Chesterfield County’s elected leaders moved forward with knocking a penny off the real estate tax rate Wednesday, riling some in the community early on in the budget season.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to advertise a real estate tax rate of 95 cents per $100 of assessed value, leaving the rest of the county’s taxes unchanged. The county projects that reducing the rate by a penny will mean $3.5 million less in revenue. In the budget adopted last year, real estate taxes were expected to account for $339 million.
Holding up large paper pennies and posters, about a dozen people in the supervisors’ chambers silently opposed the move, though some yelled “shame” after the votes were cast.
Some critics thought the move wasn’t transparent because the vote essentially set the tax rate before they had a chance to comment on the budget. The county administrator’s formal budget proposal is expected in early March.
Supervisors cannot adopt a tax rate that is higher than the advertised rate, though they can go lower. It would be rare for supervisors to readvertise and hold another public hearing to adopt a higher rate than what was advertised.
“2019 is an election year for all of you. And you know that this county went to Ralph Northam. And I want you to know that we are angry at you, especially with what you have done tonight,” said Kate Flinn, a member of the audience who spoke during the meeting.
County leaders indicated Wednesday that they have enough funding, even with the reduced rate, and said they want to give money back to residents.
Budget Director Matt Harris defended the lower rate by saying that home values, on average, are back where they were before the recession. Staff members also cited “solid local economic conditions” and a positive early outlook for the general government operating budget and making progress on finding additional funding for roads and first responders.
In addition, staff members said, the proposed school budget accomplishes key priorities, including in-sourcing custodial services plus completing the 2013 ballot measure that approved millions in school renovations and rebuilds.
Schools Superintendent James Lane has proposed a $647 million operating budget, which represents a $25.5 million increase from last year’s budget. Compared with last year, the budget asks for $8.5 million more from county supervisors.
Lane budgeted $7.7 million to implement a plan that, in part, brings custodial services back in-house to address concerns about the cleanliness of schools.
But School Board members sharply disagreed with a potentially lower tax rate during a budget work session Tuesday.
School Board Chairman John Erbach said he hadn’t heard of a single constituent who said they wanted a tax reduction. Fellow member Javaid Siddiqi suggested that in the future, the School Board should give supervisors a list of needs rather than a balanced budget so that supervisors must then decide what won’t be funded.
“It’s very troubling,” Siddiqi said. “With the growing shift of our county, the poverty that we are dealing with … I’m not sure our county leaders understand some of the things we are grappling with. ... I’m very, very conflicted with where we are as a group of leaders.”
That same night, community members hoisted signs and chanted in front of a budget community meeting attended by Midlothian District Supervisor Leslie Haley and about 300 residents. One poster read, “How can you reduce the rate when so much needs to be done?”
But supervisors didn’t budge.
Supervisor James Holland, the lone Democrat on the board, said he was prepared to vote “no” on the lower advertised rate until he looked at the schools’ budget for the past decade. He said he has encouraged the school system to spend smartly. He also reiterated his support for a meals tax.
Other supervisors cited millions of dollars’ worth of projects and initiatives that the schools have completed, and the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been allocated to the school system over the past decade.
Supervisor Steve Elswick said that schools were adequately funded, and that it was an issue of priorities and spending. It’s mind-boggling to think that because the county may have more money, that they would then spend it, he said. He added that it was time to return the money to the citizens after the county raised the tax rate several years ago to help the school system.
“A penny means everything. It’s OK to lobby for what you want. But you’re also impacting the lives of people that may not be as well off as you,” Elswick said.
A public hearing on the budget is expected to be held March 28.