Last week the Prince William Board of County Supervisors passed a real estate tax rate – but it was not without controversy.
In a 5-3 vote with Anderson, Candland, Lawson, Nohe, and Stewart in favor, and Caddigan, Jenkins, and Principi opposed, the board voted to adopt a flat tax rate of $1.122 per $100 of assessed value – a 1.8% increase.
This means that the average tax bill for property owners in Prince William will be $3,799 for the year – a $77 increase from last year.
The tax rate that was proposed in the county’s five-year Comprehensive plan called for a 3.88% tax increase, which would have adjusted the rate from $1.122 to $1.145. That will not be a reality, following this board vote.
Funding for the schools
One major topic of discussion during the board meeting was the funding for the county’s school system. Each year the Prince William County School Board puts forward a budget draft, which then has to be approved and factored in to the county’s expenditures and budget, by the board of supervisors.
This year, the School Board unanimously passed a $1.09 billion operating budget and spending plan proposal, based on the assumption that the board of supervisors would adopt the 3.88% tax increase. Because of the flat tax rate adoption, that leaves the school board with a $7 million shortfall in the school system’s proposed spending plan for fiscal year 2017.
Currently, the county school system receives 57.23% of the county’s revenue ($526 million this year) to help operate the schools.
But based on earlier budget discussions, that could have not been the case.
Supervisor Ruth Anderson had previously suggested cutting back the revenue sharing percentage with 54%, with the intention of making up that 3.23% in funding with grants from the board, that would specifically outline what the money could be used for. There was also meant to be a School Board matching element to the grants.
The School Board’s legal counsel and the County Attorney Michelle Robl stated that it was not legally possible to reduce the revenue sharing funding and supplement the amount with grants. At last week’s meeting Robl did say that if the full revenue sharing agreement were funded by the board of supervisors, that the board could provide additional money via grants, as long as the school board accepted the terms.
“While we may maintain the revenue sharing agreement at [57.23%]…at a 1.8% tax policy the school budget would be cut $7 million. So this is not a solution – this is not a full solution – this is only a partial solution to the problem,” stated Supervisor Frank Principi.
According to a release, the School Board has stated that while they will have to change their spending plan to accommodate the $7 million shortfall “the focus will be on protecting compensation and retention of qualified teachers and other staff, as well as the continuing efforts to reduce class-sizes and better equip teachers to deal with the numbers of students they face.”
Supervisor Marty Nohe pointed to the distance between the School Board and the board, and called for meetings between the two boards to discuss the budget priorities.
“We don’t have a revenue sharing agreement anymore. We have a pre-established revenue split that we thrust upon the school board – because they haven’t agreed to it…but we need to get back to a place where our budgets are adopted based on both boards,” said Nohe.
Principi went on to ask if a 3% cut or cost-savings across all departments within the county government could fund the $7 million school budget shortfall. The 3% would only create a $2.6 million savings that could be redirected back to the schools.
“That would be a significant impact on the county budget,” said Acting County Executive Christopher Martino.
There are two additional decisions that need to be made by the board of supervisors about the schools that were put off during the tax rate adoption; whether or not to continue a $1 million class-size reduction grant that was started by the board of supervisors last year, and $2 million for acquiring a site to build a new elementary school in Prince William.
Body cameras pilot program to continue
Another topic that was discussed at length during the board meeting was whether or not to continue funding of a pilot program for body cameras for the Prince William County Police Department.
According to the Washington Post, last year the county approved a $3 million plan for 500 county policy officers to wear the body cameras as part of the pilot program.
Martino was among those who expressed concern about the cost of continuing the pilot program, as there were concerns that the county would not be able or willing to fully fund the project so that it could be turned into a standard policy for all county police officers.
“I believe that within five years, every large police department in the country is going to be expected by it’s citizens to have body cameras. It’s the way of the future, and I think we’ve backed away from it too far already,” said Nohe, who felt that the board needed to find a way to fund the program after the completion of the pilot.
The board conducted a straw vote, and decided to keep the pilot program in place, but didn’t make a commitment to finding funding for after the pilot’s completion.
The board decided to hold off on addressing one-time expenditures and projects within the budget, and will discuss these at a later date.
Edit: While the School Board did not receive full funding for their proposed budget, the schools will be receiving $19 million more than the last fiscal year.