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Prince William resident to leaders over $96 tax difference: ‘They can buy back their souls with it’

Calling for more funding of local schools, Prince William County resident Charles Ronco pulled out $96 out of his wallet while addressing the county’s Board of Supervisors, slammed the money down on a podium, and stormed out.

The Prince William County Board of Supervisors will be meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday for another budget work session, to discuss potential cuts and what programs to retain. The ceiling property tax rate — the county’s largest source of revenue — must be advertised as of March 3, only giving the board members a few more days to work out an initial tax rate number.

County Executive Melissa Peacor presented the first draft of the budget at the board meeting earlier this month.

The board took a vote in December and directed Peacor to create a budget with a 1.3% tax increase, which reflects the CPI inflation rate. It was not the 4% increase written in the county’s 5-year plan, decided upon last year. Peacor was given additional restrictions on segments of the budget that had to be fully funded, including public safety and the libraries.

Many of the community programs that had been on the chopping block saw their funding restored. But now leaders must decide what else to cut to ensure taxes do not rise beyond the planned 4% increase. 

“I wasn’t on this board when the direction was given but had I been on the board – I think it’s fair to say that I would have voted for [the 1.3%],” said  newly elected Brenstville Distirct Supervisor Jeanine Lawson.

Occoquan District Supervisor Michael May was not present for the vote, but also stated he was in favor of looking at a budget using the inflation rate.

Gainesville District Supervisor Candland also voiced his support for the 1.3%.

Coles District Supervisor Marty Nohe was against the 1.3% vote, as was Potomac Supervisor Maureen Caddigan, who favored the original 4%.

“My belief then, was that we would end up with a budget that was far too detrimental to our school system’s budget. That the amount of rollbacks that the school board would have to do in order to implement that budget would be more than our community is willing to swallow,” Nohe said.

Corey Stewart, Chairman At-large stated that the vote for the 1.3% was meant only to serve as an exercise to get the county thinking about the types of cuts that could be implemented.

“The vote that the board took in December was the guidance to the County Executive to prepare a budget at the 1.3%, but that is not the rate that the board is ultimately going to adopt, and it’s not even going to be the one we advertise. The purpose of requiring the County Executive to develop the budget at such a low level was to force the county government and the schools into the exercise of looking for cost savings, and trying to identify things we could cut in order to keep tax bills as low as possible,” Stewart said.

Reactions to the initial budget draft

While the board members themselves had differing feelings about the initial budget draft, and the decision to start with the 1.3% rate, the community, and local organizations also expressed concerns.

In fact, Charles Ronco, a Nokesville resident, was in attendance for Peacor’s presentation of the budget to express his upset with the board. During the board meeting, Ronco threw down $96 on the podium.

“If you look at the difference between a 1.3% tax rate and a 4% tax rate – over the course of a year, on a standard, average tax bill – the difference is $96. I’m furious because this is a battle we should not be having. We said we were going to do something – we should do what we said we were going to do…this is about our kid. If they want to improve the lifestyle of our community, they should be raising school programs, they should be raising the standard of living in this county…you want more money in the treasury – you raise tax dollars, by raising property values in the area,” said Ronco.

When asked what Ronco expected the board to do with his $96, he stated, “They can buy back their souls with it.”

Among the various line items that were taken out of the budget, several human services and arts-related programs were cut, including the entire $100,000 funding grant from the Prince William County Arts Council, and the $150,000 operating subsidy for the Hylton Performing Arts Center.

Both organizations were added back into the budget draft at last Saturday’s work session, but still share concerns about the future of this funding.

“As I was reading the [budget draft] numbers, it wasn’t just cutting the [Arts] council, which would be a devastating blow, but it was also cutting grant funding. So the couple of hundred thousands of dollars that has been available – not just to Arts Council members, but to any artist in Prince William – that funding would be gone,” said Sheyna Burt, chairman of the arts council.

The Arts Council and the community group Our Prince William have lobbied the board to keep the funding for the group, asking them to follow the county’s strategic plan of what the community wants to be funded.

“Our sense is what they should do is, in the short term, they should fund the strategic plan. That [strategic plan] is a list of priorities that was drafted at the instruction of the supervisors, by the members of the community, identifying priorities that are important to the community,” Burt commented.

Rick Davis, the Executive Director of the Hylton Performing Arts Center, is optimistic about their funding being maintained on the final budget in April. Davis also stated that the funding is very important to the organization, as if a large or expensive piece of equipment breaks, without the capital reserve built up by the yearly operating subsidy from the board, the Hylton Center may not be able to afford a replacement.

Additionally, the Hylton Center uses the funds from the board to ensure that they have the equipment they need for performances.

“I believe the recent discussions that were held, involving the initial presentation of the budget last Tuesday…are making a strong case for the arts as a positive presence in the community, and a positive return on investment,” said Davis.

Another look at cuts ahead

While there are many differing views on the direction of the county’s tax rate as of right now, there were many commonalities in the priorities that the board stated they had for items to maintain in the budget.

Among the board’s top budgetary priorities are education, transportation, and public safety. But there is a split within the board in terms of their feelings about maintaining line items related to the arts, like the Arts Council and Hylton Center.

Nohe expressed his support for education spending, public safety, and transportation, but also noted that the board and county do benefit from helping to fund local arts initiatives.

“My top priorities for the budget are always going to be to focus on education, transportation and public safety – first and foremost. I think it’s important we as a community have the conversation periodically, about whether or not the county government should be making investments in arts program. But what I’ve heard pretty consistently from folks is that those programs seem to be a small price to pay for the level of service that they provide, and the fact that they guarantee a robust local arts community,” Nohe commented.

Caddigan specifically stated her support for maintaining the funding in the budget for the Hylton Center, as well as other art programs.

“The arts are very important to us in Prince William County. What we do have to do…to bring it down to 4%, we will be working together to see what it is. But I certainly wouldn’t be in support of cutting the arts…[The Hylton Center] is kind of a jewel in Prince William County,” Caddigan said.

Candland did support the reinstatement of arts programs and an organization like the Arts Council, but is opposed to reinstating the Hylton Center’s line item.

“We continue to offer the Hylton Performing Arts Center a subsidy – there’s things out there…the Arts Council is one [cut] that we talked about last year. But they came in, and I think they made a very compelling argument to keep that in the budget. The Hylton Performing Arts subsidy – I’ve been talking about that for years – they’ve actually changed the name – it used to be an operating subsidy…so I don’t really know if I’m comfortable with that little sleight of hand move there,” said Candland.

Stewart stated that the board intended to replace the cuts on parks projects, as well as funding for the jail, two reinstatements that Lawson supported as well.

Freezing pay raises for county employees was included in Peacor’s initial budget draft, but this was largely met with disapproval by the board members.

“Some of the key things that are going to be added back in are compensation increases for county employees…what we don’t want to do is freeze county employee pay for a number of years,” Stewart said.

Candland echoed this sentiment about freezing county pay raises.

“So when we start talking about all of these items [in the budget], there’s money to be found. There’s savings to be found, without going after freezing county pay or, without going after these items, which frankly in my opinion were just suggested to get people riled up. No one on the board of county supervisors was ever going to approve freezing county employee’s pay,” said Candland.

What does the board think about the potential tax rate?

The budget session today will be a further step towards the finalized tax rate from the board, and they only have a few more days to establish the ceiling rate for the county. When Potomac Local spoke with the board, there were also very varied opinions on where the tax rate should be.

Nohe and Caddigan were both supporters of following the county’s 5-year plan and maintaining the 4% tax rate increase, at least for initial advertisement.

Lawson has stated her continued support for the 1.3%, and both Stewart and Candland feel that a reasonable rate will be in the 3% range.

The board has a lot of work and difficult choices ahead, as after many programs were added back to the budget draft last Saturday, the tax bill increase rose over 5%.

“You’d love to fund everything…we’d like to have everything in the budget. The problem is you need to find savings to offset those things we want to add into the budget. With everything we put back in the budget [in a work session] on Saturday…the tax rate was almost 6%. That is just not something we can burden the people of Prince William County with,” Candland said.

The Board is expected to adopt its final version of the 2016 budget April 21. 

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