Prince William County Budget Choices
I was reviewing the Prince William County budget report FY2014 Budget Choices by County Executive Melissa Peacor, and noticed several items worth reporting on this blog. I lived in Manassas until I was 25 (1965-1990). I worked for the Prince William County Police Department & Sheriff’s Office for 13 years (1990-2003). I can verify the culture of budget accountability is to trim every dollar possible from yearly budgets to avoid issuing higher tax rates. But this year is different. Corey Stewart, Chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors wants to leave property taxes at its current rate of $1.209 per $100 of assessed value. John Jenkins, Neabsco Magisterial District Supervisor wants to increase the property tax rate to $1.2976 per $100 of assessed value.
The Prince William County Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) has elected to keep the tax rate flat for the last 10 years. This makes any increase in property taxes surprising. Corey Stewart wants budget cuts of 9.6 million in discretionary spending, while John Jenkins says it’s necessary to increase the tax rate to $1.2976 per $100 of assessed value. This is a 10.5% tax increase, and would raise the average tax bill by $29 per month. Mr. Jenkins (Neabsco District Supervisor since 1982) cites the need to raise taxes to replace aging infrastructure, construct 9 public safety communication towers, replace an aging fleet of county vehicles, provide lighting for county recreation fields which now run on limited schedules, and provide a 4% increase in county employee pay which was frozen in 2007. The proposed tax increase would also avoid the spending cuts proposed by Corey Stewart. John Jenkins (D) Neabsco District Supervisor recommends a tax rate increase for FY2014. If the FY2014 tax rate remains flat, discretionary cuts for human services programs would cut funding in these areas:
- Public health and human services.
- Family and community services.
- Senior citizen services and health programs for women and children.
- Free health clinics.
- Chronic treatment services.
John Jenkins hopes to avoid these cuts as well as a reduction in spending for parks and recreation, public schools, public safety, and libraries. The higher proposed tax rate will generate about $19 million in more revenues which Supervisor Jenkins would use to hire 25 more police officers for $3.1 million, and 25-30 more fire & rescue technicians for $2.75 million. Other uses for the increased revenue include the purchase of new voting machines for $2.1 million, and $2.2 million spent on courthouse security upgrades. Focus of FY2014 Budget During 2012 the Prince William County BOCS adopted the 2013-17 Five Year Plan (County Resolution 12-514) to provide guidance for budgeting. This plan includes a 4% tax increase for each year for covering funding decisions made during past budget agreements. The guidance of the five-year fiscal plan have led to these measures to create the FY14 budget.
- Continue revenue sharing with Prince William County Public Schools at 56.75% of the overall budget.
- Maintain the strategic priorities of economic development, transportation initiatives, and public safety.
- Maintain the bond rating of AAA from Standard and Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch.
- Do not provide local funding for discontinued state and federal programs.
- Identify critical unmet needs and funding options.
- Use risk scoring methods to identify budget priorities.
Considerations for Adopting a 2014 Budget
- If tax rates remain flat the FY2014 budget will fall short by $22 million.
- Public Safety in FY2014 will be 22% ($239 million) of overall expenditures.
- The FY14 budget for the Police Department is $80 million.
- If discretionary cuts are made the Police Department could lose more than $9 million.
- The Human Services FY2014 budget has 57% discretionary spending.
- Prince William County median income grew by 9.1% ($7,903) from 2007-2011.
- The average real estate tax bill from 2000-2007 increased by 40%. The lowest in Northern Virginia.
- Current population (413,396) has increased 47.21% since 2000 requiring infrastructure improvements.
- Households with registered students in Prince William County Public Schools is 41.9%. This is a 43% increase during the last 10 years.
- 3% annual growth in median income since 2010.
Discretionary Spending Cuts in the Flat Tax Rate Plan Budget: FY2014 FY2015 FY2016 FY2017 revenue loss County: $9.1M $19M $29.7M $40.7M $98.7M Schools: $12M $25M $38.9M $53.6M $129.5M Using a flat tax rate the total in budget cuts through FY2017 equals $228.2 million. It appears impossible for the Prince William County Government, and Prince William County Public Schools to work with these revenue losses without a noticeable decline in services, education, and public safety. I attended schools in Prince William County (Manassas) for 12 years. During this time (1971-1983) I remember discussions involving user fees for certain electives, activities, and athletic programs to avoid raising taxes. Current discussions include the accounting setback of funding capital improvement projects usually requiring bond referendums. Another example of a budget culture in Prince William County of doing more with less available funds. I am a fiscal conservative. But maintaining flat tax rates will not work while growth requires occasional revenue increases to fund capital growth projects. These tables provide a detailed explanation supporting tax increases for FY2014: Fy2013 Adopted Average Tax Bills (lowest to highest) Jurisdiction Tax Rate Tax Bill Median Income
- Prince William 3.8% $3,507 $95,146
- Loudoun 4.2% $4,961 $119,134
- Fairfax 4.8% $4,913 $105,797
- Arlington 5.3% $5,043 $100,735
- Alexandria 5.8% $4,537 $82,748
Growth Rate (lowest to highest) of Real Estate Tax Bill (2007-2012)
- Prince William 1.4%
- Fairfax 1.8%
- Loudoun 2.4%
- Alexandria 7.3%
- Arlington 14.7%
The above numbers show yearly flat tax rates have kept Prince William County at the bottom of tax collection in Northern Virginia since 2007. If county services are expected to compare to surrounding jurisdictions it will take increased tax rates to avoid quality-of-life issues in our communities. Corey Stuart’s tax cut recommendations aren’t the product of wasteful spending. It’s the exact opposite of the spending abuses of the federal government. I’ll illustrate how little tax payer dollars are wasted in Prince William County. During 1999 I was conducting a murder investigation for the Prince William County Police Department when I purchased a bottle of water traveling to California to conduct a suspect interview. The $2 reimbursement listed on expense report was denied after ruling the purchase unauthorized.
My thoughts immediately lead me to question why I continued to work for Prince William County. I firmly believe the culture of doing more with less for the sake of maintaining a flat tax rate for the past 10 years needs to change occasionally. I observed respected county employees leave the work force every year when pay increases and department budgets slashed. I always thought losing experienced and talented county employees wasn’t worth the near-term cost savings. Supervisor John Jenkins has spent decades in the service of Prince William County as the Neabsco District Supervisor. He also mentioned the loss of experienced employees after stopping merit pay and cost of living increases as a talking point for the FY2014 Budget discussions. While I was a county employee he was viewed as cautious and forward thinking when the discussion involved budget matters. As an example, when funded positions in the police budget went unfilled it was John Jenkins demanding the immediate hire of new officers. His position on the FY2014 budget leads me to think unless the tax rate is increased Prince William County will operate with a less than completely functioning government for meeting the current and forward needs of citizens. If he thinks property taxes must increase to meet basic infrastructure demands I believe it is imperative to raise tax rates.
The wildcard of raising taxes during FY2014 rests with sequestration of the federal budget. If this occurs Prince William County could lose an estimated 7,000 jobs. Raising taxes would be tough on those affected by sequestration. So I understand BOCS Chairman Corey Stewart’s thoughts on cutting taxes. But the revenue losses would cause a noticeable decline in local services, and meeting the demands and expectations of public schools . Improving the quality of life in Prince William County demands a tax increase. If tax cuts are made citizens should simply expect a lower quality of government services. Prince William County residents should consider the election campaign of Cory Stewart in 2013 for Lieutenant Governor. If he is elected he will not oversee his budget recommendations. The Prince William County BOCS will announce a proposed tax rate for FY2014 on February 21, 2013. Adoption of the FY2014 budget is scheduled to occur on April 24, 2013.