By Michael Campbell, News Editor
PRINCE GEORGE – Supervisors voted unanimously to approve the county’s 2018 fiscal year budget Tuesday, completing a required multi-month process ahead of the June 30 deadline and without tax increases on local residents.
The budget presented in February by County Administrator Percy Ashcraft remained largely unchanged, aside from some adjustments in revenue noted by the county’s director of finance Betsy Drewry during a brief report leading up to the vote.
According to Drewry, the proposed budget of $52.9 million had risen to $53.5 million over the course of time between February’s presentation and Tuesday’s vote due to a variety of general fund revenue adjustments.
The county expects increased revenue from state sales and use tax funds and Comprehensive Services Act At-Risk Youth funds combining to total over $226,000 next fiscal year.
Additionally, a net reduction in Compensation Board Shared Expense Revenue of nearly $4,000 and an increase in the county’s utility department’s use of fund balance of $2,445 to cover increases in health insurance was also listed in Drewry’s report to the board.
Specifically for Prince George Schools, Drewry noted that an increase in operating revenue from non-local sources is expected during the upcoming year, comprised of over $108,980 from the state and $34,000 from other sources. Moreover, due to increased state sales and use tax funds coming into the county totaling over $201,000, through Prince George County and the school division’s Memorandum of Understanding, which “establishes a process for determining the level of general fund support to be provided to Prince George County School System by the County of Prince George for a given fiscal year based upon certain General Fund revenue sources and adjustments as deemed appropriate by both parties,” specifically for operating funds, Prince George Schools’ local transfer from the county increases to $15.9 million, just over one percent short of the school division’s local funding request of $16,063,792.
Prior to the board’s action Tuesday, Drewry presented an option for a proposal from the Price George School Board to have CSA funds transferred to the school division, which would be used for those students who need education in private settings, such as Saint Joseph’s Villa in Petersburg.
According to Drewry, during a special meeting between the Prince George School Board and Board of Supervisors last week, the school division requested that $350,000 used by the county to cover the local match for the education of those students be transferred to the schools as part of the MOU, with the understanding being that those funds would be transferred back to the county to cover those local costs, which are then reimbursed by the state.
In past years, before the MOU transfer to the school division, the estimated costs of that local match for educating students as part of that CSA program was held by the county, with the remaining MOU funding being provided to Prince George Schools as part of the local transfer.
According to Prince George Board Chairman Bill Robertson, the amount typically withheld for that local match was approximately 35 percent of the MOU.
The option allowed for the county’s local transfer to the school division’s through the MOU to increase to $16.2 million in FY 2018, up over $180,000 from the school division’s request for funding in their budget earlier this year.
While the infusion of the funds represent an increase in the school system’s budget, that $350,000 can only be used for costs related to CSA costs, such as educating students in those programs.
In the audience for the discussion was Prince George School Board Chair Kevin Foster, joined by Superintendent Renee Williams and Assistant Superintendent for Personnel and Operations Dr. Patrick Bingham, who was in favor of the funding being placed in the school division’s hands.
“It’s a matter of principle and fully funding the MOU,” he remarked, praising supervisors and the county for their efforts to ensure the schools have what they need for operations, such as allowing for the use of rollover funds and other supporting efforts. “This will allow us to be held accountable.”
During the discussion, Robertson pointed out that the funds set aside for CSA-related education costs have not been enough in years past and that the county has had to cover the gap, sometimes to the tune of $140,000 to $150,000 in a given year.
Even though the school division now holds the funds for those CSA-related costs, it was noted that, in the event that the $350,000 isn’t enough to cover those costs in a given year, it will remain up to the county to provide the additional dollars.
“The reasoning for putting the money over there is to make sure that the school board is actively involved and they are paying for it, instead of the county paying for it,” remarked Supervisor Alan Carmichael.
Changes to school funding were not the only adjustments within the county’s budget as the adjustments to the Prince George’s tourism budget now features a continuation of funding for Petersburg Area Regional Tourism and the Hopewell-Prince George Chamber of Commerce and visitor’s center.
In Drewry’s budget breakdown, she notes PART will receive $38,500, up $6,000 from the previous fiscal year, and the chamber and visitors center will be level-funded at $46,440 in the upcoming fiscal year through a reduction in the county’s contingency fund.
With the budget’s adoption, it provides funding for 250 full-time positions, broken up among 246 full-time and eight part-time, counted as four full-time.
In February, supervisors questioned whether raises for county staff were part of the proposed budget, with discussion continuing during a later work session, but a raise was not listed in the adopted budget.
According to Ashcraft, employees in the county received a two-percent raise during the Fiscal Year 2017 budget, effective July 1, 2016.
Additionally, while health insurance costs are expected to rise, the county has committed to absorbing those costs to keep employee health insurance rates stable and maintain the employee/employer ratio better than 25 percent/75 percent.
In terms of public safety investments, the county budget dedicates $10,000 for a career development program for the county’s fire and EMS departments built similar to the Prince George Police Department’s current program.
Additionally, the budget funds several general fund expenditures, including a pair of vehicles for the Prince George Sheriff’s Office, along with two others, one for the general pool of county vehicles and another for the department of parks and recreation, a lift and alignment machine for the county garage to allow for more in-house maintenance of vehicles and a number of vital information technology upgrades.
The county will also begin making debt payments relating to the $10 million in bonds issued in the spring for a series of county capital projects, including the first phase of the county’s public safety radio project, broadband expansion efforts, Scott Park improvements, and a new fire station along Route 10, among several other key projects.
Finally, the budget saw a ten percent increase in water rates and a 20 percent increase in wastewater rates, which was approved by supervisors in April, in an effort to pay for infrastructural costs and capital project expenditures.
According to the county, the increase, which would translate to the average utility customer seeing an $11 per month rise in their costs, would provide the self-supporting utility fund with $1.4 million in additional funds to address those items.
It was revealed at the time of the rate increase earlier this month that the utility fund would still be short $200,000 annually, even with the newly adopted rates.
The 2018 fiscal year begins in the county and across the Commonwealth on July 1.