By Alex Bridges
Town mayors kept quiet as Shenandoah County leaders considered a steep increase in the real estate tax rate.
In recent phone interviews, most town mayors called taxes a necessary evil but stopped short of voicing an opinion on the proposed increase and how it would affect their constituents.
Property owners in each of the six towns pay local and county taxes on real estate. So far none of the six towns have proposed increasing their tax rates on real estate.
For example, the owner of property in Strasburg town limits that is valued at $200,000 pays the town rate of 16 cents per $100 of assessed value plus the current county rate of 54 cents. The owner pays $320 to the town and $1,080 to the county. If the property is outside town limits, the owner pays only the county tax.
Property owners in the county's two sanitary districts pay an extra tax on their real estate.
Edinburg Mayor Daniel Harshman said he understood why some of his peers wouldn't voice an opinion, one way or the other.
"I would never try to second-guess the Board of Supervisors and what they need to do to make their budget work," Harshman said. "I understand what it's like to put a budget together and I think they've got to do what they've go to.
"I think we need to remember that they also are county residents and they have to pay the county tax," Harshman added.
The county provides many services the towns do not, such as schools, building inspections and other governmental functions. While five of the six towns have police departments, the county Sheriff's Office can provide backup to those agencies.
"There's a lot of things they do that we don't do," Harshman said.
Mount Jackson interim Mayor Mike Koontz acknowledged that the arrangement between the jurisdictions can influence how town leaders may approach their own budget needs.
"We battle not to raise our taxes," Koontz said. "When the county does it, of course, that makes it even tougher, if we need revenue source down the road to raise our taxes."
Strasburg leaders spend most of their time on the town's immediate needs but they do try to keep abreast of the county's actions with regards to tax rates and budgets, Mayor Timothy Taylor said.
"So even though we're aware of what's going on around us, we really don't spend a lot of time talking about it," Taylor said.
Strasburg council has had to raise fees charged for water and sewer service to cover the costs of major improvement projects. But the town has not raised its real estate tax rate in several years.
New Market has not raised its local real estate tax rate in about a decade, Town Manager Evan Vass said. In some cases, towns have lowered their rates usually in reaction to increased home values.
New Market Mayor Douglas Bradley said the town needs to increase utility fees but should balance its budget without raising taxes.
"Taxes are something that no one likes to see increase," Bradley said. "Most people don't like to pay them first of all."
Bradley pointed out that higher fees, coupled with any tax rate increase, create a hardship for some town residents.
"It does put an extra burden on the folks," Bradley added.
Mount Jackson has been able to use the town's levies on cigarettes and meals to help offset the need for revenue from real estate, Koontz said. This approach has allowed the town to keep its real estate tax rate alone.
Like other town mayors, Koontz did not attend the public hearing on the county's proposed fiscal 2015 budget and tax rates. Koontz weighed in on the issue.
"I do think they are going to end up with a compromise," Koontz said. "I do see the need to give pay raises and I really kind of feel and I am hopeful that the supervisors will end up with a compromise somewhere between the proposed rate and the current rate.
"While I think it's important to keep taxes low, I do think that you still have to take of the county employees also," Koontz added. "I don't love it but I know that it's something that's real and has to happen."
A small increase in the tax rate usually does not raise a property owner's bill by much, Koontz said. For example, the 5½-cent increase proposed by the county would increase the tax bill on a $200,000 property by $110.
Woodstock Mayor Jeremy McCleary said he preferred not to comment on the county's proposed tax increase.
But the county's taxing power remains limited. Towns can tax cigarettes and meals. State law does not allow the county to tax cigarettes. If the county sought to impose a meals tax, it would need to put the matter on an election ballot as a voter referendum. Koontz supported the idea of the county imposing a meals tax so it could collect revenue from restaurants that lie along the busy,Interstate 81 corridor, but not in town limits. Koontz pointed out that travelers would be paying the meals tax more than county residents.
"So really the only source the county has, without a referendum, is to raise real estate taxes," Koontz said.
Toms Brook Mayor Phil Fauber said he's heard town residents make comments for and against a tax increase.
"I've heard it both ways," Fauber said. "Some support the schools, maybe some increase. Some say go for the whole 5½ cents and then some say we should find some other place without increasing the rates."
The town receives a few more services than other jurisdictions. The Sheriff's Office provides law enforcement coverage for Toms Brook. Likewise, the town receives water and sewer service through the county's Toms Brook-Maurertown Sanitary District. Toms Brook, with its annual budget of between $50,000-$60,000, covers the salaries of its full-time treasurer-secretary, several part-time workers, and services such as trash pickup, streets and lighting maintenance. Fauber noted that Toms Brook hasn't had to raise its tax rates in some time.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org