Chesterfield County’s population is projected to hit 400,000 in 12 years, part of a steady growth trend straining public safety agencies. A 51 percent increase in the senior population is projected by 2030. Drug overdoses continue at an alarming rate. And residents are calling for more transportation options within the county.
During a daylong work session on the county’s $711 million proposed budget last week, a carousel of department heads and public safety leaders made their case to supervisors on what needs more investment. The following topics appear likely to dominate debate on the budget, which the Board of Supervisors plans to vote on next month and is required to adopt by May 1.
A round of community budget meetings is scheduled to be held through March 27, and a formal budget public hearing is set for 6 p.m. March 28. The budget and accompanying plan that lays out facility projects over the next five years is slated to be adopted April 11. The detailed budget book is posted to the county’s website.
Coming through on an effort he mentioned last year, County Administrator Joe Casey’s budget proposal assumes the 1-cent reduction in the real estate tax rate to 95 cents per $100 of value. Even after knocking a penny off the rate, the county expects a $15 million increase in local real estate tax collections this year thanks to higher assessment values. A penny on the tax rate is worth about $3.5 million to the county, a figure opponents of the tax reduction rely on when they argue the tax reduction will harm the school system.
The average real estate assessment in Chesterfield increased by about 3.7 percent, with the average single-family home valued at $250,000. The 1-cent reduction combined with the increased assessments will result in a roughly $70 increase to the average annual real estate tax bill for Chesterfield residents.
The growing wave of seniors in the county means an additional $1.7 million cost to continue offering a tax relief program for the elderly and disabled. The proposed price tag of the program, $5.3 million, is 28 percent higher than the current budget.
Chesterfield residents can also likely anticipate a $3.92 increase in the average bimonthly water and sewer bill, the majority of that for upgrades.
Some of the budget battles so far have centered on what the proposal isn’t funding for schools, including major maintenance projects and additional class size reductions.
The $8.3 million increase for the school system — for a total $283 million transfer — is larger than what the county’s five-year plan calls for. But it helps fund such major school initiatives as hiring custodians after a failed attempt to save money by outsourcing the jobs; pushing back some of the earliest school start times in the state; raising wages for school employees and substitute teachers; and $600,000 for special education class size reductions. It also supports the shifting of renovation projects to rebuilds for five elementary schools: Crestwood, Ettrick, Harrowgate, Matoaca and Reams Road.
On the county side, employees would also see a 2.3 percent pay raise under Casey’s proposal, with employees earning less than $40,000 receiving an additional 0.7 percent increase.
Increased alternative transportation options within the county was couched within a larger discussion of the growing senior population. But calls for more transportation options have also come from low-income residents, particularly from those living along the Jefferson Davis Highway corridor.
Within the county, two-thirds of the households do not have children, a reversal of a trend seen during the county’s housing boom in the 1970s and 1980s. Access Chesterfield, an appointment-based service, is heavily used by the senior population, Deputy County Administrator Matt Harris said. It also serves disabled and low-income residents.
In response to increased demand, the budget proposal adds about $275,000 to Access Chesterfield, which serves about 1,100 people. That follows an increase from last year. More than 10,000 people are registered with the program, which includes those who may have temporarily used the program after a hospital stay, for example.
The budget includes about $95,000 to explore more transportation options that would be similar to the Access Chesterfield appointment-based system.
Because of the different locations and varied hours of people’s jobs along the Jefferson Davis corridor, it’s difficult to get a fixed-bus route that will accommodate those needs, Supervisor Dorothy Jaeckle said. She said many people along the corridor have home-based care and retail jobs.
Despite the data staff have gathered on Access Chesterfield’s trip frequency and locations, Casey said more information needs to be gathered on when and where the demand is heaviest for services in certain areas.
“If we have a high concentration of people at 8 a.m. every Monday using a service, it may be cheaper to pivot back to more of a ride-share based service or even pivot it to a bus service, if in fact the cost is cheaper per rider and/or cheaper as a subsidy as a local government,” Casey said. “The customer will decide what we need to do. We just have to monitor that.”
A pilot program involving Goodwill and Uber for Business has launched, which is providing trips for people in the county recovering from drug addiction for any treatment-related purpose. If the pilot is successful, the county may explore a similar pilot on the Jefferson Davis corridor, staff members said. Staff want to issue a request for proposals early next year to get more private businesses to provide similar services for more people.
Officials are scrambling to figure out what will work to stem the tide of drug overdoses in the county.
So far this year, the numbers aren’t looking any more promising than in past years, said Community Services Board Executive Director Debbie Burcham.
“We haven’t gotten a handle on this yet,” Burcham said.
Fatal overdoses in the county have climbed from 10 in 2013 to 39 in 2017. Over that same period, nonfatal overdoses increased from 33 to 181.
Chesterfield has launched a steering committee that Burcham hopes will be able to say which interventions are most effective. The proposed budget supports the creation of an opioid outreach coordinator in the police department for $66,000, a re-entry coordinator in the Sheriff’s Office and a data analyst.
The county has launched public information campaigns on how to dispose of unused medications. Information packets were sent out to the ZIP codes with high numbers of drug abuse. And all of the county’s public safety agencies either have implemented or are in the process of implementing programs that allow them to carry naloxone, an overdose reversal drug. However, those programs are supported mostly by grants.
Supervisor Steve Elswick wondered how the county would pay to replenish the drug once the grant money runs out, which staff members said could become an added local expense.
Fire Chief Edward Senter Jr. told supervisors that the growth in the county means calls for service are expected to break records again this year. All of the county’s public safety agencies would either see boosts in staffing, pay or career development options under the proposed budget.
Sheriff’s deputies starting pay would increase to $40,500. The police department’s $69.3 million budget would see boosts in staffing, including increasing part-time staffing levels to free up sworn officers for front-line duty as well as 15 more permanent officer slots so that the department can run recruitment programs without taking officers off regular duty.
The police department would also see three additional positions for the property and evidence room, crime data analysis and an opioid outreach coordinator.
The Fire and EMS department will add eight positions so that ambulances can serve the Harrowgate Fire Station, which opened in 2015 and has seen increased demand, 24 hours a day.
With the state budget still in limbo, it remains unclear whether the county will have to pay for more staff for the chief prosecutor’s office to review footage of cameras worn by police officers. Supervisors have recently butted heads with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and state Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, over local support for those positions.
At this point, Casey and county leaders are calling on the state to better fund the office. Chase has said the purchase of body cameras was not a state mandate and the localities should handle the costs, while Commonwealth’s Attorney William Davenport has complained that supervisors do not trust him.