By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: May 1, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.
Rising Riverside Jail costs saps much of county’s extra revenue
PRINCE GEORGE – The matter of the county budget now lies in the hands of supervisors after a public hearing last week saw no one opt to partake in the opportunity to share their thoughts on the $123 million proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Last week’s hearing was one of the last steps required before the county can formally adopt its budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which starts on July 1. While no one from the community spoke at the podium last week, the public hearing provided an opportunity for Deputy County Administrator Betsy Drewry to walk through some of the adjustments made to the budget since it was first presented to the community on February 26 by County Administrator Percy Ashcraft.
Since his late-February presentation, the budget has seen roughly $569,000 in changes, with the $123 million budget that is up for consideration for adoption being six percent, or just over $7 million higher than the county’s current-year adopted budget of $116 million.
In April, the county voted unanimously to keep the county tax levies the same as they are currently for the upcoming fiscal year, meaning the real estate and mobile home/tangible personal property tax rates will stay at 86 cents per $100 of assessed value, personal property will be levied at $4.25 per $100 of assessed value, and machinery and tools will be taxed at a rate of $1.50 per $100 of assessed value, even though some in the community asked the county to consider allowing the real estate tax rate to automatically fall back to its equalization rate of 83 cents per $100 of assessed value following recent assessment data, allowing for some relief to county property owners.
Had the county not advertised and formally set an effective tax rate of 86 cents, state law would’ve allowed for that equalization rate to take effect.
Over the course of the last few months, the county has stressed they are facing significant headwinds when it comes to two areas of spending, Comprehensive Services Act mandates and contributions to Riverside Regional Jail, with both Ashcraft and Drewry noting the increased spending in these two areas leaves impacts in other parts of the budget as the county factors in an increase of over $1 million in spending between them.
Regarding Riverside Regional Jail, the county has factored in a recently approved increase to the jail’s per diem for inmate housing rate from $40 to $43. That increase was needed in the face of declining inmate populations at the jail as member locality Chesterfield has cut back the number of inmates they are sending “by approximately 200,” jail authority board member Ashcraft explained following his budget presentation in February, which has “put a real strain on the jail’s ability to operate.”
That, paired with an uptick in the number of inmates Prince George County is sending to the jail, with the county’s projected average daily population estimated at nearly 130, up just under 37 inmates, results in an increase in spending of 50 percent by the county to the jail during FY2020, to the tune of $676,886.
In addition, the county is already bracing for overspending during the current financial year due to the increased number of inmates being sent to the jail by the county, as the county had budgeted $550,000 for the entire year but they expect to exceed that before the end of the fiscal year.
It’s something the county has noted in the past has significantly impacted spending in the currently proposed budget, with Ashcraft noting much of the benefit from an expected small increase in real estate tax revenue is offset due to the increase in jail spending.
“That took away any discretionary money that we had to do some other things in this budget and I clearly say that in our message to the Board,” Ashcraft said in February. “That $676,886 represents just how much less money we had to do some of the things that we were hoping to do.”
The second factor playing a major role in the county’s budget is required spending as part of the state’s Comprehensive Services Act, which helps at-risk youth and families in Virginia’s communities. According to the state’s department of education, the aim for the Act is to “high quality, child-centered, family-focused, cost-effective, community-based services to high-risk youth and their families” by pooling several funding streams together to provide services to high-risk youth. Those funds are then “returned to the localities with a required state/ local match.”
According to county records, they are projecting expenditures to rise by over 54 percent during FY2020 from $1.2 million to $1.95 million, with the local match for that increase being $623,173.
Drewry’s presentation highlighted other planned expenditures for the county’s budget next fiscal year if adopted in its current form. The county plans to continue to absorb health insurance increases without passing those along to employees, with this year’s increase hovering just over nine percent, below the projected nearly 12 percent placeholder slotted into the budget in February prior to the true percentage increase being known.
Additionally, as the county works to address compensation, this year’s budget provides funding to allow for paid fire and EMS employees to be moved to a similar pay plan the county’s sworn police officers were transitioned to last year and allowed for parts of county’s recent salary study to be implemented, with a focus on addressing pay compression for employees where there is little difference in pay or salary despite experience or skills.
To that end, the county does plan to provide a pay increase to all full-time and regular part-time staff in the FY2020 budget. Utilizing nearly $400,000, those county employees who have a salary under $50,000 will receive a $1,000 pay increase. Those with salaries ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 would receive a two percent salary increase, while those making over $100,000 would get a $2,000 pay raise.
Drewry noted the employees will receive the higher of that scaled pay increase or 25 percent of the second phase of the county’s salary study that addresses pay compression.
Part-time regular staff will receive half the pay increase that full-time employees will get this coming year.
The budget also includes new two positions, a deputy sheriff and assistant commonwealth’s attorney but, those are predicated on if the positions are approved by the Virginia Compensation Board, who provides funding for state constitutional officers and contribute toward the total costs of operations. The county expects to have more guidance on these two proposed positions in early May after that board finalizes their revenues.
The county’s local contribution to the school division through the tenets of the memorandum of understanding agreement remains the same as it was proposed in February, resting at $16.6 million, up just over $141,000. According to the county, the school budget’s growth is “attributable to increased Federal and State revenue projections, and use of fund balance for textbooks.”
Additionally, they note the school division’s budget as adopted by the school board is roughly $306,000 higher than what was proposed in the county administrator’s budget due to an increase in state dollars.
Along with a number of equipment and vehicle purchases, the county will begin payments on their Spring debt issuance during the coming fiscal year, which saw supervisors approve $9.45 million in new debt to pay for a number of capital projects, the highlight being funding for a replacement to the aging Jefferson Park Fire Station, addressing a longtime community concern.
Over the course of their work sessions, supervisors also gave the green light to look into pay improvements for communications officers by two grades for $42,670 while also using adding two fire/EMS lieutenants at a cost of $166,368, which will be covered by revenue generated from now-adopted increases in medical transport and mileage rates.
According to county documents, effective July 1, the BLS rate for medical transport will rise from $450 to $525, ALS1 will increase by $100 to $600, and ALS2 will rise by $200 to $800. In addition, the mileage rate will increase from $8.25 per mile to $12 per mile.
With the public hearing now completed, the board is expected to take action on their budget during their meeting on May 14, with information on from the state compensation board expected to be available, which will determine if the two positions – deputy sheriff and assistant commonwealth’s attorney – will be kept in the coming year budget. Other data, including an update on salaries and benefits for a number of employees and utility fund capital improvement plans, is also expected to be discussed as the budget is finalized.