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Major projects in future for Strasburg

By Alex Bridges

Even as Strasburg pays off old loans in coming years, town officials can expect more debt with big projects.

Strasburg took out bonds years ago to pay for projects long-since completed. Town Manager Judson Rex explained Monday that those bonds will soon be paid off. Retiring the debt may give the town some financial cushion as it begins work on other, high-dollar projects, Rex said.

Town Council recently saw a presentation on what Rex called a "snapshot" of Strasburg's budgets in a few years. Council plans to continue its discussion on the budget outlook at a work session next week. When council adopts a fiscal budget for each year, staff prepares revenue and spending projections for five years at a time, Rex noted. This approach helps staff and council plan ahead in the short term.

Town officials expect to pay off some of Strasburg's older, long-term debts in the next couple of years, in the middle of the current, five-year projection period, Rex said. Staff felt it was the right time to present information to council regarding the town's finances, projections and how that relates to future initiatives.

"As part of this budget forecast, the purpose of what we were really looking at is to try to find how much capacity we'll have for these capital projects," Rex said.

Council's direction to staff has been to keep spending low. Rex explained that the town government has cut personnel costs significantly over the past five years and reduced full-time staff from 63 to 56 employees -- more than 10 percent of the work force. The town has trimmed back employee benefits as well in the past year and Rex said staff and council feel that will help Strasburg in the long term.

"In order to free up capacity within the budget to do some of these projects, that's some of the steps that we've taken," Rex said.

Residents and business owners have felt the impact of the town's efforts to build large projects. In the case of the new water treatment plant, the town had no choice and needed to build the facility to comply with state and federal rules. As a result, in order to pay for the project, the town increased rates for users. The future upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant, the cost of which remains unknown, also will result in higher sewer rates.

But Rex pointed out that council, in an effort to minimize the impact on the users, supported incremental increases in the rates. Council also directed staff to trim costs in the separate utility budgets.

The general fund has been more restricted because council did not express an interest in raising tax rates. This direction led to cuts in spending in the general fund that resulted in eliminating positions, Rex said.

"A lot of that again is just dealing with the reality of the economy at the time and lower revenues coming, but our operating expenses were going up just because the cost of doing business was going up," Rex said. "We knew we had to cut and we made the cuts necessary -- kind of weather the storm and also prepare for the future."

The town has several major and costly projects on the horizon -- latter phases of the downtown streetscape, improvements to the access road through the North Shenandoah Industrial and Business Park, water and sewer line replacements, a water storage facility, upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant, a new building for the Department of Public Works and possible use of the former Brill grocery property.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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