By Alex Bridges
Public safety makes up the second-largest portion of spending for Shenandoah County and would remain so under the next fiscal budget as proposed.
The possible hiring of four more sheriff's deputies would make only a small dent in the entire budget if approved later this month.
The Board of Supervisors will hold the required public hearing on the proposed fiscal 2014 budget at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The proposal calls for the county to spend $56.54 million in local money - $3.81 million more than current budget of $52.72 million, or an increase of 7.2 percent.
The county plans to spend approximately $27.28 million in local money on public schools or slightly more than 48 percent of the general fund. That amount includes $23.48 million earmarked for county schools, $3.24 million to pay off debt plus $562,000 for capital expenses and education-related items.
Public safety, at $12.61 million, makes up 22.3 percent of the proposed budget.
The new budget includes a 6-cent, or 12 percent, increase in the real estate tax rate that would raise the levy from 51 cents to 57 cents per $100 of the assessed value. The proposal also includes a 35-cent increase in the personal property tax rate that would raise the levy from $3.15 to $3.50 per $100 of assessed value.
The county advertised the tax rates and proposed budget for the public hearing. By law, the supervisors may vote on tax rates at or below the advertised amounts but cannot exceed the levies without re-advertising the public hearing. State law also requires the board to wait at least seven days after the public hearing to take action on the budget and tax rates.
Public safety spending will take up a large chunk of the proposed budget that could be approved April 23 by the supervisors. The new budget would go into effect July 1.
This current year's budget for public safety is $11.6 million, or 22 percent of the total budget. The school system gets the largest piece of the local funding budget pie at $23.48 million, or 41 percent. That amount does not include what the county school system must pay toward outstanding debt.
The increase in paid firefighters over time comes as a result of the department and the Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue Association addressing a need for more responders through a staffing plan created years ago, Chief Gary Yew said in a recent interview.
Over the years, the number of calls for service have increased. At the same time, the department has tried to decrease the amount of time it takes for fire and rescue workers to respond to these calls, Yew said. The department also must adhere to federal guidelines pertaining to the number of firefighters responding to calls. Likewise, the department acknowledges the growing needs of the volunteer agencies.
The new budget calls for the county to increase spending on public safety by $1 million - an 8 percent increase over the current year, to $12.6 million, but it does not include Yew's request for more firefighters.
Next to local funding for the school system, police, fire and rescue remain one of the county's top priorities in terms of spending, supervisors have said. At recent meetings, Supervisor David Ferguson has pointed out the importance but also the impact that funding public safety has on the county budget. But rather than hire more firefighters, the county intends to increase law enforcement's presence at the local schools with more resource officers.
Sheriff Timothy F. Carter said it would cost $203,133 in salaries and benefits to hire four more deputies as requested by his department in response to community input. That amount makes up 1.6 percent of the $12.6 million proposed in public safety spending for the upcoming fiscal year. Carter has offered asset forfeiture monies received through law enforcement efforts to cover some of the expense for the officers.
Last year, supervisors backed Yew's continued request for firefighters, though not all that the chief wanted. This year, supervisors appear favorable to hiring additional deputies to staff public schools as requested by residents who attended community forums this year in reaction to the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
"I certainly think the need is still there," Yew said earlier this week about his request for more firefighters. "But, at the same token, I'm very sympathetic to the needs of many other departments and agencies within the county that county government has to support. I understand tough decisions have to be made and we'll work with that."
The department likely would seek to hire more firefighters in future years based on the staffing plan, Yew added.
Prior to leaving in March, County Administrator Douglas Walker told supervisors the board's choice to include eight more firefighters in the current budget put a pinch in the local finances. In fact, so far this year the county has spent $1.8 million in salaries and benefits for all paid firefighters - only $117,000 more than in the previous fiscal period. Additional spending equates to 6.5 percent of the total spent so far on salaries, but only 1 percent of the total budgeted for public safety.
Data provided by the county to the Northern Virginia Daily through a Freedom of Information Act request shows that government spending on fire and rescue has increased over the years, even when the department hired no firefighters.
The county fire and rescue department began to hire paid firefighters in 2005. In late November of that year, the county department hired eight firefighters, according to data supplied by the county. The agency hired six more firefighters in mid-August 2006; four in late July 2007 and another eight in late January 2008.
What the county spent on salaries and benefits for paid firefighters and emergency medical technicians increased as the department grew. In fiscal 2006, the county spent $214,461 on salaries and benefits. That amount more than tripled the next fiscal year to $684,218, according to county data.
The county spent almost $1.27 million in fiscal 2008 -- nearly double that of the previous year. The department hired no more paid firefighters or emergency medical technicians until Aug. 20, 2012.
Even though the county did not hire firefighters or emergency medical technicians in fiscal 2009, the amount spent on personnel increased to almost $1.47 million that year. Spending increased in fiscal 2010 slightly to $1.5 million, but dropped to $1.49 million the following year.
The county allocated $1.68 million in the current fiscal 2012-13 on salaries and benefits for firefighters and emergency medical technicians - an increase of almost $100,000 or 12.6 percent over the previous period. The budget included the hiring of eight more firefighters - less than the 13 Yew had requested - bringing the total to 34.
The county has spent approximately $1.8 million on salaries and benefits for paid firefighters so far this fiscal year.