Tax rates stay level in Administrator’s proposed budget

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: March 7, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

No funding for elementary school in FY2020 budget

PRINCE GEORGE – Prince George County leaders got their first look at County Administrator Percy Ashcraft’s budget for the upcoming year last week, which features no increases in local tax rates or fees and a focus on maintaining services in the face of lean revenue projections and heightened costs in some areas.

During a half-hour presentation to supervisors at their regular meeting last week, Ashcraft unveiled his $122.5 million budget, up just over five percent over the current fiscal year’s adopted budget, built of an understanding that the modest gains found in the county’s real estate tax revenue would largely be lost due to increases in expenses related to Riverside Regional Jail and mandates of the Comprehensive Services Act.

Following last year’s budget presentation where Ashcraft proposed a five-cent real estate tax rate increase to help fund the costs associated with constructing a new elementary school in the county before that rate increase was eventually nixed, many residents kept a close eye on what this year’s budget presentation would hold. Talk of a new elementary school was nowhere to be found in his proposed budget and when discussing revenue, Ashcraft confirmed the county’s real estate tax rate would remain at 86 cents per $100 of assessed value in his proposed budget, which is second highest when looking at Prince George’s neighbors as Sussex County has the lowest at 58 cents per $100 of assessed value and Chesterfield has the highest at 95 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Prince George and its surrounding counties’ real estate tax rates remain below that of its neighboring independent cities, with Hopewell resting at $1.13 per $100 of assessed value, Colonial Heights at $1.20, and Petersburg at $1.35.

When asked, Ashcraft said he was asked to forgo including an elementary school as part of this proposed budget.

“I was directed by the Board, as there was no decision on the location, to not include it in the proposed budget until whenever the two boards can decide where it goes and how much it is going to cost,” he explained, noting that the proposed five cent increase last year “would not fund the school right now.”

The county’s financial analysts have estimated that the school, which is likely to cost well over $30 million to build, would require a real estate tax rate increase closer to eight cents.

Regarding Ashcraft’s revenue outlook for the coming year, he said they expect to see an increase in real estate revenue to the tune of $760,000, or three percent over the current fiscal year, but most other revenue streams will remain flat overall, with economic impacts, like the closure of ACE Hardware’s center in the county affecting the county’s bottom line as that represents tax dollars lost. He did say they are experiencing success in tackling delinquent taxes and getting those dollars into the county coffers and they expect that to continue into the next fiscal year.

Residents and county employees listen along with supervisors to County Administrator Percy Ashcraft deliver his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. (Michael Campbell)

“We have put a lot of emphasis on that,” he said. “We even hired a third-party company to help us with that last year, TACS and they have been doing a pretty good job. We are seeing some dribbles and drafts coming in that weren’t able to get our hands on before so we are optimistic that we are going to be able to bite into that amount because it has been too high for too many years.”

He added that county water and sewer customers would not see their rates increase during the upcoming year in his proposed budget, noting they felt the utility was in a good place financially following a couple of years of realigning rates to better match costs of operation and that they are closely watching Virginia American Water’s efforts to raise rates, which would affect some county residents.

“Any increase [Virginia American Water] gets, the county has to absorb it so if it gets passed on next year, we wanted to make sure we knew exactly what we were passing on and not just picking an arbitrary number,” he said.

Given the outlook of modest growth in revenue, Ashcraft’s budget focuses on maintaining services and completing current projects without adding additional capital projects to the county’s queue. This year’s proposed budget does not feature any capital projects, except for $400,000 to continue the ongoing replacement program for law enforcement vehicles, telling supervisors the recent trend of borrowing to cover costs of capital projects is being paused.

“We don’t have any more capacity to borrow without increasing revenue,” he said. “Whether there is the consideration of a school or any other capital project, we have reached our debt capacity for us to be able to borrow without raising more revenue. We have been fortunate to be able to do that for the last few years, but we have reached that limit.”

With salaries and benefits being the largest expenditures for the county as it pays for its workforce, Ashcraft’s budget does provide for pay increases for all county workers, using the same structure as last year’s pay raise, even though he explained, due to the increased expenditures, the results of the recent salary study executed by the county won’t be rolled out this coming year.

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. 

In addition, the county would absorb all of the expected 11 percent increase in health insurance costs, with employee premiums remaining the same in the coming year.

Another major line item is education and the county is expected to make a local contribution to the county school division of $16.6 million, which, according to the superintendent’s recent budget presentation, is in line with their estimates of $16.5 million. 

In regards to public safety, the county’s Fire and EMS budget is proposed to be funded at $3.2 million, up 13 percent over last year and the county police department’s budget is proposed to be funded at just under $6 million, up five percent over last year. In addition, volunteer fire and rescue companies will be funded at $5.7 million, which includes direct contributions from the County; funds through the Department of Fire & EMS budget; SAFER grant amounts; and special programs such as Line of Duty Act and Length of Service Awards Program

Volunteer Fire and EMS companies will also receive the proceeds of two cents of the county’s real estate tax rate being set aside in an apparatus replacement fund. That fund would be used to help pay for specific fire and rescue vehicles.

Ashcraft noted the biggest impact on the county’s budget, heightened costs at Riverside Regional Jail, resulted in a 50 percent increase in the county’s contribution to the jail. 

“Increases in the daily population, coupled with declining jail revenue, have created the need for an increased Prince George County contribution of $676,886, or 50% over last year,” Ashcraft explained in his budget message. 

That figure ties directly to the number of inmates the county is sending to the jail, nearly 40 more than last year, and a proposed increase to the per diem rate, from $40 to $43 per day, which the jail authority expected to approve that financial recommendation late last week.

In addition, the county’s CSA spending has grown by over 50 percent to $1.9 million, of which $623,173 is a required local match. 

Following Ashcraft’s presentation and each member of the board of supervisors being handed hard copy’s of the budget, the work begins to craft the final product, something Chairman Donald Hunter said he and his fellow supervisors are ready to do.

“As we work further on this document, I look forward to talking with Mr. Ashcraft and getting the in-depth explanations so we fully understand what we are working with,” Hunter said. “On the first look, it looks like a good presentation and it is a workable budget that is balanced. We don’t have any fluff and, while there are a lot of things we would like to do in the county, we are kind of at our max, and we do not want to do a tax increase at this point until we know we are ready to do something with some of the other things we are talking about.”

The county will hold its first work session on Thursday, March 7, where supervisors are expected to decide on the tax rate, with a public hearing on that tax rate likely to occur on April 9. 

The budget is tentatively expected to be adopted on May 14 following an April 23rd public hearing. By state law, the budget cannot be adopted the same day as the public hearing, as a minimum of seven days must pass between the hearing and its adoption.

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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