By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: May 19, 2018 | 12:45 p.m.
PRINCE GEORGE – Last Tuesday marked the symbolic end to the months-long budget building process for Prince George County leaders as they formally adopted their 2019 Fiscal Year budget unanimously following a number of work sessions and a number of adjustments after plans for a real estate tax rate increase were scraped.
The budget’s adoption on May 8 was the final step in the county’s planning for the upcoming fiscal year which starts on July 1 and, since the budget’s initial presentation by County Administrator Percy Ashcraft in February, revisions, adjustments, and other alterations were made that resulted in a slightly different final product that was eventually adopted by supervisors during their regular meeting last Tuesday.
On hand to walk both supervisors and the community-at-large through the budget has been the county’s finance director Betsy Drewry, who has been instrumental in providing detailed financial reports and other key data as supervisors dissected the county’s revenue and expenditure projections for the upcoming year. During her presentation last week, Drewry reiterated a number of points made during her presentation at the late-April public hearing where it revealed that the county was not going to pursue an increase to the community’s real estate tax rate to help finance the costs of a new $30 million elementary school to replace the aging Walton Elementary School along Courthouse Road.
Prior to April’s public hearing, supervisors considered increasing the county’s real estate tax rate by five cents to 91 cents per $100 of assessed value to help pay for a brand-new elementary school following a 2017 report and presentation from Prince George County Public Schools’ core committee that argued both Walton and Beazley elementary schools are in desperate need of replacement due to their age and also because of security concerns surrounding open-campus-style facilities, which both schools are. The county would advertise that five-cent tax increase and, following consultations with the school division, who have said they are taking a slower approach when it comes to building a new school and the understanding that significant spending on the project wouldn’t occur until later in 2019, the county revised its recommendation for the upcoming year’s tax rate, opting to keep it at its current 86-cent level.
As a result, the county’s overall budget has changed slightly, according to Drewry, who explained, given the fact that the county is not moving forward with a tax increase to help pay for the $30 million elementary school, the general fund total for the now-adopted budget has dropped by roughly $728,000 when factoring in other changes in revenues since the budget’s initial presentation in February of this year. The source of much of that reduction comes from a $1.2 million contribution to the county’s debt reserve for construction of the new elementary school “on a compressed timeline,” which would’ve used the five-cent real estate tax increase to help pay for a elementary school that could have seen construction begin as soon as the fall of this year.
While the county’s decision to not proceed with a tax increase this upcoming year was one of the notable takeaways from the FY2019 budget, other changes were made in the adopted budget that was not present in the initial February 2018 budget presentation, including pay raises for county employees.
Absent from the county administrator’s budget in February, it was revealed during the April 24 public hearing on the budget that pay raises would be provided for county staff. As part of the now-adopted budget, those county employees making less than $50,000 per year will see 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. These pay increases only apply to county employees and not school division employees.
Additionally, as part of a salary study to address pay compression and other issues within the Prince George Police Department, $293,141 has been specifically earmarked to help partially implement that study and shift other resources to make pay improvements possible within the department. According to county finance staff, a number of purchases were removed from the county’s general fund for the upcoming year and were instead bought during the current fiscal year, such as three county vehicles, costs related to a new Burrowsville playground, receipt printers and stations for the treasurer’s office, and switch replacements, helped free up just over $158,000 to help finance these pay increases.
Regarding employees of Prince George County Public Schools, in February, as part of their request to the county for the return of over $2.7 million in unspent funds from the previous year, the Prince George School Board said, among other initiatives, they would use $400,000 of that money to pay employees who elect to remain employed with the school division for the 2019 fiscal year, which starts July 1, “a bonus of $500 for all full-time employees and $250 for all permanent part-time employees will be given in July 2018 when each employee signs a continuing contract” at a cost of $350,000 for full-time staffers and $50,000 for part-time staff members.
Over the course of the past several weeks as supervisors debated how much of that $2.7 million would be returned to the school division, last Tuesday’s meeting saw supervisors unanimously agreed to provide just over $1.6 million back to the school division instead, with $254,000 of that money being appropriated in FY2019 to help cover health insurance costs for the coming year.
When looking at the figures within that $1.6 million carryover funding provided by the county, $610,000 would go into the countywide capital improvement plan fund to help pay for windows at South and Harrison elementary schools, along with track and field house improvements, nearly $177,000 would go into the school system’s textbook fund, while the remaining “lump sum carryover from FY2017-18” totals just over $559,000.
That $559,532 does not include the costs of any bonuses to school division employees, according to county documents. The recommended initiatives for those funds that would go into the school division’s operating fund include several state-mandated items, including special education testing items at a cost of $16,500, a vision machine at a cost of $7,000, and $47,632 for a site analysis related to the construction of the new Walton Elementary School. Along with security-related costs at $12,000, the remaining lump sum amount totals $476,400, meaning, if the bonuses were funded using the remaining lump sum, it would consume roughly 84 percent of those funds, leaving just over $76,000 left.
When asked following last week’s meeting, Prince George County School Board Chairman Robert Cox said, given that the school division is slated to receive fewer carryover dollars from the county than it had requested, he said the matter of the bonuses would need to be revisited by the board during their next meeting to see if it will be possible to continue with that. The Prince George School Board was scheduled to meet on Monday, May 14, after our publication’s deadline.
When asked, Prince George Schools superintendent Renee Williams said the employee bonuses were not discussed during the May 14 meeting.
In addition, regarding schools funding in the coming year’s budget, while the county’s memorandum of understanding does prescribe how much of several county revenue sources the school will receive as part of the county’s local funding of Prince George County Public Schools, this year, the school system is slated to receive just over $550,000 more in local funding than in the previous fiscal year, mainly due to increased sales tax revenue and an additional transfer for health insurance costs that will be paid for through the use of carryover funds from the previous year and fund balance, resulting in a local transfer to the schools of just over $16.8 million.
Despite the significant changes to the budget regarding compensation to county employees and law enforcement, much of the FY2019 budget remained the same as its February version or saw minimal changes, while other topics, such as utilities were already set during previous meetings following the board’s decision to move forward with rate adjustments for county water and sewer customers, with water rates rising five percent and sewer increasing by 7.5 percent to help maintain existing infrastructure needs.
County officials also noted, as the General Assembly continues to work on a state budget, “additional revenue revisions could be required for Social Services for Medicaid expansion,” with the county’s department of social services has requested an additional eligibility worker if the state greenlights that expansion.
Additionally, the county has agreed to “consider state revenue changes for the school division and [to] amend [the] budget when [the] General Assembly’s approved estimates are received.”
Following the board’s unanimous adoption of the budget, Board Chairman Alan Carmichael spoke about what message the coming year’s budget sends to the community regarding county priorities and forward-looking planning.
“With any budget, we try to be conservative,” he said. “We really look at the needs and necessities of the county year to year. Of course, we came into this year thinking that a school was on the horizon and we were prepared to work with the schools to make that happen, but we are all still on board with them and this is going to be a little bit slower of a process, but we still plan to stand with them and give them whatever they need to move forward. Not having to go up on the tax rate is always a plus.”
Carmichael added that he and the rest of the board were happy to see that county employee raises were part of this coming year’s budget.
“Anytime you can give some type of compensation back to employees and, of course, you can never give enough, but we always try to make something happen, be it a one-time bonus or raise,” he said. “We really wanted our employees to know that we appreciate what they do and hopefully there are more times in the future where we can see a much larger increase, but trying to stay around the two percent range if we can make that happen for some of them. We are so lucky to have great people running the county, especially our administration and finance departments who are tuned in on our spending, knowing what we have, and being able to find that little extra so we can show our employees that we really care about what they do for us.”
Earlier in the year, the county administrator’s tentative calendar say budget adoption scheduled for May 8, a target the board reached on-time. While the budget has been adopted, it will not formally go into effect until July 1, as that marks the beginning of the 2019 fiscal year.