Shenandoah County tax hike may fail

By Alex Bridges

A steep tax increase proposed for Shenandoah County may not survive a vote by the Board of Supervisors.

The board could take action on the proposed fiscal 2015 budget and the tax rates at its meeting tonight. County Administrator Mary Beth T. Price has recommended that the board raise the real estate tax rate from 54 cents to 59.5 cents per $100 of the assessed value.

Reached by phone Monday, half of the board’s members said they did not support raising the real estate tax rate by the proposed amount. A tied vote would kill a motion to adopt the proposed rate increase. A smaller tax increase may still pass.

Supervisors John R. “Dick” Neese and Cindy Bailey said they would not vote in favor of the entire increase.

“My vote is already ‘no’ to any tax increase,” Bailey said.

Supervisor Marsha Shruntz has said she would honor a campaign pledge to oppose new taxes.

Board Chairman David Ferguson did not say whether or not he would support the increase as proposed.

“I haven’t decided at this point where we should end up,” Ferguson said. “I’ve got to trust that each supervisor will come to our last meeting with open minds after hearing comments of the citizens of Shenandoah County as to what they would like to see us do and weigh the needs of the school system, as an example, with our ability to finance those needs.”

Ferguson noted that the supervisors could vote on a tax rate at the meeting and then work on the budget at a future date, but said he would prefer that the board act on both items at one time.

The county needs to increase the levy to fully fund the school system’s requested budget. Government and school employees would receive pay raises under the budget as proposed. Raises for government employees were included in Price’s budget without a tax increase. Superintendent Jeremy Raley’s proposed spending plan includes pay raises.

“I think that we should go back to the table with the school board and even with the county budget and balance the budget … because I don’t agree with any pay increases for county workers at this time.”

The county advertised the proposed rates for the public hearing held last week. By law, supervisors can approve a rate equal to or below the proposed increase. Supervisor may also reach a compromise on a tax rate. Last spring the board approved a 3-cent increase in the real estate tax rate – half the amount recommended by then County Administrator Douglas Walker.

“I don’t feel [raises] are appropriate at this time and I’m not even willing to go half on any tax increase,” Bailey said, who represents District 4.

Shruntz, who represents District 5, wouldn’t say exactly how she plans to vote but noted that she remains conservative, adding that she felt “very, very disheartened that the School Board chose not to share budgetary information with the Board of Supervisors during their budget work sessions.”

Shruntz and Bailey sought data from the School Board and Raley, specifically information on employee salaries and positions. Shruntz noted that she had asked for information what positions were covered by grant money.

“I campaigned on no new taxes and I stand by my campaign promises,” Shruntz said when asked it she would support any tax increase. “If the School Board had been more forthcoming, I might have viewed this a little bit different.”

Neese, who represents District 1, said he may support some change in the rate but not the entire 5½ cent increase.

“I feel comfortable in saying I can’t support the full [increase], but I haven’t come up with a figure for the other,” Neese said. “I’m still playing with some figures to see what might work.”

Price balanced the fiscal 2015 budget for general government spending without increasing tax rates. Neese said he supported Price’s budget.

“I have no issues on that end of it,” Neese said. “We’re trying to come up with what we need to support the schools.”

Price proposed the rate after the School Board approved its request for funding from the board next fiscal year. The county must increase the rate to cover the School Board’s request.

Supervisors can control how much the county allocates in local funding to the school system, but can’t control how the School Board spends the money it receives from the county in local revenue.

District 2 Supervisor Steve Baker said he needed more information before he would decide how to vote.

“I don’t have a decision at this point in time,” Baker said. “I’m still trying to put things together.”

Supervisors heard overwhelming vocal support for the proposed tax increase during a public hearing last week. Dozens of speakers urged the board to raise taxes so the school system could give pay raises to teachers and other employees. Many, but not all the speakers work for the school system. A handful of people spoke against raising taxes though most of the opponents said they supported the school system and its needs.

Supervisors made no comments after the hearing.

“I consider all sides,” Baker said. “I represent all the people there.”

Baker added that he took notes during the hearing and wrote down the names of the people who spoke, their voting district and their jobs.

“We’re taking everything into account,” Baker said. “I want to be fair across the board.”

Vice Chairman Conrad Helsley could not be reached for comment.

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