Residents welcome stable tax rate, offer solutions for schools’ shortfall

Several area residents took time Monday morning to share their thoughts on the Board of Supervisors’ recent decision to set the advertised real estate tax rate for next year at 95 cents – 5 cents below the level necessary to generate the taxes collected this year.

The supervisors can ultimately adopt a tax rate at or below – but not above – the advertised rate. Since the tax rate can now go no higher that 95 cents and 93 percent of the county’s homes lost value during 2009, most homeowners will see a drop in their real estate tax bills this year.

“I’m one who tends to like to keep taxes low, and I like to see the city or county make better use of the funds they have coming in,” Chester resident Tim Tookes said on his way out of the Chester Post Office Monday. A lot of localities are reaching for any possible way they can raise revenue, he said.

“So, [advertising the rate at 95 cents] is good short-term news, but who knows what will happen beyond that?” he said.

Bret Efird, who lives near Colonial Heights, said not raising the real estate tax rate was “a good thing” from his perspective as a homeowner. But, something else, probably schools, will end up getting cut, he said, and “that’s never good.”

In fiscal 2011, a $53 million to $56 million revenue shortfall is projected for the county and schools combined operating funding, though the budget outlook “continues to change week over week as new information becomes available,” Budget and Management Director Allan Carmody said last week.

At the Feb. 24 meeting, School Board Chairman David Wyman said the school system has “been cutting and slashing costs for the last two years.” Officials need to look beyond the next 12 months and make sure there are adequate resources available to the schools to maintain much of the progress they have achieved in recent years, he said.

“As a School Board, we have supported and we have been public in our communication of supporting … a tax rate increase up to $1,” Wyman said. “And that is the full School Board, not just me talking to you.”

On Monday, Chester resident Roy Mastro, who was among the 3 percent of homeowners whose assessments went up this year, said he doesn’t think “everybody in the county needs to suffer with the real estate tax” to solve the school system’s problem. The answer, he said, is a 5 to 7 percent cut in all salaries until times are better.

“It starts at the School Board,” he said. “If they’re not going to take a 5 to 7 percent cut, they’re setting a bad example.

“In order to fix the school system, you need to maintain and keep all the teachers. If you keep all the teachers, the students win. If you lay off the teachers, you’re compounding the Virginia problem.”

But, Chester resident Gary Parsons said he would be for raising the tax if the money went to the county’s schools.

“They do need help,” he said.

When four of the current supervisors took office, they came with the goal of “right-sizing the county government,” Supervisors Chairman Dan Gecker said at the Feb. 24 meeting, and maintaining quality services while being sensitive to the fiscal reality is still the board’s goal. But, past a certain point cuts will begin to affect the quantity and quality of county services, he said.

Given the uncertainty of the state budget, Gecker said he thought the board had an obligation to citizens to advertise a tax rate that “will help us fill a gap if that gap occurs through lack of state funding.” Gecker made a motion to advertise the tax rate at 99 cents, but his motion failed for lack of a second.

Bermuda District Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle said the county’s decline in revenue was a reflection of the general economic downturn, and she thought it was the board’s responsibility to budget accordingly. Dale District Supervisor Jim Holland said he was confident the county could balance its budget and its employees could work smarter and harder to maintain services.

Holland’s motion that the board advertise a tax rate of 95 cents was ultimately adopted in a 4-1 vote, with Gecker in dissent.

In a statement released in response to the board’s decision, Superintendent Marcus J. Newsome says “additional funding by increasing the real estate tax represents one of several funding options suggested to county leaders.”

“It was not adopted,” he says. “We remain hopeful that the county’s proposed budget released [March 3] will reflect our requests to fund schools at the current 61.3 percent of tax collections and return all of the school division’s accrued savings from FY 2008 and FY 2009.”

On Monday, Joann Sprouse said she thought the schools should be given more money, but she’d also heard that some central office administrators were getting benefits they shouldn’t necessarily be getting.

“I think your teachers and the supplies to the students should be taken better care of,” she said. “I just think we need to start thinking about the children. … I think there’s things that can be cut for these bigwigs that are getting more than we can afford to give them in this economy.”


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