Board OKs tax hikes, budget

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County leaders approved tax-rate increases and next year’s budget on Tuesday.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 at its regular meeting to increase the real estate tax rate from 57 cents to 60 cents per $100 of the assessed value. County officials have said that the increase merely covers a loss of revenue that came as a result of lower real estate assessments. Vice Chairman Richard Walker made the motion and received support from Chairman Conrad Helsley and Supervisors Steve Baker and John R. “Dick” Neese. Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz voted against the motion.

A motion to increase the tax rate on personal property from $3.50 to $3.60, with the additional 10 cents expected to bring in almost $1 million, failed. Baker, Helsley and Neese supported the increase. Bailey, Shruntz and Walker voted against the motion.

Shruntz then made a motion to keep the tax rate on the personal property at the current levy of $3.50. Neese sided with Bailey, Shruntz and Walker to pass the motion. Baker and Helsley voted against it.

Later in the meeting, Neese made a motion to revisit the personal property tax rate and to adopt a new levy of $3.60. Walker switched his vote and sided with Baker, Helsley and Neese. Shruntz and Bailey opposed the increase.

Supervisors also voted 4-2 to approve the fiscal 2017 budget. Members debated whether or not to restore cuts made to some agencies. Baker’s attempt to restore additional funding failed on a 3-3 vote. The board then voted on a budget resolution that establishes the county’s spending plan for fiscal 2017. The budget includes a general fund of $60.4 million. Bailey and Shruntz voted against the motion. Baker, Helsley, Neese and Walker voted in favor of the budget.

Earlier in the meeting the board rearranged the agenda so they could consider a resolution to rescind action taken in September 2014 that dedicated up to $50,000 from rollback taxes for use in conservation efforts. Walker made the motion and explained to the audience that he supports conservation easements but not the purchase of development rights with rollback taxes. Baker, Helsley and Neese voted against the motion. Bailey, Shruntz and Walker supported the motion.

“This is a waste of tax dollars,” Walker said before the vote. “It is not protecting 500 acres.”

Walker said the funds aren’t just being generated by change of use but also by landowners not meeting a quota. A property owner had to pay back taxes because she didn’t sell cattle as required. Walker said he would support an open-space agreement that would allow for conservation. Bailey said the county has mechanisms in place to regulate development that do not cost taxpayers’ dollars.

Baker, a farmer, said he’s supported the Conservation Easement Authority. Baker cited the county’s Comprehensive Plan that states the purchase of development rights is one tool to maintain open space and agriculture. Helsley, in response to Walker’s statements, said the property owner could have sold some cattle to avoid paying back taxes. Helsley also said that the purchase of development rights program, and a county investment of about $100,000, allowed for Pleasant Dale Farm to be put into a permanent easement. Without such a program or investment, the owner could develop the property for at least 30 homes that would cost the county more in services.

After the votes on tax rates the board started to address the fiscal 2017 budget. However, Helsley said he couldn’t see the board passing a budget since it cut $1 million in anticipated revenue. The board took a 20-minute recess and reconvened to see Neese change his mind on the motion to rescind the resolution on the rollback taxes.

“I’m going to vote in favor so we can have a budget and keep the government going and keep employees employed,” Neese said.

The board also changed the rules to allow people to speak on any subject – not just new agenda items – during the public comment period. Dozens of people attended the meeting including former supervisors David Ferguson and Dennis Morris. People spoke for about an hour, asking the board to increase taxes to provide more funding for the school system and other agencies than they received in the current budget.

The county needs to look at the big picture, noting that the public safety budget has increased significantly over the years because of waning volunteerism, county resident Ray Powell said. The largest increases in taxes went to services for senior citizens, Powell added. Problems will continue to compound if the board doesn’t look forward.

The current budget imperils the school system’s ability to compensate teachers and would make it difficult for the county to receive matching state funds to cover a pay raise, one resident said.

Dennis Atwood, of Maurertown, spoke of the cuts the board made to the proposed 2017 budget and said the reductions to public safety spending would cause harm. Atwood told the board that members who sought the cuts should not complain about economic development because any business that sees what the board has done the past two months on the budget would reject coming to the county.

Mary Gessner asked the board not to rescind the action that created a dedicated funding source for land conservation by using rollback taxes collected when property owners take their parcels out of a special tax program. The maximum amount of $50,000 equals less than one-tenth of one percent of a $60 million budget, Gessner said.

Kelly Watkinson, a member of the Conservation Easement Authority, reminded supervisors that the county created the agency to help uphold parts of the Comprehensive Plan related to maintaining open space and agriculture. Watkinson said the local funds from rollback taxes allow the county to receive much more in matching money from state and federal sources for land conservation.

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