clocks in a $61.7 million, up almost seven percent over the FY2020 budget.

Expenditures are $3.9 million higher than FY2020, or 6.9 percent. Within that $1.2 million is a contribution to capital debt reserves “to fund several needed school, public safety and county capital construction and improvement projects.”

In his budget, Ashcraft proposed a $38 million borrowing during the Spring of 2021, with the vast majority of that money going to support the construction of a new elementary school.

This is the first time since 2018 an elementary school has been included in the county’s budget after, according to Ashcraft, last year, the board of supervisors directed him not to include a new school in his budget proposal. At that time, the new school’s size, cost, and location all drew questions from members of the board throughout 2019.

In the borrowing, $31.9 million is earmarked to support the construction of a new school that will likely serve as the replacement for the aging Walton Elementary School on Courthouse Road. That total does not include the $1 million already allocated to the school division so design work for the new school could commence.

The inclusion of the new school in Ashcraft’s budget comes weeks after the school board narrowly voted in favor of selecting a county-owned site along Middle Road for the new school, a site that had been previously rejected by the school board in 2018 while supported by the board of supervisors.

Along with the elementary school, $2.5 million of next year’s proposed borrowing would be used to renovate Prince George Volunteer Fire Company 1’s home at the county government complex, and another $2.1 million to support an expansion of the county’s fleet garage.

Roughly $400,000 would be used for school bus purchases, and the same amount earmarked to support the continuation of the county’s vehicle replacement program for public safety and other departments.

$328,000 would be borrowed for investments into school technology infrastructure as part of a local match and $179,220 would help with the installation of a generator at Prince George High School, with the purchase of new Zoll X Series medical monitors for the county’s public safety department at $157,276 rounding out the $38 million borrowing.

Ashcraft did advise supervisors, if the borrowing is done as presented with the $31 million elementary school included, it “creates instances of non-compliance with the County’s 10-Year Payout Ratio Debt Policy,” one of several internal fiscal policies used by the county.

Supervisors listen to Prince George County Administrator Percy Ashcraft’s budget presentation last week (Michael Campbell)

In addition, using General Fund revenue, $350,000 is included to continue maintenance projects to County buildings and grounds, $288,748 in Information Technology-related purchases (hardware, software, servers), and $10,465 included to refinish the Central Wellness Center gym floor, $10,770 included for one lawn mower, among others.

In regards to personnel, Ashcraft’s proposed budget does not include raises for county employees presently. In both 2018 and 2019, raised had been incorporated into the county’s budget.

Ashcraft’s budget does seek to continue to address pay compression by “continuing partial implementation of the 2018 Salary Study at a General Fund cost of $76,500 ($19,795 other funds). The Budget also includes $98,500 for Career Development for all County departments; $92,500 General Fund; $6,000 other funds.”

Pay increases may not be completely ruled out as, in previous years, the county administrator’s proposed budget has not included a pay raise for county employees but supervisors have asked for budgetary adjustments to be made to allow for such increases.

In 2018, following a series of work sessions, the county, at their public hearing on the FY2019 budget, revised the budget to include raises for employees. At that time, employees making less than $50,000 per year received a permanent $1,000 pay increase, those making between $50,001 and $100,000 would get a permanent two-percent pay raise, while those employees making over $100,000 would receive a permanent $2,000 pay raise, with a total cost to the county of just over $245,000.

Similar raises were doled out in 2019 as part of Ashcraft’s budget, with the raises being part of his initial presentation to supervisors.

Ashcraft’s budget also requests additional positions as demand for county services continues its upward trajectory. Totaling just over $503,000, the county administrator has requested two new police officers, a deputy director of Prince George Fire and EMS, a senior real estate appraiser, an information technology computer/technical support specialist, a parks & recreation senior grounds maintenance worker, a social services Manager III – Case Manager, which would be 84.5 percent funded by the state, and a reclassification of a building maintenance mechanic to electrician.

The county’s transfer to schools remains the second-largest expenditure in its budget and, as part of Ashcraft’s proposed budget, the county would provide $16.9 million in local funding to Prince George County Public Schools, “$16,746,798 to the School Operating Fund and another $163,385 to the School Textbook Fund,” a $222,532 increase over the 2020 financial year.

According to Ashcraft, the figure is based off the structure of the revised Memorandum of Understanding that governs what percentage of specific county revenue streams the school district is entitled to as part of its annual local funding contribution, a document that has only been adopted by the county board of supervisors back in August of 2019.

Last fall, the assembled school board at the time, following the submission of the revised MOU by the county to the school board for consideration, submitted their own suggestions of alterations and questions regarding certain verbiage in the document.

The school board has yet to formally adopt the revised MOU nor has it been revised from its August 2019 structure.

The county continues to face financial headwinds in regards to outside agency expenditures, including contributions to Riverside Regional Jail. In Ashcraft’s narrative, he explains an increase in the county’s inmate population and declining jail revenues necessitated the need to increase the county’s contribution.

In his budget, $2.1 million is dedicated to supporting the jail in the coming fiscal year, up 7.7 percent, or $156,904 over the current year.

The figure is based on a per diem of $46 per day, which is the second straight year the county has increased its per diem as the county’s jailed population grows. In 2019, the county raised its per diem from $40 to $43.

While taxes are not proposed to increase, county water and sewer customers will see a rate increase in Ashcraft’s proposed budget.

“Fee increases are proposed at three percent for water and one percent for wastewater. This will raise the average household bi-monthly bill to $53.38 for water and $114.16 for wastewater,” he said.

In his narrative, Ashcraft said the increases “are necessary to continue to maintain water and sewer operations and to pay for needed capital maintenance and expansion,” with the county’s utility department being self-supported through payments for services rendered.

In addition, “increases in permit, license and utility fees to keep up with inflation” are factored into his proposed budget.”

With the presentation, supervisors are expected to hold work sessions to further refine and discuss Ashcraft’s proposed budget with the first work session set for early next month. A tentative timetable for the budget was detailed, with hopes of gleaning a tax rate decision from supervisors on March 12 and a public hearing on the proposed rates on April 14.

From there, following a series of expected work sessions, the county hopes to have the budget finalized for a public hearing on April 12.

State law requires at least seven days to pass before supervisors can adopt their budget, which would place formal adoption of the FY2021 budget at May 12 at the earliest, based on the county’s projections.

Ashcraft’s budget presentation from last Tuesday and the complete proposed budget document are available for review on the county’s website.

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