By Alex Bridges
WOODSTOCK -- The teacher lobby outweighed tax-hike opponents at a public hearing held Tuesday by Shenandoah County leaders.
The Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on the proposed fiscal 2015 budget and tax rates, including an increase in the real estate levy from 54 cents to 59.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. If approved, this would mark the second rate increase in two years.
County Administrator Mary Beth T. Price gave a presentation on the proposed budget and tax rates. As Price noted, the 5.5-cent increase in the real estate tax rate is proposed in order to cover funding requests by the school system.
Board Chairman David Ferguson opened the hearing by explaining the rules to the large crowd. Ferguson asked the audience to neither clap nor cheer during the hearing. Many of the people clapped and cheered after almost every speaker, whether for or against the tax increase.
More than 50 people spoke at the hearing, most of them asking for the tax increase. Many in the audience work for the school system and would benefit from the tax increase. But many other residents who have children in the schools or who themselves went through the county system voiced support for the increase.
Mike Wakeman, of Edinburg, said he supports the educational system and teachers. However, he spoke against raising the tax rates to fully cover the school system's budget. Wakeman pointed out the added burden on those people in the county who are small business owners, the self-employed and elderly people living on fixed incomes.
"I think there are other places you should be looking for the money and I don't think you should balance it on the backs of the taxpayers," Wakeman said.
Joseph Thomas echoed Wakeman, saying supervisors need to look for other ways than a tax increase to fund the schools.
Mark Capozzella blamed supervisors for creating a division between county residents. He also blamed the School Board for not opening its books to show how it spends its money.
"It's just like Congress voting itself a raise," Capozzella said. "How about you give us a raise by lowering the rates 5½ cents?"
Doug French, of Woodstock, a member of the Conservation Easement Authority, spoke about the need to control developmental growth and to protect the county's natural resources. French urged the board to continue funding the authority's efforts.
Chad Neese, of Harrisonburg, spoke as a representative of New Market and urged the board to include in the budget money needed to fund a new position in the county tourism department.
Some speakers also reacted to comments made in a letter to the editor from District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey and published in the Daily recently.
Sara Voigt, a teacher at North Fork Elementary School, said she was "deeply insulted" by Bailey's letter. Voigt said teachers do not put themselves on pedestals, as Bailey had stated in her letter. Jennifer Burner, also a teacher for the county, commented that many of her fellow educators hold second jobs, working as coaches or, in her case, teach behind-the-wheel classes.
"Let's work together for our students, not against them," Burner said.
Coe Sherrard, of Edinburg, asked supervisors to reconsider the administration's recommendation that the budget not include money for a position in the tourism department.
"If you hire a director and not give them the tools they require that's short-sighted," Sherrard said.
Dottie Edwards teaches at Strasburg High School and said she supports the proposed budget. Edwards spoke about her job as a teacher with the county since 2007 and directed her comments to anyone who opposed a tax increase.
Madison Estep attends Signal Knob Middle School and described herself as a "teacher's kid." She noted that teachers "never stop caring about their kids."
Susan Coffman, a retired teacher from Mount Jackson, described herself as a taxpayer living on a fixed income.
"No one wants to pay higher taxes," Coffman said. "But it's gotten to the point in this county that something has got to be done."
Coffman claimed that teachers had not received a "real" pay raise in six or seven years.
"I believe the needs of the schools justify raising the tax rate," Coffman said.
John Massoud said he opposed a tax rate increase, noting that the average property owner would see their bills go up $150. Massoud urged the board to "open up the [school] budget and see exactly what's in it."
Ray Powell, of Woodstock, said the economic development of the county rests on the strength of its school system.
"Not paying teachers what they deserve is just putting the problem off for tomorrow," Powell said.
Ben Freakley, a graduate of Central High School, is retired from the armed forces. Freakley also is the father-in-law of School Board member Kathryn Freakley who represents District 4. He spoke in support of funding the school system, noting the importance of an education for children and calling the tax increase an investment.
Kathryn Freakley also spoke in favor of the budget and the tax rate hike. She asked those in the audience who supported funding the school system to stand. Most of the people in the audience stood. Another speaker asked members of the audience who supported the tax rate increase to stand. Again many of the people stood.
School Board Chairman Rick Koontz said this was the first opportunity his board had a chance to stand up and defend its budget. Koontz said teacher salaries fall to the low end of neighboring systems.
Seth Coffman also spoke in support of a tax increase to fund the school system. He explained some of the "needs" included in the school system's proposed budget. Coffman also urged the county to fund the Conservation Easement Authority.
Kelly Watkinson, chairwoman for the authority's board, said she was disappointed by supervisors' choice not to use roll-back tax revenue to fund the county agency and its efforts to protect farmland and open space.
Larry Turner commented that he didn't support spending money on major county projects such as the regional jail or the new general district courthouse. But Turner said he did support raising taxes for teachers.
"I want the best teachers possible, paid well, for this county," Turner said.
The public hearing went on past two hours with speakers continuing to voice support for or against the budget and tax increases.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org