By Joe Beck
FRONT ROYAL -- The Warren County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to authorize the advertising of a budget proposal for fiscal year 2015 that would raise the real estate tax from 59 cents to 61 cents per $100.
Health insurance for school employees and possible cuts among Sheriff's Office deputies weighed heavily in the deliberations before the board voted 4-1 to approve the tax increase and several other budget provisions for advertising.
The next step in the budget process is a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. April 8 at the Government Center on Commerce Avenue.
The proposal includes $500,000 to help the school system cover an increase of more than $1 million in employer health insurance contributions contained in a proposed operating budget adopted by the School Board on March 13. The county's budget advertisement also includes an increase in the machinery and tool tax from $1.30 to $1.95 and $60,000 for the hiring of two firefighters at the Linden station. Taxes on aircraft would rise from 50 cents to $1 per $100.
Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Pamela M. McInnis told the supervisors that the school system's "Number one need is to work on the employer's contribution to health insurance."
Supervisor Richard Traczyk of the Shenandoah District asked whether the Affordable Care Act was driving the increase in health insurance costs, but Robert Ballentine, the school system's director of finance, said health care reform's role has been minor compared to claims submitted by school employees.
McInnis said many of the system's employees are women of child-bearing years, some of whom endure complications from pregnancies. She said older employers also constitute a high percentage of the workforce that is more vulnerable to health problems requiring medical care.
"The cost of health care is a big thing," McInnis said, adding it is especially important to provide teachers with enough insurance "because they are the ones who take care of the kids."
The cuts to the Sheriff's Office are far from a done deal, but they could become a reality if the board rejects the 2-cent real estate tax increase.
In a letter to the supervisors, Sheriff Daniel T. McEathron warned that the loss of 10 existing positions targeted as potential cuts would leave him unable to fulfill his department's mission statement and other goals.
"The majority of the positions are patrol deputies that make up a third of my patrol division, and you can only imagine how our services to the community would greatly diminish without these deputies," McEathron wrote.
But Traczyk said the time may have arrived for the Sheriff 's Office to bear some cuts after years of growing faster than other county departments.
Tracyzk said the decision ultimately rests with the supervisors' constituents. They must choose between higher taxes or maintaining the Sheriff's Office's current response times and other services.
"What do they want?" Traczyk asked of the voters. "Do they want a patrolman there in five minutes or can they wait 30 minutes?"
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org