Dozens speak on proposed tax hike

Ray Powell, of Woodstock, speaks during the Shenandoah Board of Supervisors public hearing on the fiscal 2017 budget at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School on Thursday night. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County Public Schools supporters – especially theater students – came out in force Thursday to ask supervisors to fund education.

The Board of Supervisors held a public hearing at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School for the proposed fiscal 2017 budget of $110.37 million. The total includes $61.68 million in the general fund, of which $27.15 million would go toward education. The county also has proposed increasing the real estate tax rate from 57 cents per $100 to 64 cents per $100, and the personal property tax rate from $3.50 per $100 of assessed value to $3.60 per $100 of assessed value.

Supervisors can take action on the budget and tax rates April 19. They may adopt rates equal to or below the advertised levies.

Supervisors heard from several dozen supporters of the budget and tax increases. However, more than a half-dozen people spoke against the proposed tax increases.

More than a dozen students spoke in favor of funding drama programs, possibly in reaction to suggestions by District 3 Supervisor Richard Walker that the School Board make cuts to the departments.

Shenandoah County District 2 supervisors Steve Baker, left, and District 1 supervisor Dick Neese listen to area residents speak during a public hearing on the county's 2017 fiscal budget at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in April. Rich Cooley/Daily

Joseph Haun, Ashley Jennette, Kate France and many other theater students spoke in favor of the drama programs, many of them saying it helped them make friends and find confidence. Dozens of students and teachers affiliated with the theater programs stood up to show support. Alexis Lincoln told supervisors that students often need theater to give them a reason to show up for middle school.

“That’s where they’re meant to be; that’s where they’re meant to shine the most,” Lincoln said.

Zachary Broy said drama helped him come out of his shell. Mary Payne said theater students feel just as passionate about drama as athletes do about sports programs that usually do not face cuts. Some students were critical of the fact that the north and south campuses do not offer drama.

Karen Whetzel, chairwoman of the School Board who represents District 1, asked supervisors to fully fund its budget request. The county needs to provide a local match in order to receive state dollars to cover a salary increase for employees, Whetzel said. The chairwoman said the budget is based on needs and not a wish list, with many items not funded for several years.

Dan Walsh, president of Parents Alliance for Strong Schools and husband of School Board member Cyndy Walsh, spoke in favor of the proposed budget. PASS believes that the county’s schools are under-funded, Walsh said. He noted the strong connection between economic growth and a good school system.

Ashley Everhart, a student at Central High School, speaks in support of the school arts programs during the public hearing Thursday night at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School. Rich Cooley/Daily

Woodstock resident Raymond Powell said people don’t like taxes but the county needs to attract more businesses and increase its economy. Powell challenged supervisors to prioritize public safety, agriculture, next-generation education and other needs of the county. Powell pointed out that he didn’t include taxes. Powell said he supports education. But the board should stop comparing the county to other localities and think about present educational needs, Powell said.

Dorothy Tice asked that the board fund full-time nursing coverage – a request in the budget for three years that has not yet been funded.

S. John Massoud, speaking against the proposed tax increase, said he and others do not oppose spending for education and the children. Massoud said he opposed putting a tax burden on the children years down the road. Massoud added that his mother just recently moved to Strasburg and faces a higher tax bill if the county imposes the increase.

Amanda Marston, Pam Cassis and Selena Rhoades spoke in favor of funding the preschool program. Cassis pointed out that the program therapy helped her son through a development delay. Cassis asked supervisors to fully fund the budget to keep full-time preschool. Rhodes pointed out that preschool helps many disabled pupils receive assistance before entering kindergarten.

Cyndy Walsh, also a parent of three children in the school system, spoke in general about funding the budget. Walsh cited articles that show the connection between a county’s school system and its economic growth. Walsh said that she understands a tax increase is not the best way to fund education every year but she supports such a move until a better alternative is proposed.

Bradon Bennett, 17, a Central High School student, speaks about the arts programs during the budget hearing Thursday night at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School. Rich Cooley/Daily

District 4 School Board member Katheryn Freakley echoed other supporters of the budget and said quality education is the most influential driver of economic development. Freakley noted that the school division is a foundation for the county and said the negative rhetoric against teachers and shaming the supporters of the system needs to stop.

George Burgess asked supervisors to revisit the budget and all spending requests because the proposal contains “pork.” Burgess asked the board to stop funding nonprofits or other spending not mandated. Burgess said supervisors and the School Board should impose a hiring freeze. He suggested the board sell the Keister tract the county has for a future park.

“You are hired to work for the silent majority and the squeaky wheels,” Burgess told supervisors.

Connie Broy said she and other senior citizens do not and cannot afford another tax increase. Many are living on fixed incomes and have not received a raise but instead have experienced tax increases over the years. Broy echoed Burgess’ comments about the budget containing pork.

“(The School Board) waste(s) more money than what they’re asking for so they need to revisit their budget,” Broy said, adding that she does support education.

Richard Walker, vice chairman of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors, right, and Conrad Helsley, left, listen to citizens speak at the budget public hearing Thursday night Rich Cooley/Daily

Woodstock resident Staton Strother spoke as a retiree and told students he wanted them to graduate, get jobs, earn an income and pay taxes and social security. Strother complained about the real estate reassessments that resulted in lower property values that also caused him to lose money on a home he sold. Strother said the local government has kicked debt down the road.

Harold Seal Jr. said he supports what the children need to a certain extent. Seal said the arts are good but not practical. Seal called out supervisors for raising taxes over the years, claiming Helsley and others are “more like Democrats” than Republicans. Seal also suggested that the county stop covering the increasing cost for employees’ insurance.

Ken Cruise said he supports the supervisors who want to hold the line on spending. Cruise said he’s not against funding schools but added that the county’s spending has to equal its income.

Superintendent Jeremy Raley spoke toward the end of the 2½-hour-long hearing and echoed some of the statements made by school budget supporters. Raley asked supervisors to fully fund the School Board’s budget request.

“There are stories, there are kids behind those numbers and there are teachers behind those numbers,” Raley said.

Richard Hockman questioned the county’s “hoarding” or “stealing” of more than $20 million that remains in its savings and said employees need to pay for their own healthcare.

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